This chapter shows us how subtly Thoreau can segue from the personal to the public, and from observation to diatribe. He begins by simply stating that now that the work on his house has been finished, he has time to read the Homeric epic that has been sitting on his table untouched all summer. Reading here seems broached as a private pastime, an entertainment for the individual mind after the day’s work is done. But little by little he moves from the particular to the general, commenting not just on his ability to read Homer in the original but on the merits of all people being able to do so. This point leads him to a meditation on modern publishing and its stultification of the American audience, which in turn leads him to a bitter reflection on the parochialism of his compatriots who do not even know that the Hindus have a sacred writing like that of the Hebrews. By the end of the chapter, he has driven himself into a thunderous rage—as the large number of rhetorically powerful question marks and exclamation marks in the last paragraph suggest—over the American prejudice against education. He begins in the individual mode, referring to his copy of the Iliad and his leisure time. But by the end the reference has shifted to “we” rather than “I,” so that the word “us” is the last word of the chapter, appearing in the gloomy and despairing image of “the gulf of ignorance that surrounds us.” Thoreau begins the chapter as a quiet meditation about an evening’s reading pleasure but somehow ends it as a raging sermon about the state of the world.
It is in this chapter that Thoreau’s social background is most fully felt, especially the advantages of a Harvard education and a familiarity with the classics and with ancient languages. Earlier in the work, his words do not betray his origins; in discussing home construction or domestic economy, he is simply a fiery thinker and a practical man. But when he discourses on the necessity of reading Aeschylus in the original Greek, disdaining the contemporary translations offered by the “modern cheap and fertile press,” we feel that he is a member of the elite speaking to us. Although he calls out at the end of the chapter for “noble villages of men” in which education is spread broadly through the population instead of thinly over the aristocrats, we feel he must realize the impracticality of expecting woodcutters to read Aeschylus in Greek. This tension introduces the dark subject of Thoreau’s snobbism, which recurs later in his exchange with John Field and his family. Thoreau may sincerely appreciate the merits of poverty and values the lifestyle of common laborers, but his lofty words about the classics recall that in fact he is a Harvard-educated man slumming in the backwoods, and that his poverty is chosen rather than forced on him by circumstances.