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.