Thoreau's literary technique, or lack thereof

Brian Baskin '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free trade and of freed, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufactures and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations. For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds on the science of legislation. ["Civil Disobedience"]

I find Thoreau's argument interesting because he does not rely as heavily on metaphors, parallels, and other literary techniques as past authors we have read. Thoreau sets up a messiah-like figure to which no ordinary, or even extraordinary legislator could compare, then accuses the government of being unable even to deal with the most simple of problems. His words speak for themselves. But why? Thoreau succeeds because he uses a populist style to get across a populist message. He avoids complicated language because his point is that people have butchered language by making it so complex that all meaning is lost. In other words, Thoreau's use of language proves his point, as does the meaning of the passage. By making his argument twice simultaneously, it becomes twice as powerful.

Is it Thoreau's arguments, or just his way of phrasing them, been what has made him such an icon in American culture? Which is his greatest strength, the language or the meaning?

Could the same arguments be made in a style more similar to Carlyle or Ruskin? Are Thoreau's techniques necessary, or simply the style he prefers? What does Thoreau achieve by putting America's problems in such sweeping perspective? ("for eighteen hundred years") What does he accomplish by juxtaposing the great and the mundane?


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses H. D. Thoreau

Last modified 7 March 2002