As the foremost American proponent of simple living, Thoreau remains a powerful influence on generation after generation of young freethinkers, but his political importance is more complex than is often thought. It is the liberal side of Thoreau that is most widely remembered today. He sought an absolutely individual stance toward everything, looking for the truth not in social conventions or inherited traditions but only in himself. His casual determination to say “no” to anything he did not care for, or stand for, affirmed and solidified the American model of conscientious objection, a model that resurfaced most notably during the Vietnam War era. His skepticism toward American consumer culture, still in its infancy in the mid-nineteenth century, is even more applicable today than it was in 1847. His willingness to downgrade his lifestyle in return for the satisfactions of self-reliance has set a standard for independent young people for more than a century and a half. It could be argued that Thoreau had significant influence on the profile of American liberalism and of American counterculture.
But Thoreau has a half-hidden conservative side. This schism has led him, paradoxically, to be viewed as godfather of both the hippie movement and anti-technology, rural conservatives. His harsh view of the Fitchburg Railway (as he expresses it in the chapter “Sounds”) makes modern transportation innovations seem not a boon to his society, but rather a demonic force that threatens natural harmony. His eulogy of a humble lifestyle does not lead him to solidarity with the working poor or to any sort of community-based feeling; rather, it makes him a bit isolated, strangely distant from his neighbors. Thoreau consistently criticizes neighbors he considers bestial, although he theoretically endorses their simplicity. He praises the grand woodchopper Alex Therien, for example, only to abruptly dismiss Therien as being too uncouth, too immersed in “animal nature.” The unfairness of this dismissal leaves a bitter taste in our mouths, making us wonder whether Thoreau would quietly reject other poor workers as excessively animal-like. Similarly, his preachy and rather condescending lecture toward the humble Field family, in whose house he seeks shelter from a rainstorm, shows no signs of any desire to make contact with the poor on an equal footing with himself. He may want to be their instructor and guide, but not really their friend or comrade. Most damning is Thoreau’s unpleasant, almost racist remark that the Fields’ poverty is an “inherited” Irish trait, as if implying that non-Anglo immigrants are genetically incapable of the noble frugality and resourcefulness that distinguishes Thoreau.
Thoreau’s literary style is often overshadowed by his political and ideological significance, but it is equally important, and just as innovative and free as his social thought. He is a subtle punster and ironist, as when he describes the sun as “too warm a friend,” or when he calls the ability to weave men’s trousers a “virtue” (a play on the Latin word vir, which means “man”). He uses poetic devices, such as personification, not in a grandiose poetic manner, but in a casual and easygoing one: when he drags his desk and chair out for housecleaning, he describes them as being happy outdoors and reluctant to go back inside. His richly allusive style is brilliantly combined with a down-home feel, so that Thoreau moves from quoting Confucius to talking about woodchucks without a jolt. This combination of the everyday and the erudite finds echoes in later writers such as E. B. White, who also used a rural setting for his witty meditations on life and human nature. Moreover, we feel that Thoreau is not an armchair reader of literary classics, but is rather attempting to use his erudition to enrich the life he lives in a practical spirit, as when he describes Alex Therien as “Homeric” right after quoting a passage from Homer’s work. Homer is not just an old dead poet to Thoreau, but rather a way of seeing the world around him. Thoreau’s style is lyrical in places, allegorical in others, and sometimes both at once, as when the poetic beauty of the “Ponds” chapter becomes a delicate allegory for the purity of the human soul. He is a private and ruminative writer rather than a social one, which explains the almost total absence of dialogue in his writing. Yet his writing has an imposing sense of social purpose, and we are aware that despite his claimed yearning for privacy, Thoreau hungers for a large audience to hear his words. The final chapters of Walden almost cease being nature writing, and become a straightforward sermon. A private thinker, Thoreau is also a public preacher, whether or not he admits it.
Thoreau’s occasional visitor, Therien is the individual in the work who comes closest to being considered a friend, although there is always a distance between the two that reveals much about Thoreau’s prejudices. The hermit and the woodsman are both contented with a humble backwoods life; both take a pleasure in physical exertion (Therien is a woodchopper and post-driver, Thoreau is a bean-cultivator); and both are of French Canadian descent, as their names indicate. Thoreau describes Therien as “Homeric” in Chapter 6, voicing a deep tribute to a naturally noble man who is as heroic in his sheer vitality as Odysseus or Achilles, the heroes of Homer’s two epic poems, despite the man’s lack of formal education and social polish. Therien seems remote from social customs, as when he happily dines on a woodchuck caught by his dog. Nevertheless, he strikes people as inwardly aristocratic (“a prince in disguise,” according to one townsman). He is sensitive to great art, as when Thoreau reads a passage from Homer’s Iliad to him, and Therien responds with the simple and resounding praise, “That’s good.” He may not fully grasp what he has heard, but he can appreciate the beauty of it nonetheless. He shows a powerful moral sense, as when he spends his Sunday morning gathering white oak bark for a sick man, not complaining about the task. Therien is an astonishing worker to an almost mythical degree, capable of driving fifty posts in a day, and claiming that he has never been tired in his life. Yet he is also artistic in his labor, and can think of nothing more pleasurable than tree chopping.
In all these qualities, Therien seems Thoreau’s ideal man. Therien does not “play any part” or perform any fake social role, but is always only himself, as true to himself as Thoreau elsewhere says he aims to be. Therien is absolutely “genuine and unsophisticated,” and is “simply and naturally humble.” Thoreau is not sure whether Therien is as wise as Shakespeare or as ignorant as a child, thus indirectly acknowledging that the man is both, displaying a kind of wise ignorance. Thoreau suspects that Therien is a man of genius, as profound as Walden Pond, despite his muddy surface. We feel how closely identified Therien is with Thoreau’s own self-image: a wisely ignorant, hard-working, independent genius of the backwoods.
Strikingly, Thoreau never describes Therien as his friend, but always merely as a man who visits him, leaving a gulf between the two men. This unbridgeable divide is basically rooted in their differing levels of education. Therien is not a reader, and is “so deeply immersed in his animal life” that he can never carry on the kind of higher conversation Thoreau values. Thoreau mentions this flaw in Therien at the end of the passage describing him, and it feels like a kind of mild damnation, since Therien never appears again in Walden. The label “animal” also feels a bit unfair, as we may wonder what exactly separates Thoreau from the animal-like Therien and other beasts. A taste for reading alone surely does not make all the difference. It may be that Thoreau simply cannot imagine any rival for his role as natural genius, and must downgrade Therien before dismissing him. The relationship with Therien may make us wonder whether Thoreau’s individualism is—at least sometimes—a bit ungenerous, self-centered, and proud.