Us and Them in Thoreau's "A Plea for Captain John Brown"

Quinn Kenworthy '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In "A Plea for Captain John Brown" Henry David Thoreau combines rich prose and distinct political and social messages that guide the reader from the opening statement until the dramatic conclusion. Throughout this work Thoreau uses extended metaphors and comparisons in a concise language that draws the reader in, almost forcing us to believe his every word. We believe Thoreau because of the power of his language. In this passage Thoreau addresses broad issues using specific examples and clear beautiful prose:

We dream of foreign countries, of other times and races of men, placing them at a distance in history or space; but let some significant event like the present occur in our midst, and we discover, often, this distance and this strangeness between us and our nearest neighbors. They are our Austrias, and Chinas, and South Sea Islands. Our crowded society becomes well spaced all at once, clean and handsome to the eye,--a city of magnificent distances. We discover why it was that we never got beyond compliments and surfaces with them before; we become aware of as many versts between us and them as there are between a wandering Tartar and a Chinese town. The thoughtful man becomes a hermit in the thoroughfares of the market-place. Impassable seas suddenly find their level between us, or dumb steppes stretch themselves out there. It is the difference of constitution, of intelligence, and faith, and not streams and mountains, that make the true and impassable boundaries between individuals and between states. None but the like-minded can come plenipotentiary to our court. [14]

Thoreau uses "we," "us," and "our" in this passage as a way of bringing himself and the audience together as one group, bridging the gap between himself and the audience as well as making assumptions that the audience actually desires to be a part of the "we." In this passage and throughout the rest of "A Plea for Captain John Brown" this technique seems to be effective as Thoreau slyly (or obviously) assumes the audience agrees with him. Can Thoreau get away with this because of the beauty of his prose or are his assumptions about our views offensive and alienating?

The first sentence of this passage is long and more general, followed by a short, specific, and abrupt sentence, "They are our Austrias, and Chinas, and South Sea Islands." Does Thoreau's varying sentence length and content help his points or confuse the reader? If his short sentences hit the reader sharply, do his longer sentences lose their meaning?

Throughout this passage Thoreau puts us verses them, using specific examples as well as more general ideas about distance between individuals, states, and groups of people. What is Thoreau's point in this passage -- what is he really talking about? Why does he use "a wandering Tartar" and a Chinese town? Do you agree with his ideas about space and boundaries?

Thoreau combines the physical world with his concepts as he makes reference to "foreign countries," "a city of magnificent distances," "the market-place," "impassable seas," and "streams and mountains." Why does he do this and what effect do these references have on the work as a whole?

Finally, what does Thoreau mean in his last line, "None but the like-minded can come plenipotentiary to our court"?


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Last modified 7 October 2003