Thoreau's Rhetoric

Nathan Deuel '02, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Thoreau's speech "A Plea for Captain John Brown" displays his masterful use of language in order to convince his audience that his view is correct. At one point in the speech, Thoreau explicitly calls on his audience to look at itself:

Our foes are in our midst and all about us. There is hardly a house but is divided against itself, for our foe is the all but universal woodenness of both head and heart, the want of vitality in man, which is the effect of our vice; and hence are begotten fear, superstition, bigotry, persecution, and slavery of all kinds. We are mere figure-heads upon a bulk, with livers in the place of hearts. The curse is the worship of idols, which at length changes the worshipper into a stone image himself; and the New Englander is just as much an idolater as the Hindoo. This man was an exception, for he did not set up even a political graven image between him and his God.

This passage is ripe with literary and rhetorical devices. First, he plays on the ambiguity of the word "midst," which can both mean among and within, in order to call the audience's attention to itself. Next, he twists Lincoln's "House Divided" speech, which he assumes his audience knows, so that it no longer refers to the nation as a whole, but literally to individual houses. Immediately afterwards he conflates the image of the house into the very body of individuals who partake of an "universal woodenness". These wooden individual are slaves to the Slave Power that they implicitly worship because they do not attempt to overthrow it, as John Brown did. What is more, they are slaves to themselves because they do not struggle against a "political graven image" with an unified will. Instead they are content to worship their own internal division concerning slavery.

What is the over all effect of this passage? Is its subtlety lost on a casual listener? Does it make Thoreau's main point well?


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Last modified 6 March 2002