Thoreau states that he likes companionship as much as anyone else, and keeps three chairs ready for visitors. But he is aware of the limitations of his small house, aware that “individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries.” Thus he often moves the conversation to the pine forest outside his door. As a host he is not conventional. He is not concerned with offering savory delicacies to his guests, and if there is not enough food to go around, he and his guests go without. Caring more about providing his visitors spiritual, rather than material, sustenance, Thoreau proudly comments that he could nourish a thousand as easily as twenty. If they go away hungry afterward, he says, at least they have his sympathy.
Yet despite such discomforts, Thoreau’s guests keep coming. Indeed he says he has more visitors than he used to have when living in town. And the overall quality of his socializing has improved as well. Because of his relative isolation, those visitors whom Thoreau does receive are rarely on trivial errands, so that the less interesting ones are “winnowed,” as he puts it, from the better ones. They make the considerable journey from town only if they are deeply committed to seeing him. He also meets an interesting collection of vagabonds and wayfarers. Thoreau often finds admirable qualities in these rude characters, and sees them as agreeable, deferential visitors. In contrast, Thoreau disdains beggars, remarking that “objects of charity are not guests.” He entertains children on berry-picking expeditions. As an ardent abolitionist, he is also inclined to help runaway slaves on the Underground Railway, though he does not boast about it.
Thoreau also receives visits from those living or working nearby. Among them he gives special attention to a French Canadian-born woodsman of happy and unpretentious ways, identified by scholars as a certain Alex Therien. Unlike Thoreau, Therien cannot read or write. Thoreau describes him as living an “animal life,” and admires his physical endurance and his ability to amuse himself. Thoreau notes that Therien was never educated to the level of “consciousness,” but that on occasion he reveals a wisdom all his own. Reluctant to expound his ideas and unable to write them down, Therien is humble and modest. Still, Therien reveals at times “a certain positive originality, however slight,” suggesting to Thoreau that perhaps “there might be men of genius in the lowest grades of life.” He compares Therien to Walden Pond itself, saying that Therien’s mind is as deep as Walden is “bottomless,” though it may appear “dark and muddy.”
Thoreau notes that women and children appear to enjoy the woods more than men. He says men of business, and even farmers, tend to focus not on the pleasures of rural life, but on its limitations, such as the distance from town. Even when they claim to like walks in the forest, Thoreau can see that they do not. Their lives are all taken up, he says, with “getting a living,” and they do not have the time to live.
The visitors mentioned in this chapter’s title do not interfere with the preceding “Solitude,” because Thoreau’s ideal guests do not interrupt one’s self-communion but merely broaden it. Concerned that socializing not limit one’s personal space or elbowroom, he describes how his guests push their chairs as far away from each as possible, as far as the walls of his house allow. When this area is not sufficient, they take the chat outdoors. Thoreau refers to a conversation as if it were a physical thing, like a football game, requiring a large playing field; he describes “the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest” when conversation turns philosophical. But, of course, Thoreau is speaking metaphorically here, and the space required for a good talk is mental rather than physical. More than a practical issue of space management, it is a philosophical statement about every human’s need for freedom to stretch his or her soul. It is even a political statement as well, since Thoreau says that nations are the same way, perhaps alluding to the American pioneers’ westward expansion. When he recommends an outdoor conversation in the pine trees, Thoreau argues that a good conversation could expand to fill the whole forest or perhaps the whole universe.
Thoreau’s characterization of his various guests shows us a lot about his social and moral views as well. We find out his opposition to slavery when he mentions, almost in passing, that he occasionally aids fugitive slaves. That he does not boast about this shows his humility. We see that Thoreau has a well-developed sense of hospitality toward strangers, irrespective of class or occupation; he welcomes wayfarers of all sorts. He is no snob in his admission of visitors, at a time when the game of calling cards and the ranking of guests was a standard part of civilized life. But his treatment of beggars is a bit surprising. When he declares that “objects of charity are not our guests,” he obviously means that no equality is possible between a beggar and a homeowner, but he also seems uncomfortably close to saying that the desperately poor do not deserve the same respect as better-off travelers. Thoreau does have some prejudices. His attitude toward the Canadian-born woodcutter Alex Therien also reveals a somewhat unjust discrimination against the uneducated, even as he appears to appreciate the man. At first Thoreau praises Therien as a Homeric figure, larger than life, possessing noble instincts and a generous heart. He appreciates that Therien loves his work and displays good humor at every turn. He even says that Therien displays a kind of unformed natural genius. But then Thoreau suddenly demotes Therien from epic hero to animal. Of course, Thoreau loves animals, and his remark is not meant as an insult. But his assessment that Therien is “too immersed in his animal life” indicates that Thoreau is unable or unwilling to treat him as an equal. We imagine Thoreau saying to himself that, being educated, he deserves to have poets and philosophers as his guests, and the bestiality of Therien—no matter how much of a genius he is in his animal state—somehow makes him an inappropriate companion. Thoreau may go off to live in nature, but he cannot bring himself to call a natural man his equal.