You Sorry, Elitist S.O.B.

:: Walden, chapter 10, Baker Farm ::

Confessions over a chile relleno

or You sorry, elitist SOB...

Loren and I had lunch yesterday with a group of teacher friends who between mouthfuls of enchiladas and chile rellenos discussed this web site and the current analysis of Walden. Loren and I both confessed to some guilt over our growing annoyance with the author.

How can I say this? I have found evil in the heart of Henry Thoreau.

After telling us he wandered his neighbor’s pastures, visiting particular trees, he confides

As I walked on the railroad causeway, I used to wonder at the halo of light around my shadow, and would fain fancy myself one of the elect. One who visited me declared that the shadows of some Irishmen before him had no halo about them, that it was only natives that were so distinguished.

Whoa, Nellie… Do I detect a lack of humility here? The white man with the French name is a native? The Wampanoag Indians may take umbrage.

My suspicions are supported when Thoreau describes his meeting of an Irish family, living on the Baker Farm. A rain storm had led him to take shelter in “the nearest hut…long uninhabited…”

Showing a notable lack of concern or compassion, Thoreau proceeds to describe the John Field family,

…an Irishman, and his wife, and several children, from the broad-faced boy who assisted his father at his work, and now came running by his side from the bog to escape the rain, to the wrinkled, sibyl-like, cone-headed infant that sat upon its father’s knee as in the palaces of nobles, and looked out from its home in the midst of wet and hunger inquisitively upon the stranger, with the privilege of infancy, not knowing but it was the last of a noble line, and the hope and cynosure of the world, instead of John Field’s poor starveling brat.

Remember that in desperation the Irish had emigrated to America to escape the Irish potato famine, 1845-50, and stayed in America, joining the Army during the Civil War. Most of them were poor, uneducated, thrilled and terrified to be in a foreign country, still at the bottom of the economy, performing menial jobs for survival.

In defense of Thoreau he is writing an opinion shared by most of his beloved villagers, many of whom were recent emigrants themselves–the worst kind to extend any tolerance to others.

But then Thoreau exposes his superior complex as he continues to describe the Field family.

An honest, hard-working, but shiftless man plainly was John Field; and his wife, she too was brave to cook so many successive dinners in the recesses of that lofty stove; with round greasy face and bare breast, still thinking to improve her condition one day; with the never absent mop in one hand, and yet no effects of it visible anywhere.

Then Thoreau breaks his own rules to offer advice to John.

I tried to help him with my experience…that I lived in a tight, light, and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent of such a ruin as his commonly amounts to.

Thoreau scolds: If John would get over his habits of drinking tea, coffee, and meat eating, he too could live without working. Thoreau would be happy to see fields “left in a wild state” instead of spaded or bogged, John’s only source of livelihood. Stop a moment and think of spading a field by hand to earn $10 an acre and the use of the land with manure for one year as your wages.

But Thoreau is not through…

If he and his family would live simply, they might all go a-huckleberrying in the summer for their amusement.

There is no hint of compassion or even understanding of the differences between John Field and himself. Here is Thoreau, Harvard educated, living on family funds, lecturing an emigrant who digs up pastures for a living, who has a wife and children to feed while Thoreau, the arrested adolescent, roams his neighbors’ fields to stand in awe of a tree.

He leaves the Field hut to go fishing…

my Good Genius seemed to say,–Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day,–farther and wider,–and rest thee by many brooks and hearthsides without misgiving. Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee everywhere at home. There are no larger fields than these,no worthier games than may here be played. Grow wild according to thy nature, like these sedges and brakes, which will never become English hay…Let not to get a living be they trade, but thy sport. Enjoy the land, but own it not. Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.

Then the final brick in the Thoreau’s wall of elitism. He comes to the conclusion while fishing, that John Field is not only poor, he is also unlucky. No matter where John sat in the boat, he caught no fish while Thoreau caught “a fair string.” Apparently John was using the wrong bait, but did Thoreau offer advice now? He did not.

Thoreau’s’ vision is clouded as he predicts the future for the John Fields of the world.

With his horizon all his own, yet he a poor man, born to be poor, with his inherited Irish poverty or poor life, his Adam’s grandmother and boggy ways, not to rise in this world, he nor his posterity, till their wading, webbed, bog-trotting feet get talaria to their heels.

I spent a few minutes, searching for the definition of talaria. I don’t know what it is, but it must be something painful.

I have to ask: who is making the larger contribution here, Field, the hard working Irishman or Thoreau, the Harvard educated “native” who has taken to the woods to do as he pleases.

I wish Field’s last name had been Kennedy.

Diane McCormick


It’s somewhat disconcerting to discover that our idols have feet of clay, isn’t it?

Looking over my analysis of this chapter of Walden, I found that I only had one quote that Diane has not previously mentioned, so I decided not to write a commentary on this chapter.

Instead, I’ll offer some personal perspective on Thoreau’s attitude toward the Irish Catholics who immigrated to Boston. My paternal grandmother came from a long line of Boston Bankers, and she, too, had considerable dislike of the Irish immigrants. In fact, she wouldn’t let my father accept a full-ride football scholarship to a Catholic School, and, as a result, he never got more than a year of college. Quite simply, she was a Boston Brahmin.

The irony of this is that, although my grandparents were originally quite wealthy, my grandfather was an architect with degrees from both Harvard and MIT, and they owned beach property in the middle of the richest estates in Seattle, the family ended up almost poverty stricken when my grandfather died of cancer when my father was very young. In fact, the oldest son had to leave high school to support the family before he graduated from high school. In turn, each of the sons left school to support the family, so none went beyond high school.

My dad grew up selling bottom fish he’d caught in Puget Sound to the wealthy neighbors who purchased the fish because they felt sorry for him — and they promptly used the fish to fertilize their gardens.

Despite their poverty, my grandmother taught her children that they were as good as any of their rich neighbors. That might have been a little hard to believe if you lived next door to the Coleman estate in a small house, but that idea was firmly ingrained in my father. Despite her prejudice against the Irish, grandma insisted that all people were equal, and dad chose to believe that. One has to wonder how a person could emphasize equality and independence like this and still be victim of the prejudice that surrounded her. Ain’t human nature wonderful?

Though I never actually met my grandmother, I’ve always been embarrassed by her view of the Irish, and I think my dad was, too. Somehow, from all of this I’ve always felt that all people are equal. I want to be treated like everyone else, no better, no worse. I was embarrassed when officers were treated like royalty on the ships on the way to Vietnam while the men were stacked up in bunks four high and herded through the cafeteria like animals. I hated being treated like an officer and a gentleman.

The only thing I’ve hated more than being given preferential treatment was being treated as if I were a second-class citizen. As a born-again Transcendentalist, I truly believe that each of is sacred and that we should treat each other accordingly. The man who opens the door to the White House is due the same courtesy as the man who occupies it.


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