Walden

by: Henry David Thoreau

Baker Farm and Higher Laws

Summary Baker Farm and Higher Laws

Thoreau seems remarkably unfriendly in what he tells us of his interaction with this poor family. He does not chat with the Fields, but launches immediately into a lecture about how Thoreau’s shanty cost as much to buy outright as the Fields spend annually on rent, and about how cutting down on coffee and meat would save them money. We can imagine the annoyance of such a guest appearing unannounced in one’s home, handing out advice unsolicited. Furthermore, he leaves with no mention of sharing any human connection or having a laugh with the Fields. He merely asks for a drink of water (which he has to shut his eyes to gulp down, aware of its poor quality), and departs. This display of rudeness—not just in outward manners, but also in his categorical imposition of his own views on others without reporting their side of the story—forces us to see a side of Thoreau different from that of the solitary dreamer and conscientious objector we have seen before. Here we see that Thoreau’s fervent convictions may actually stand in the way of human relations. Perhaps his isolation is making him not just self-reliant but also somewhat antisocial, or at least grossly insensitive to the situations of others. By idealizing and simplifying humans, as his allegorical depiction of “John Farmer” at the end of the chapter suggests, he may have difficulties thinking about the complexities of real people’s lives.

One of the most distressing aspects of Thoreau’s attitude toward the Fields is his focus on their Irish heritage, which he associates—in stereotypical nineteenth-century Anglo-American style—with laziness and self-neglect. In a final note of pity, he suggests that Field is poor not because he lacks Thoreau’s advantages of education or because the plight of immigrants is difficult, but simply because he was “born to be poor.” Thoreau almost implies a kind of racist belief in genetic predisposition to economic performance when he refers to Field’s “inherited Irish poverty.” The notion of free self-determination that Thoreau extols throughout Walden seems inapplicable, in his mind, to the poor Irish: with their inherited poverty, they can never break free to become self-reliant like he has. Thoreau praises poverty, but only when it is self-imposed rather than when it is determined by social forces. Combined with his curt treatment of the Fields, this prejudice leaves a bitter aftertaste. There is no brotherhood of the poor in his mind; Thoreau focuses on what separates himself and the Fields, and their Irish background is one difference. Thoreau’s views on the causes of Irish poverty are startlingly conservative, given his much-vaunted status as a radical.