Thoreau and the Grotesque

Sarah Petrides, American Civilization Graduate Student, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

The grotesque is one of the sage's ultimate satirical tools. As we have learned in our discussions of Carlyle, Didion, and Ruskin, the grotesque functions as a way to show society its own absurdity writ large. Thoreau, too, makes use of the grotesque, both discovered and invented. The following passage from "Slavery in Massachusetts" is an example of the discovered grotesque:

Three years ago, also, just a week after the authorities of Boston assembled to carry back a perfectly innocent man, and one whom they knew to be innocent, into slavery, the inhabitants of Concord caused the bells to be rung and the cannons to be fired, to celebrate their liberty -- and the courage and love of liberty of their ancestors who fought at the bridge. As if those three millions had fought for the fight to be free themselves, but to hold in slavery three million others. [3]

Here, from the same essay, is an example of the invented grotesque

Much has been said about American slavery, but I think that we do not even yet realize what slavery is. If I were seriously to propose to Congress to make mankind into sausages, I have no doubt that most of the members would smile at my proposition, and if any believed me to be in earnest, they would think that I proposed something much worse than Congress had ever done. But if any of them will tell me that to make a man into a sausage would be much worse -- would be any worse -- than to make him into a slave -- than it was to enact the Fugitive Slave Law -- I will accuse him of foolishness, of intellectual incapacity, of making a distinction without difference. The one is just as sensible a proposition as the other. [4]

We have here examples of two different types of grotesque. How does the use of one differ from the other in the rhetorical texture it lends Thoreau's argument? How does the use of each grotesque function to reinforce Thoreau's ethos? Why might Thoreau have chosen to use both types of grotesque to construct his line of reasoning?

We also have an interesting variance of thematic material. An overt reference to what Thoreau's listeners no doubt see as a common and proud mutual heritage of patriotism is followed shortly thereafter by an oblique reference to Swift's "A Modest Proposal". To whom was Thoreau speaking with each theme? Thoreau, unlike Swift, tells his readers at the outset that his cannibalistic suggestion is a facetious one. How does this affect the impact of his invented grotesque?


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Last modified 6 March 2002