Alienating the Audience versus Alliance with it

Gavin Shulman '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Henry David Thoreau, at various times throughout his essay, seems to launch a full-blown attack at the audience or reader of his essay.

When I came out of prison--for some one interfered, and paid that tax--I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a youth and emerged a gray-headed man; and yet a change had come to my eyes come over the scene--the town, and State, and country, greater than any that mere time could effect. I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are that in their sacrifices to humanity they ran no risks, not even to their property; that after all they were not so noble but they treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few prayers, and by walking in a particular straight through useless path from time to time, to save their souls.

Clearly, the common man, whom this essay is surely intended to affect, is not portrayed positively by Thoreau. He is a mindless subject who gives his all to the support of a State in which he may not even believe. However, as we travel further along in the essay, Thoreau's tone switches, and he begins singing a new, softer tune.

I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the general and State governments, and the spirit of the people to discover a pretext for conformity.

How do these two sections, one an attempt at alienation, and one an attempt at alliance, reconcile each other?

Can the audience be expected to support or admire Thoreau after all the bashing they have recieved from him?

Is Thoreau playing fair, or does he want his cake and to eat it too? (For this question one can also look at the line where he declares war with the state but then informs us that even in his time of war he will "use what advantages of her I can.")


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Last modified 5 October 2003