by: Henry David Thoreau

Alex Therien

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.