Welcome Englishmen, Welcome Englishmen

Although Thoreau begins the chapter entitled “Visitors:”

I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me thither.

The irony in his boast makes it quite obvious he didn’t really go out of his way to invite friends to visit him during his stay at Walden Pond. Perhaps, it had something to do with the previous chapter entitled “Solitude:”

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.

Apparently anything more than two was considered a crowd:

I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another.

It seems that friendship promotes “closeness,” while society is too impersonal to promote closeness.

Part of this avoidance of society seems to come from Thoreau’s belief that you need to maintain a certain distance if you’re going to discuss important ideas:

One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words. You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plow out again through the side of his head.

Although I’m not entirely clear what point he is making here, I can somewhat understand his need to maintain some kind of distance to contemplate “big thoughts.” That’s the kind of distance you get from a book, isn’t it? For many of us, conversation doesn’t allow us to process ideas thoroughly, though it may well raise important questions that need to be considered later.

It is almost as if the physical presence of another makes it difficult to appreciate that which is most intimate, our souls:

If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other's voice in any case.

The very physicality of one’s voice makes it difficult for Thoreau to appreciate their spiritual presence.

The very best place to share closeness is in the pinewood:

As the conversation began to assume a loftier and grander tone, we gradually shoved our chairs farther apart till they touched the wall in opposite corners, and then commonly there was not room enough. My "best" room, however, my withdrawing room, always ready for company, on whose carpet the sun rarely fell, was the pine wood behind my house. Thither in summer days, when distinguished guests came, I took them, and a priceless domestic swept the floor and dusted the furniture and kept the things in order.

The woods have become his “chapel” where grand thoughts somehow seem more appropriate.

One of the best things about visitors in the woods is that only the most serious visitors came that far to see him:

As for men, they will hardly fail one anywhere. I had more visitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period in my life; I mean that I had some. I met several there under more favorable circumstances than I could anywhere else. But fewer came to see me on trivial business. In this respect, my company was winnowed by my mere distance from town. I had withdrawn so far within the great ocean of solitude, into which the rivers of society empty, that for the most part, so far as my needs were concerned, only the finest sediment was deposited around me

And the people who did come to see him were some of the finest that he knew.

Interestingly enough, one of his favorite visitors is a rather unusual man:

He interested me because he was so quiet and solitary and so happy withal; a well of good humor and contentment which overflowed at his eyes. His mirth was without alloy.
In him the animal man chiefly was developed. In physical endurance and contentment he was cousin to the pine and the rock. I asked him once if he was not sometimes tired at night, after working all day; and he answered, with a sincere and serious look, "Gorrappit, I never was tired in my life." But the intellectual and what is called spiritual man in him were slumbering as in an infant. He had been instructed only in that innocent and ineffectual way in which the Catholic priests teach the aborigines, by which the pupil is never educated to the degree of consciousness, but only to the degree of trust and reverence, and a child is not made a man, but kept a child

It would seem that this is the happiness that Thoreau himself is seeking in his own “quiet and solitary” way. One can only suspect that Thoreau himself had been unable to attain the same “mirth” “without alloy” that this innocent, uneducated had attained. The man is in many ways the “Noble Savage” that the French Romantics so admired.

To a stranger he appeared to know nothing of things in general; yet I sometimes saw in him a man whom I had not seen before, and I did not know whether he was as wise as Shakespeare or as simply ignorant as a child, whether to suspect him of a fine poetic consciousness or of stupidity. A townsman told me that when he met him sauntering through the village in his small close-fitting cap, and whistling to himself, he reminded him of a prince in disguise.

This simple man in many ways reminds me of Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” whose unshakeable love of others gave him a strength that his “wiser” neighbors could never attain.

Like Gimpel, Thoreau’s neighbor has all the simple virtues:

If I suggested any improvement in his mode of life, he merely answered, without expressing any regret, that it was too late. Yet he thoroughly believed in honesty and the like virtues.

What the neighbor lacks, if you can find an undesirable trait to be “lacking,” is the kind of dark despair of more intelligent men when they find that their life has not gone as they wished. The modern angst of the Beats seems to come to mind here. You have to wonder how Thoreau would have felt about the despair that is so much a part of their trademark.

His description of visitors he did appreciate is far outweighed by his litany of undesirable visitors:

I had some guests from those not reckoned commonly among the town's poor, but who should be; who are among the world's poor, at any rate; guests who appeal, not to your hospitality, but to your hospitalality; who earnestly wish to be helped, and preface their appeal with the information that they are resolved, for one thing, never to help themselves. I require of a visitor that he be not actually starving, though he may have the very best appetite in the world, however he got it. Objects of charity are not guests.

It’s quite clear that Thoreau did not have the temperament to be a minister or teacher, isn’t it? Often these are the very kinds of people that seem to be drawn to those who have “new” ideas. On a less positive note, this is the same kind of arrogance that Thoreau seemed to display in the earlier section on “Reading.” Sounds a little like some teachers who Jeff Ward described earlier, teachers who don’t want to be bothered teaching their “superior” ideas to men who aren’t worthy of them.

Not only was Thoreau bothered by those who came looking for ideas that would help them to give meaning to their life, he was equally bothered by those who came to push their own ideas:

Men of one idea, like a hen with one chicken, and that a duckling; men of a thousand ideas, and unkempt heads, like those hens which are made to take charge of a hundred chickens, all in pursuit of one bug, a score of them lost in every morning's dew -- and become frizzled and mangy in consequence; men of ideas instead of legs, a sort of intellectual centipede that made you crawl all over. One man proposed a book in which visitors should write their names, as at the White Mountains; but, alas! I have too good a memory to make that necessary.

Ah the very material of student essays. While these delightful similes and metaphors bring back old memories of amusement and frustration, they also reveal a man who seems somewhat intolerant of those who disagreed with him, or who simply couldn’t measure up to his own genius.

Thoreau was equally unimpressed by many of his professional visitors:

Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not. Restless committed men, whose time was taken up in getting a living or keeping it; ministers who spoke of God as if they enjoyed a monopoly of the subject, who could not bear all kinds of opinions; doctors, lawyers, uneasy housekeepers who pried into my cupboard and bed when I was out -- how came Mrs. -- to know that my sheets were not as clean as hers? -- young men who had ceased to be young, and had concluded that it was safest to follow the beaten track of the professions -- all these generally said that it was not possible to do so much good in my position

Times don’t change too much, do they? Most pragmatic men would see such an enterprise as “impractical” or a “waste of time” because the spiritual aspect of their life is limited to Sunday mornings. Seen in the light of history, though, they seemed quite unaware of the importance of this historical spiritual journey that would influence generations to come.

Surprisingly enough, though, Thoreau seems even more put off by those who came forth to convert him to their ideas than by the traditionalists:

Finally, there were the self-styled reformers, the greatest bores of all, who thought that I was forever singing,--
This is the house that I built;
This is the man that lives in the house that I built;
but they did not know that the third line was,
These are the folks that worry the man
That lives in the house that I built.
I did not fear the hen-harriers, for I kept no chickens; but I feared the men-harriers rather.

Despite his earlier protest that he loved society “as much as most,” Thoreau limits himself to a small group of similar spirits:

…all honest pilgrims, who came out to the woods for freedom's sake, and really left the village behind, I was ready to greet with --"Welcome, Englishmen! welcome, Englishmen!" for I had had communication with that race.

Echoing Samoset’s famous greeting to the Pilgrims on March 16, 1621, Thoreau makes it clear that the only visitors he really wants to see at Walden Pond are those seeking the same “freedom” from society that he is seeking.

What do you think?