Henry D. Thoreau

Henry D. Thoreau

AMONG those American writers who have denounced the anomalies and tyranny of Transatlantic government and society none have done so more eloquently than Henry Thoreau. Though not a professed Socialist, but appealing rather to the individual capabilities of man, Thoreau deserves to be attentively studied by every social reformer; his chief book “Walden,” being not only remarkable for its intensity of moral purpose and high literary power, but containing also the record of a very interesting experiment in practical life. The main features of Thoreau’s career are briefly these. He was born in 1817 at Concord, Massachussetts (sic), his father being a manufacturer of lead pencils in that town, a trade which Thoreau himself followed for some time. But he early discovered that he had no taste for “doing a good business,” in the ordinary sense of the term, his only ambition being to live a simple, healthy and independent life; and this led him in 1845 to undertake that retirement to the shores of Walden Pond for which his name is chiefly known in this country. He lived at Walden for over two years in a small hut of his own building; his purpose being as he tells us himself, “to live deliberately; to front only the essential facts of life.” After he had got all the benefit he could from this sojourn in the woods he returned to Concord, where he lived during the remainder of his life. His enthusiastic love of natural history gained him the title of the “Poet Naturalist,” and much of his writings is devoted to this subject. But he also published some anti-slavery and reform papers of the very highest merit, his “Plea for Captain John Brown” being especially remarkable. He died in 1862.

In “Walden” we find the essence of Thoreau’s teaching, and also the record of his experiences of unconventional life. He found that by working about six weeks in the year he could meet all the expenses of living, and have free for study the whole of his winters as well as most of his summers – a discovery which might throw considerable light on the solution of certain social problems in our own country. Even if we allow an ample margin for the peculiar circumstances of his case, and the favourable conditions under which he made his experiment, the conclusion seems to be inevitable that the burden of labour which falls on the human race is not only very unfairly distributed but is also unnecessarily heavy. Thoreau did a real service to the cause of Socialism by practically demonstrating the truth of Socialist calculations, and proving how little labour is sufficient to support mankind. We may regret that he did not proceed to the question “What then becomes of all the immeasurable wealth produced by the vast labour of our toilers in town and country who are themselves left in a condition of life-long penury and want? On this social question Thoreau does not enter; but confines himself to showing what every individual may do in the way of simplicity and self-help. He cannot claim therefore to give any complete solution of the great social problem; for it is obvious that no amount of self-help can by itself avail much in the overwhelming struggle for existence that is going on in every great town. An inhabitant of Concord might walk out a mile or two, and build himself a hut by Walden Pond; but there is no such refuse to the dweller in the East End of London; Victoria Park does not offer the advantages of Walden. Still there is no doubt that Thoreau’s teaching is perfectly true as far as it goes; the world is not yet sufficiently awake to the fact that a great part of its evils are due to luxury, extravagance, and a foolish striving after unnecessary “comforts” and personal possessions. On many points Thoreau’s opinions will commend themselves to all Socialists. He insists on the advisability of some education, in manual work instead of the usual flimsy university education. He condemns the factory system where the condition of the workmen is daily becoming worse and worse “Not that mankind may be well and honestly clad but that Corporations may be enriched.” He has discovered that “trade curses everything it handles,” and that the “model farms,” of modern days are huge delusions and impostures. “A model farm! Stocked with men! A great grease spot, redolent of manures and buttermilk! Under a high state of cultivation, being manured with the hearts and brains of men! As if you were to raise your potatoes in the churchyard! Such is the model farm.” Very severe too are his strictures on the profit-mongering, manslaughtering Railway systems of America. “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those ‘sleepers’ are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman or a Yankee man. They are sound sleepers, I can assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.” But in no part of “Walden” is the writing more vigorous and trenchant than when Thoreau is expressing his contempt for the cant and humbug of “charity” and “philanthropy.” Doing-good, he says, is one of the professions that are full and if he knew that a man was coming to his house to do him good he should run for his life. So too with charity. “It may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the utmost by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday’s liberty for the rest.”

I will conclude with a quotation from “Walden” which might easily be mistaken for one of the most eloquent passages in Henry George’s “Progress and Poverty.” It is on the subject of modern civilisation. “But how do the poor minority fare? Perhaps it will be found that just in proportion as some have been placed in outward circumstances about the savage, others have been degraded below him. The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another. On the one side is the palace, on the other are the almshouse and ‘silent poor.’ The myriads who built the Pyramids to be the tombs of the Pharaohs were fed on garlic and it may-be were not decently buried themselves. The mason who finishes the cornice of the palace returns at night perchance to a hut not so good as a wigwam. It is a mistake to suppose that in a country where the usual evidences of civilization exist, the condition of a very large body of the inhabitants may not be as degraded as that of savages. Such to a greater or less extent, is the condition of the operatives of every denomination in England, which is the great workhouse of the world.”

Henry S. Salt

Justice, No. 96, November 14, 1885, p. 2