Thoreau’s idea for a big house (Walden 159)

After working on his own little house, Thoreau is thinking about houses in general. He imagines a big house, “A house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird’s nest, and you cannot go in at the front door and out at the back without seeing some of its inhabitants; where to be a guest is to be presented with the freedom of the house, and not to be carefully excluded from seven eighths of it, shut up in a particular cell, and told to make yourself at home there — in solitary confinement. Nowadays the host does not admit you to his hearth, but has got the mason to build one for yourself somewhere in his alley, and hospitality is the art of keeping you at the greatest distance. There is as much secrecy about the cooking as if he had a design to poison you.”

I was surprised when I first read this. I thought he wanted solitude — but now he wants a house with no privacy?! Sometimes I think he is just whining, that he’s a contrarian for its own sake. But we could also see this as part of his habit of questioning everything. He wants to take nothing for granted. Why do we divide houses into rooms like we do? Is this a good idea? I think it is, but maybe it’s worthwhile to ask why we think so. I would point out, and I think Henry would appreciate this — considering that he spent much of his life living in the family home — that separate rooms create quiet spaces for reading and writing.

But this may reflect the intense way that Henry seems to approach his life. When he wants to be alone, he wants to be really alone, often the woods by himself, and when he wants to be with people he wants to be in a big open house with no interior walls so that nothing is hidden.

To some extent I think he’s objecting to the falseness pretension many houses. There’s a certain honesty to the type of house he describes — it has no secrets.

In complaining about compartmentalized houses, Henry isn’t being entirely serious. Listen to the wordplay in this paragraph:

“It would seem as if the very language of our parlors would lose all its nerve and degenerate into parlaver wholly, our lives pass at such remoteness from its symbols, and its metaphors and tropes are necessarily so far fetched, through slides and dumb-waiters, as it were; in other words, the parlor is so far from the kitchen and workshop. The dinner even is only the parable of a dinner, commonly. As if only the savage dwelt near enough to Nature and Truth to borrow a trope from them. How can the scholar, who dwells away in the North West Territory or the Isle of Man, tell what is parliamentary in the kitchen?”

Henry loved punning. “Parlaver” is his combination of parlor and palaver, which means “to talk profusely or needlessly.” He also loved etymologies, and surely knew that palaver comes from a Spanish word meaning “parable.” And “parliament” comes from the old French “parler,” to speak.

But he hated small talk. I think his main concern isn’t privacy, but the compartmentalization of life. You invite someone in an all they see is the parlor, which is designed to receive guests and provide a respectable façade. Think of the old-fashioned parlor/living room — the nice carpet and furniture, children not allowed in, the carefully chosen knickknacks. The parlor is for polite conversation; you’re more likely to get a real conversation in the kitchen. I think he might see it as a good sign kitchens are larger and more open and integrated in recent houses, rather than tucked away as they used to be.

At least you don’t have to worry so much about being poisoned by your host.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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