ECONOMY, Part II
In the first part of "Economy," Thoreau talked in general about the problem of how people should live their lives. In this part of "Economy," he first becomes more personal, telling us about his own lifestyle. Now that he's talking about himself, his language becomes even more metaphoric and ironic -- even sarcastic at times, and he uses even more parallels to business, economy, and trade. Part of the reason for his figurative language is his sense of humor, but another part is that he really can't be more honest about his activities. It's not that he's engaged in illegal behavior, it's just that there are no words to express spiritual and poetic realizations. Thus, one finds the same lack of specific words when reading spiritual and poetic works from Paul's epistles to Walt Witman's poems. For instance, Paul says (Cornithians 13:12), "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face," using a metaphor instead of an explanation. However, who -- other than Thoreau -- would ever think of using direct comparisons to trade and business (the antithesis of spiritual and poetic values) to express these ideas? And, even more amazing, Thoreau manages to make his comparisons sound poetic at the same time.
One thought that has come to me (and which may not be true) is that Thoreau was inspired to write this passage because of people criticizing his foolish behavior. Rather than deny these attacks, Thoreau makes his behavior sound even more foolish and bizarre as a defense! Certainly, the townspeople did not see him as a productive businessman! They saw him as a do-little and a ne'er-do-well.
After his personal account, Thoreau gets back to the subjects of clothing and shelter, this time discussing them in detail. He discusses the problem of shelter last, because the next section of "Economy" will look at the shelter he constructed at Walden Pond.
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|If I should attempt to tell how I have desired to spend my life in years past, it would probably surprise those of my readers who are somewhat acquainted with its actual history; it would certainly astonish those who know nothing about it. I will only hint at some of the enterprises which I have cherished.
||Amazingly, James Russell Lowell claimed Thoreau had no sense of humor; in these "hints," Thoreau "pulls the leg" of his reader, mixing reality, poetic metaphor, and sarcastic misdirections together.
| In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line. You will pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men's, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature. I would gladly tell all that I know about it, and never paint "No Admittance" on my gate.
||Thoreau admits that his language may make it difficult for people to understand his "trade." This part is easy to understand; he wants to focus on living the present moment (a philosophy called carpe diem) rather than dwelling on the past or the future. He wants to make the present as rewarding as possible.
| I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.
||This is his most misunderstood statement; people want to match the animals to people in Thoreau's life. Thoreau is not using symbols that literally. He had met hunters who had lost animals but is seeking even more illusive insights.
| To anticipate, not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself! How many mornings, summer and winter, before yet any neighbor was stirring about his business, have I been about mine! No doubt, many of my townsmen have met me returning from this enterprise, farmers starting for Boston in the twilight, or woodchoppers going to their work. It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.
||Just as a good businessman will be ready for a delivery of goods to his store, Thoreau was up early to see the new day begin. He admits that like the businessman, he had a supervisory role only. Looking at his statements non-figuratively, it's clear that a Nature-lover and a poet would need to witness such natural events.
| So many autumn, ay, and winter days, spent outside the town, trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it express! I well-nigh sunk all my capital in it, and lost my own breath into the bargain, running in the face of it. If it had concerned either of the political parties, depend upon it, it would have appeared in the Gazette with the earliest intelligence. At other times watching from the observatory of some cliff or tree, to telegraph any new arrival; or waiting at evening on the hill-tops for the sky to fall, that I might catch something, though I never caught much, and that, manna-wise, would dissolve again in the sun.
||Here he compares himself to a reporter trying to gather the news. He deliberately makes himself sound foolish and/or astonishing by attempting the impossible. An investor might invest his cash, but Thoreau obviously has some other kind of "capital." Notice also his waiting for "the sky to fall," another foolish reference, but then the result is something like manna -- a gift directly from God.
| For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward.
||Thoreau's deep irony is sometimes misunderstood here. The "journal" is not The Dial but his own personal journal, with himself as the editor and only reader.
| For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully; surveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes, keeping them open, and ravines bridged and passable at all seasons, where the public heel had testified to their utility.
||Again Thoreau labors to make himself look like a foolish businessman by tending to unimportant matters. He is also preparing the reader for an even more foolish claim.
| I have looked after the wild stock of the town, which give a faithful herdsman a good deal of trouble by leaping fences; and I have had an eye to the unfrequented nooks and corners of the farm; though I did not always know whether Jonas or Solomon worked in a particular field today; that was none of my business. I have watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry and the nettle-tree, the red pine and the black ash, the white grape and the yellow violet, which might have withered else in dry seasons.
||Note that Thoreau is looking after the "wild stock"; that is, the wild animals, and he is also tending to the wild plants.
Thoreau was an amateur botanist and said he could tell the day of the year just by looking at the plants.
| In short, I went on thus for a long time (I may say it without boasting), faithfully minding my business, till it became more and more evident that my townsmen would not after all admit me into the list of town officers, nor make my place a sinecure with a moderate allowance. My accounts, which I can swear to have kept faithfully, I have, indeed, never got audited, still less accepted, still less paid and settled. However, I have not set my heart on that.
||In Thoreau's day, a businessman might perform services for the government for some years before presenting a claim. Tongue in cheek, Thoreau now pretends to have made such a claim and to have kept records with perhaps even the goal of becoming a public official.
| Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. "Do you wish to buy any baskets?" he asked. "No, we do not want any," was the reply. "What!" exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, "do you mean to starve us?" Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off -- that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed -- he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man's to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one's while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men's while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?
||Thoreau now compares himself to an Indian who can't sell his products. Thoreau obviously was investing his time and energy into the pursuit of non-material, personal wealth that can't be bought or sold. Rather than considering his inability to make money from his occupation to be a problem requiring a change in occupation, he decided that it was better to avoid making money at all.
| Finding that my fellow-citizens were not likely to offer me any room in the court house, or any curacy or living anywhere else, but I must shift for myself, I turned my face more exclusively than ever to the woods, where I was better known. I determined to go into business at once, and not wait to acquire the usual capital, using such slender means as I had already got. My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles; to be hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so sad as foolish.
||Again, Thoreau uses a humorous comparison to business practice: we know that no one would pay him to pursue his personal spiritual and poetic goals. A merchant would set up shop where he knew many people and so would have the most customers; Thoreau's being better known in the woods, where no one lives, is deeply ironic. Note the dry, practical language used to describe a spiritual quest.
| I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man. If your trade is with the Celestial Empire, then some small counting house on the coast, in some Salem harbor, will be fixture enough. You will export such articles as the country affords, purely native products, much ice and pine timber and a little granite, always in native bottoms. These will be good ventures. To oversee all the details yourself in person; to be at once pilot and captain, and owner and underwriter; to buy and sell and keep the accounts; to read every letter received, and write or read every letter sent; to superintend the discharge of imports night and day; to be upon many parts of the coast almost at the same time -- often the richest freight will be discharged upon a Jersey shore; -- to be your own telegraph, unweariedly sweeping the horizon, speaking all passing vessels bound coastwise; to keep up a steady despatch of commodities, for the supply of such a distant and exorbitant market; to keep yourself informed of the state of the markets, prospects of war and peace everywhere, and anticipate the tendencies of trade and civilization -- taking advantage of the results of all exploring expeditions, using new passages and all improvements in navigation; -- charts to be studied, the position of reefs and new lights and buoys to be ascertained, and ever, and ever, the logarithmic tables to be corrected, for by the error of some calculator the vessel often splits upon a rock that should have reached a friendly pier -- there is the untold fate of La Perouse; -- universal science to be kept pace with, studying the lives of all great discoverers and navigators, great adventurers and merchants, from Hanno and the Phoenicians down to our day; in fine, account of stock to be taken from time to time, to know how you stand. It is a labor to task the faculties of a man -- such problems of profit and loss, of interest, of tare and tret, and gauging of all kinds in it, as demand a universal knowledge.
||In this long passage, including a 282 word sentence, Thoreau shows a clear understanding of all the problems associated with trade with the Celestial Empire (China).
However, what if the trade is not with China but with God's empire? What if one wants to receive messages and gifts from heaven? Then, there are the same kind of problems. Thus, Thoreau is drawing an extended parallel between his activities and those of a merchant. One problem the businessman has to cope with is having his cargos shipwrecked on the New Jersey shore; Thoreau has the problem that the richest inspiration and insights sometimes come at unexpected times when he is unable to make the most of them. Both "businesses" require a great deal of knowledge, preparation, addtion to detail, and energy. A successful philosopher, poet, mystic, or monk has to work just as hard as a successful businessman.
| I have thought that Walden Pond would be a good place for business, not solely on account of the railroad and the ice trade; it offers advantages which it may not be good policy to divulge; it is a good port and a good foundation. No Neva marshes to be filled; though you must everywhere build on piles of your own driving. It is said that a flood-tide, with a westerly wind, and ice in the Neva, would sweep St. Petersburg from the face of the earth.
||While someone might miss Thoreau's double meaning in talking about trade with the Celestial Empire, his claim that Walden Pond as a good port should wake them up. Walden is only a small lake, surrounded by hills and woods.
| As this business was to be entered into without the usual capital, it may not be easy to conjecture where those means, that will still be indispensable to every such undertaking, were to be obtained. As for Clothing, to come at once to the practical part of the question, perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility. Let him who has work to do recollect that the object of clothing is, first, to retain the vital heat, and secondly, in this state of society, to cover nakedness, and he may judge how much of any necessary or important work may be accomplished without adding to his wardrobe. Kings and queens who wear a suit but once, though made by some tailor or dressmaker to their majesties, cannot know the comfort of wearing a suit that fits. They are no better than wooden horses to hang the clean clothes on. Every day our garments become more assimilated to ourselves, receiving the impress of the wearer's character, until we hesitate to lay them aside without such delay and medical appliances and some such solemnity even as our bodies. No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. But even if the rent is not mended, perhaps the worst vice betrayed is improvidence. I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this- Who could wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon. Often if an accident happens to a gentleman's legs, they can be mended; but if a similar accident happens to the legs of his pantaloons, there is no help for it; for he considers, not what is truly respectable, but what is respected. We know but few men, a great many coats and breeches. Dress a scarecrow in your last shift, you standing shiftless by, who would not soonest salute the scarecrow? Passing a cornfield the other day, close by a hat and coat on a stake, I recognized the owner of the farm. He was only a little more weather-beaten than when I saw him last. I have heard of a dog that barked at every stranger who approached his master's premises with clothes on, but was easily quieted by a naked thief. It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes. Could you, in such a case, tell surely of any company of civilized men which belonged to the most respected class? When Madam Pfeiffer, in her adventurous travels round the world, from east to west, had got so near home as Asiatic Russia, she says that she felt the necessity of wearing other than a travelling dress, when she went to meet the authorities, for she "was now in a civilized country, where . . . people are judged of by their clothes." Even in our democratic New England towns the accidental possession of wealth, and its manifestation in dress and equipage alone, obtain for the possessor almost universal respect. But they who yield such respect, numerous as they are, are so far heathen, and need to have a missionary sent to them. Beside, clothes introduced sewing, a kind of work which you may call endless; a woman's dress, at least, is never done.
||Thoreau begins this paragraph with mock business language but then shifts to the subject of clothing, which he will now discuss in detail.
It is interesting how Thoreau's sense of values completely changes everything: old clothes become desirable while new clothes and a quanity of clothing become something to be avoided.
In these days of dressing down, I hope we now know not to judge people according to the clothing that they happen to be wearing.
Holes are now often even seen as fashionable. However, clothing sold with the holes already sewn in is very expensive, something that I'm sure would only increase Thoreau's sarcasm.
"Shiftless" is a pun, meaning both "without any clothes" and "doing nothing." Walden is full of puns, which I will usually not point out.
We still have the other faults Thoreau talks about, being willing to pay very high prices for clothing; even people who are dressing down are often wearing expensive duds, and nowadays there is a tendency for people to collect a huge amounts of seldom-worn clothing, a different kind of clothing for every occassion.
Of course, Thoreau believes the opposite of Madame Pfeiffer. People should be judged according to their character not their clothing.
He feels that those who judge people only by clothing need missionaries sent to them; this could tie in with his reference to tatooing a few paragraphs below (missionaries preach to tattooed natives) or because Thoreau feels they have forgotten the principles of their religion.
| A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in; for him the old will do, that has lain dusty in the garret for an indeterminate period. Old shoes will serve a hero longer than they have served his valet -- if a hero ever has a valet -- bare feet are older than shoes, and he can make them do. Only they who go to soirees and legislative balls must have new coats, coats to change as often as the man changes in them. But if my jacket and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship God in, they will do; will they not? Who ever saw his old clothes -- his old coat, actually worn out, resolved into its primitive elements, so that it was not a deed of charity to bestow it on some poor boy, by him perchance to be bestowed on some poorer still, or shall we say richer, who could do with less? I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be. Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles. Our moulting season, like that of the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives. The loon retires to solitary ponds to spend it. Thus also the snake casts its slough, and the caterpillar its wormy coat, by an internal industry and expansion; for clothes are but our outmost cuticle and mortal coil. Otherwise we shall be found sailing under false colors, and be inevitably cashiered at last by our own opinion, as well as that of mankind.
||Thoreau makes the argument that rather than changing our clothing that we ought to be changing the person within.
Part of his argument is practical, because Thoreau honestly and seriously believes that we are richer when we give up our materistic desires, and part is philosophical; that is, Thoreau is pointing out that by making a fuss about clothing, we are placing our emphasis on our least important characteristic.
Contrast the difference that it would make in your life if you chose between A) concentrating on always having the very best clothes or B) concentrating on self-improvement and self-actualization instead.
| We don garment after garment, as if we grew like exogenous plants by addition without. Our outside and often thin and fanciful clothes are our epidermis, or false skin, which partakes not of our life, and may be stripped off here and there without fatal injury; our thicker garments, constantly worn, are our cellular integument, or cortex; but our shirts are our liber, or true bark, which cannot be removed without girdling and so destroying the man. I believe that all races at some seasons wear something equivalent to the shirt. It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety. While one thick garment is, for most purposes, as good as three thin ones, and cheap clothing can be obtained at prices really to suit customers; while a thick coat can be bought for five dollars, which will last as many years, thick pantaloons for two dollars, cowhide boots for a dollar and a half a pair, a summer hat for a quarter of a dollar, and a winter cap for sixty-two and a half cents, or a better be made at home at a nominal cost, where is he so poor that, clad in such a suit, of his own earning, there will not be found wise men to do him reverence?
||Clothing was relatively much more expensive in Thoreau's day since the typical wage for a laborer then was about a dollar a day. Thus a laborer would have to work a week just to buy a coat.
| When I ask for a garment of a particular form, my tailoress tells me gravely, "They do not make them so now," not emphasizing the "they" at all, as if she quoted an authority as impersonal as the Fates, and I find it difficult to get made what I want, simply because she cannot believe that I mean what I say, that I am so rash. When I hear this oracular sentence, I am for a moment absorbed in thought, emphasizing to myself each word separately that I may come at the meaning of it, that I may find out by what degree of consanguinity they are related to me, and what authority they may have in an affair which affects me so nearly; and, finally, I am inclined to answer her with equal mystery, and without any more emphasis of the "they": "It is true, they did not make them so recently, but they do now." Of what use this measuring of me if she does not measure my character, but only the breadth of my shoulders, as it were a peg to bang the coat on? We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcee, but Fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller's cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same. I sometimes despair of getting anything quite simple and honest done in this world by the help of men. They would have to be passed through a powerful press first, to squeeze their old notions out of them, so that they would not soon get upon their legs again; and then there would be some one in the company with a maggot in his head, hatched from an egg deposited there nobody knows when, for not even fire kills these things, and you would have lost your labor. Nevertheless, we will not forget that some Egyptian wheat was handed down to us by a mummy.
||One advantage of Thoreau's time was that clothing was individually sewn for each person so that it fit properly, so Thoreau's trip to a tailor does not indicate wealth on his part. Of course, his tailor knew the former style; she just felt it necessary to comform to the current fashion.
Although the mini-skirt rebellion took some of the power away from the designers, this problem of fashion trends still exists today; one year pants have wide legs, the next year skinny legs, and the third year skinny legs with bell bottoms. It all seems to be a way of encouraging people to buy new clothes while the old are still perfectly suitable.
The computer industry is particularly skilled at this kind of flim-flam, constantly writing new programs and operating systems that require much more disk space and memory than the old yet preform exactly the same tasks.
Thoreau fanciful way of making people more logical is pure sarcasm, of course.
| On the whole, I think that it cannot be maintained that dressing has in this or any country risen to the dignity of an art. At present men make shift to wear what they can get. Like shipwrecked sailors, they put on what they can find on the beach, and at a little distance, whether of space or time, laugh at each other's masquerade. Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new. We are amused at beholding the costume of Henry VIII, or Queen Elizabeth, as much as if it was that of the King and Queen of the Cannibal Islands. All costume off a man is pitiful or grotesque. It is only the serious eye peering from and the sincere life passed within it which restrain laughter and consecrate the costume of any people. Let Harlequin be taken with a fit of the colic and his trappings will have to serve that mood too. When the soldier is hit by a cannon ball, rags are as becoming as purple.
||Actually, it would be easy to design clothing for its practical worth; in fact, a lot of outdoor clothing is designed this way, with pockets, hoods, zippers, snaps, lengths and so on designed for practical reasons and the materials chosen for the same reason as well. Perhaps that is the reason why dressing down and wearing outdoor clothing has become so popular. People are beginning to respect practicality over style.
| The childish and savage taste of men and women for new patterns keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they may discover the particular figure which this generation requires today. The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more or less of a particular color, the one will be sold readily, the other lie on the shelf, though it frequently happens that after the lapse of a season the latter becomes the most fashionable. Comparatively, tattooing is not the hideous custom which it is called. It is not barbarous merely because the printing is skin-deep and unalterable.
||It's plain that Thoreau was rather puritanical in his taste for clothing. It would be easy to guess what he would think about nose rings, etc.
However, compare the number of people interest in style to the number interested in substance. Personally, I don't see anything wrong with bright lights and glitter; the problem is, that's all there is.
| I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched. In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.
||Thoreau points out a major flaw in the capitalistic system. A company may ignore the well-being of its customers, its workers, and Mother Nature to concentrate on the greatest profit at the least expense, thus leading to inferior products, improverished workers, and environmental disaster. The Japanese success has been largely due to emphasizing quality over profit.
| As for a Shelter, I will not deny that this is now a necessary of life, though there are instances of men having done without it for long periods in colder countries than this. Samuel Laing says that "the Laplander in his skin dress, and in a skin bag which he puts over his head and shoulders, will sleep night after night on the snow . . . in a degree of cold which would extinguish the life of one exposed to it in any woollen clothing." He had seen them asleep thus. Yet he adds, "They are not hardier than other people." But, probably, man did not live long on the earth without discovering the convenience which there is in a house, the domestic comforts, which phrase may have originally signified the satisfactions of the house more than of the family; though these must be extremely partial and occasional in those climates where the house is associated in our thoughts with winter or the rainy season chiefly, and two thirds of the year, except for a parasol, is unnecessary. In our climate, in the summer, it was formerly almost solely a covering at night. In the Indian gazettes a wigwam was the symbol of a day's march, and a row of them cut or painted on the bark of a tree signified that so many times they had camped. Man was not made so large limbed and robust but that he must seek to narrow his world and wall in a space such as fitted him. He was at first bare and out of doors; but though this was pleasant enough in serene and warm weather, by daylight, the rainy season and the winter, to say nothing of the torrid sun, would perhaps have nipped his race in the bud if he had not made haste to clothe himself with the shelter of a house. Adam and Eve, according to the fable, wore the bower before other clothes. Man wanted a home, a place of warmth, or comfort, first of warmth, then the warmth of the affections.
||I like to travel on my bicycle during the summer, sleeping mostly in my tent. The tent is actually more comfortable than a house during pleasant weather; it is not as hot or stuffy, and I find I sleep much better.
| We may imagine a time when, in the infancy of the human race, some enterprising mortal crept into a hollow in a rock for shelter. Every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to stay outdoors, even in wet and cold. It plays house, as well as horse, having an instinct for it. Who does not remember the interest with which, when young, he looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave? It was the natural yearning of that portion, any portion of our most primitive ancestor which still survived in us. From the cave we have advanced to roofs of palm leaves, of bark and boughs, of linen woven and stretched, of grass and straw, of boards and shingles, of stones and tiles. At last, we know not what it is to live in the open air, and our lives are domestic in more senses than we think. From the hearth the field is a great distance. It would be well, perhaps, if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a roof, or the saint dwell there so long. Birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots.
||When my son was a year and a half old, I took him to his first cave, one with a small entrance, without telling him what he would see. He excitedly started crawling into the entrance as soon as he saw it.
While houses are comfortable places in which to work and rest, free from distractions and weather, they also remove us from Nature; from spending all of our time indoors, we acquire the false belief that Nature is not really important. We also miss the pleasure and beauty, and the opportunity for poetic and spiritual growth.
| However, if one designs to construct a dwelling-house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clue, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead. Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary. I have seen Penobscot Indians, in this town, living in tents of thin cotton cloth, while the snow was nearly a foot deep around them, and I thought that they would be glad to have it deeper to keep out the wind. Formerly, when how to get my living honestly, with freedom left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me even more than it does now, for unfortunately I am become somewhat callous, I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free. This did not appear the worst, nor by any means a despicable alternative. You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this. I am far from jesting. Economy is a subject which admits of being treated with levity, but it cannot so be disposed of. A comfortable house for a rude and hardy race, that lived mostly out of doors, was once made here almost entirely of such materials as Nature furnished ready to their hands. Gookin, who was superintendent of the Indians subject to the Massachusetts Colony, writing in 1674, says, "The best of their houses are covered very neatly, tight and warm, with barks of trees, slipped from their bodies at those seasons when the sap is up, and made into great flakes, with pressure of weighty timber, when they are green. . . . The meaner sort are covered with mats which they make of a kind of bulrush, and are also indifferently tight and warm, but not so good as the former. . . . Some I have seen, sixty or a hundred feet long and thirty feet broad. . . . I have often lodged in their wigwams, and found them as warm as the best English houses." He adds that they were commonly carpeted and lined within with well-wrought embroidered mats, and were furnished with various utensils. The Indians had advanced so far as to regulate the effect of the wind by a mat suspended over the hole in the roof and moved by a string. Such a lodge was in the first instance constructed in a day or two at most, and taken down and put up in a few hours; and every family owned one, or its apartment in one.
||Thoreau points out that the design of the house must reflect how it's going to be used. Today, more than in Thoreau's day, people want to live in huge homes with a separate room for every purpose. Quite often, the house is so large in order to store all the acculated junk that the family has acquired over the years. A large home requires the cutting of more trees for lumber, the burning of more coal and gas for electricity and heat, and a lot more money out of the paycheck for house payments, utilities, and taxes.
On the other hand, a much smaller shelter could be designed and built that is perfectly comfortable, especially if the family limited the amount of possessions that they acculated. A more economic dwelling could be quickly paid for, thus leaving the family more secure in the event of unemployment.
By using low-cost designs and doing the work oneself, a comfortable house can be built for $2,000 or less per room and out of one's current salary, thus avoiding the necessity of going deeply into debt.
| In the savage state every family owns a shelter as good as the best, and sufficient for its coarser and simpler wants; but I think that I speak within bounds when I say that, though the birds of the air have their nests, and the foxes their holes, and the savages their wigwams, in modern civilized society not more than one half the families own a shelter. In the large towns and cities, where civilization especially prevails, the number of those who own a shelter is a very small fraction of the whole. The rest pay an annual tax for this outside garment of all, become indispensable summer and winter, which would buy a village of Indian wigwams, but now helps to keep them poor as long as they live. I do not mean to insist here on the disadvantage of hiring compared with owning, but it is evident that the savage owns his shelter because it costs so little, while the civilized man hires his commonly because he cannot afford to own it; nor can he, in the long run, any better afford to hire. But, answers one, by merely paying this tax, the poor civilized man secures an abode which is a palace compared with the savage's. An annual rent of from twenty-five to a hundred dollars (these are the country rates) entitles him to the benefit of the improvements of centuries, spacious apartments, clean paint and paper, Rumford fireplace, back plastering, Venetian blinds, copper pump, spring lock, a commodious cellar, and many other things. But how happens it that he who is said to enjoy these things is so commonly a poor civilized man, while the savage, who has them not, is rich as a savage? If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man -- and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages -- it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. An average house in this neighborhood costs perhaps eight hundred dollars, and to lay up this sum will take from ten to fifteen years of the laborer's life, even if he is not encumbered with a family -- estimating the pecuniary value of every man's labor at one dollar a day, for if some receive more, others receive less; -- so that he must have spent more than half his life commonly before his wigwam will be earned. If we suppose him to pay a rent instead, this is but a doubtful choice of evils. Would the savage have been wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?
||Jesus said, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20). However, this passage is also a reminder of Matthew 6:19-33, where Jesus tells us to seek heavenly riches. It's highly ironic that in a society where wealth is more highly valued than any other quality that so few own their own homes, a condition that is not true in primitive societies.
Note that Thoreau says that he believes that civilization is an advantage -- but only for those who are smart enough to use its benefits wisely. His formula ("the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it") is a useful one to remember. Many people end up working long hours at miserable jobs in order pay the heat and rent on a house they spend very little time living in.
Although Thoreau says that civilization should produce better homes without increasing the prices, houses are much more expensive today in terms of hours of wages, even the old houses in Concord that once cost $800. Now, $100,000 is considered cheap for a new house, not including the interest fees, utilities, upkeep, and taxes. Forty and fifty year mortages are common.
| It may be guessed that I reduce almost the whole advantage of holding this superfluous property as a fund in store against the future, so far as the individual is concerned, mainly to the defraying of funeral expenses. But perhaps a man is not required to bury himself. Nevertheless this points to an important distinction between the civilized man and the savage; and, no doubt, they have designs on us for our benefit, in making the life of a civilized people an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed, in order to preserve and perfect that of the race. But I wish to show at what a sacrifice this advantage is at present obtained, and to suggest that we may possibly so live as to secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage. What mean ye by saying that the poor ye have always with you, or that the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?
"As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.
"Behold all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die."
|Here Thoreau suggests we might be doing our bit by being a cog in the machine or a brick in the wall, but he has a better idea.
The passages are from Ezekiel 18, with the exeption of "the poor ye have always with you" (from Matthew); however, the chapter includes frequent references to the needs of the poor. In this chapter, God is asking people to live a moral and upright life; if they have a new heart and a new spirit, they will have no further need to complain.
| When I consider my neighbors, the farmers of Concord, who are at least as well off as the other classes, I find that for the most part they have been toiling twenty, thirty, or forty years, that they may become the real owners of their farms, which commonly they have inherited with encumbrances, or else bought with hired money -- and we may regard one third of that toil as the cost of their houses -- but commonly they have not paid for them yet. It is true, the encumbrances sometimes outweigh the value of the farm, so that the farm itself becomes one great encumbrance, and still a man is found to inherit it, being well acquainted with it, as he says. On applying to the assessors, I am surprised to learn that they cannot at once name a dozen in the town who own their farms free and clear. If you would know the history of these homesteads, inquire at the bank where they are mortgaged. The man who has actually paid for his farm with labor on it is so rare that every neighbor can point to him. I doubt if there are three such men in Concord. What has been said of the merchants, that a very large majority, even ninety-seven in a hundred, are sure to fail, is equally true of the farmers. With regard to the merchants, however, one of them says pertinently that a great part of their failures are not genuine pecuniary failures, but merely failures to fulfil their engagements, because it is inconvenient; that is, it is the moral character that breaks down. But this puts an infinitely worse face on the matter, and suggests, beside, that probably not even the other three succeed in saving their souls, but are perchance bankrupt in a worse sense than they who fail honestly. Bankruptcy and repudiation are the springboards from which much of our civilization vaults and turns its somersets, but the savage stands on the unelastic plank of famine. Yet the Middlesex Cattle Show goes off here with éclat annually, as if all the joints of the agricultural machine were suent.
||Farmers also have more problems today than in Thoreau's day. The skills and the investment needed to be a farmer are much greater, and the failure rate is high. One joke goes that they asked a farmer what he would do if he won a million dollars; the farmer thought a minute and said, "I guess I'd just keep farming as I always have until it was all gone."
| The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. To get his shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle. With consummate skill he has set his trap with a hair springe to catch comfort and independence, and then, as he turned away, got his own leg into it. This is the reason he is poor; and for a similar reason we are all poor in respect to a thousand savage comforts, though surrounded by luxuries. As Chapman sings,
-for earthly greatness
All heavenly comforts rarefies to air.
|In other words, the farmer is guilty of overplanning and too high of expectations. If he just lived simply and provided for his family's needs, he could have a satisfactory life on a small farm.
| And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him. As I understand it, that was a valid objection urged by Momus against the house which Minerva made, that she "had not made it movable, by which means a bad neighborhood might be avoided"; and it may still be urged, for our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them; and the bad neighborhood to be avoided is our own scurvy selves. I know one or two families, at least, in this town, who, for nearly a generation, have been wishing to sell their houses in the outskirts and move into the village, but have not been able to accomplish it, and only death will set them free.
||One of the very real dangers of buying a large house is that you might not be able to sell it when you want to move. Since the house is such a major investment, it can hardly be abandoned.
| Granted that the majority are able at last either to own or hire the modern house with all its improvements. While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings. And if the civilized man's pursuits are no worthier than the savage's, if he is employed the greater part of his life in obtaining gross necessaries and comforts merely, why should he have a better dwelling than the former?
||The paradox of civilization is that it degrades its people. Fewer but more specialized skills are needed. More time is tied up in traveling to work and working. Both parents must work and arrive home exhausted to plop in front of the TV; the kids grow up without much parental contact. So we are destroying the environment, our health, and our culture to accomplish what?
| But how do the poor minority fare? Perhaps it will be found that just in proportion as some have been placed in outward circumstances above the savage, others have been degraded below him. The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another. On the one side is the palace, on the other are the almshouse and "silent poor." The myriads who built the pyramids to be the tombs of the Pharaohs were fed on garlic, and it may be were not decently buried themselves. The mason who finishes the cornice of the palace returns at night perchance to a hut not so good as a wigwam. It is a mistake to suppose that, in a country where the usual evidences of civilization exist, the condition of a very large body of the inhabitants may not be as degraded as that of savages. I refer to the degraded poor, not now to the degraded rich. To know this I should not need to look farther than to the shanties which everywhere border our railroads, that last improvement in civilization; where I see in my daily walks human beings living in sties, and all winter with an open door, for the sake of light, without any visible, often imaginable, wood-pile, and the forms of both old and young are permanently contracted by the long habit of shrinking from cold and misery, and the development of all their limbs and faculties is checked. It certainly is fair to look at that class by whose labor the works which distinguish this generation are accomplished. Such too, to a greater or less extent, is the condition of the operatives of every denomination in England, which is the great workhouse of the world. Or I could refer you to Ireland, which is marked as one of the white or enlightened spots on the map. Contrast the physical condition of the Irish with that of the North American Indian, or the South Sea Islander, or any other savage race before it was degraded by contact with the civilized man. Yet I have no doubt that that people's rulers are as wise as the average of civilized rulers. Their condition only proves what squalidness may consist with civilization. I hardly need refer now to the laborers in our Southern States who produce the staple exports of this country, and are themselves a staple production of the South. But to confine myself to those who are said to be in moderate circumstances.
||Prosperity has not brought about equal benefits for all. While minimum wage has climbed to just above five dollars an hour, minimum wage workers are the first to lose their jobs, and their pay barely covers expenses even in the South, where the cost of living is low. The middle class has been shrinking, as companies have decided to pay the lowest wages possible -- even Microsoft is hiring low wage, part-time programmers. In the meantime, the pay for CEO's and other top bosses has reached insane figures.
Along with low wages, workers often have to endure insults and harrassment from their employers, as I have witnessed first hand.
A large amount of work has been shipped overseas where the workers experience even worse treatment for even lower wages.
In addition, civilization has destroyed rivers, forests, and whole ecosystems in order to keep costs low. The effects on individuals have been far from beneficial.
| Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have. As if one were to wear any sort of coat which the tailor might cut out for him, or, gradually leaving off palm-leaf hat or cap of woodchuck skin, complain of hard times because he could not afford to buy him a crown! It is possible to invent a house still more convenient and luxurious than we have, which yet all would admit that man could not afford to pay for. Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less? Shall the respectable citizen thus gravely teach, by precept and example, the necessity of the young man's providing a certain number of superfluous glow-shoes, and umbrellas, and empty guest chambers for empty guests, before he dies? Why should not our furniture be as simple as the Arab's or the Indian's? When I think of the benefactors of the race, whom we have apotheosized as messengers from heaven, bearers of divine gifts to man, I do not see in my mind any retinue at their heels, any carload of fashionable furniture. Or what if I were to allow -- would it not be a singular allowance? -- that our furniture should be more complex than the Arab's, in proportion as we are morally and intellectually his superiors! At present our houses are cluttered and defiled with it, and a good housewife would sweep out the greater part into the dust hole, and not leave her morning's work undone. Morning work! By the blushes of Aurora and the music of Memnon, what should be man's morning work in this world? I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.
||Notice here that Thoreau said we are poor due to our belief in the necessity to keep up with the Jonses.
My parents' home was not especially large for a family of five, with just six rooms, not counting the two bathrooms and the hall; yet one-third of the house was very seldom used. The living room was kept in perfect condition for any strangers that should drop by (friends came to the kitchen door), and the dining room was never used more than two days out of the year. Besides never being used, these two rooms included the most expensive furniture (which was not comfortable, anyway) and the most expensive dishes and silverware -- several sets of each, actually. Although seldom used, these rooms received most of the care and attention and were frequently repainted and given new carpets, drapes, furniture, and nick-nacks.
| It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow. The traveller who stops at the best houses, so called, soon discovers this, for the publicans presume him to be a Sardanapalus, and if he resigned himself to their tender mercies he would soon be completely emasculated. I think that in the railroad car we are inclined to spend more on luxury than on safety and convenience, and it threatens without attaining these to become no better than a modern drawing-room, with its divans, and ottomans, and sun-shades, and a hundred other oriental things, which we are taking west with us, invented for the ladies of the harem and the effeminate natives of the Celestial Empire, which Jonathan should be ashamed to know the names of. I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart, with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.
||You can see a great deal of difference in people by their automobiles. Some have to have fashionable and luxurious vehicles while others are content with an old semi-compact pickup truck. Myself, I would rather ride my bicycle.
| The very simplicity and nakedness of man's life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep, he contemplated his journey again. He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops. But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven. We have adopted Christianity merely as an improved method of agriculture. We have built for this world a family mansion, and for the next a family tomb. The best works of art are the expression of man's struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten. There is actually no place in this village for a work of fine art, if any had come down to us, to stand, for our lives, our houses and streets, furnish no proper pedestal for it. There is not a nail to hang a picture on, nor a shelf to receive the bust of a hero or a saint. When I consider how our houses are built and paid for, or not paid for, and their internal economy managed and sustained, I wonder that the floor does not give way under the visitor while he is admiring the gewgaws upon the mantelpiece, and let him through into the cellar, to some solid and honest though earthy foundation. I cannot but perceive that this so-called rich and refined life is a thing jumped at, and I do not get on in the enjoyment of the fine arts which adorn it, my attention being wholly occupied with the jump; for I remember that the greatest genuine leap, due to human muscles alone, on record, is that of certain wandering Arabs, who are said to have cleared twenty-five feet on level ground. Without factitious support, man is sure to come to earth again beyond that distance. The first question which I am tempted to put to the proprietor of such great impropriety is, Who bolsters you? Are you one of the ninety-seven who fail, or the three who succeed? Answer me these questions, and then perhaps I may look at your bawbles and find them ornamental. The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful. Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation: now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.
||Here is the disadvantage of a house -- it separates the dweller from Nature. Living in a tent and traveling on a bicycle, I get to enjoy the sky, wild animals, and the forests close at hand, day and night. Without the expense and responsibility that a house presents, one is free to travel and to experience life in different parts of the world.
However, with a 30-50 year mortgage, the home-owner is pretty well tied down for the rest of his life. It's not a good idea to even leave for the weekend, as the house may be buglarized in the meantime. The owner must give up the beauty of Nature for nick-nacks on the mantel.
Thoreau also suggests that people do pretty desperate things just to pay for their houses: they might get involved in unethical, immoral, or illegal activities just to make their payments. They might be pretending to perform work or overcharging for the work they do. They might be holding down boring meaningless jobs.
Thoreau suggests that it is more important to make our own lives beautiful. If we get rid of all the junk that's in our heads, we can learn to enjoy true beauty, and the best place to learn about beauty is outdoors.
| Old Johnson, in his Wonder-Working Providence, speaking of the first settlers of this town, with whom he was contemporary, tells us that "they burrow themselves in the earth for their first shelter under some hillside, and, casting the soil aloft upon timber, they make a smoky fire against the earth, at the highest side." They did not "provide them houses," says he, "till the earth, by the Lord's blessing, brought forth bread to feed them," and the first year's crop was so light that "they were forced to cut their bread very thin for a long season." The secretary of the Province of New Netherland, writing in Dutch, in 1650, for the information of those who wished to take up land there, states more particularly that "those in New Netherland, and especially in New England, who have no means to build farmhouses at first according to their wishes, dig a square pit in the ground, cellar fashion, six or seven feet deep, as long and as broad as they think proper, case the earth inside with wood all round the wall, and line the wood with the bark of trees or something else to prevent the caving in of the earth; floor this cellar with plank, and wainscot it overhead for a ceiling, raise a roof of spars clear up, and cover the spars with bark or green sods, so that they can live dry and warm in these houses with their entire families for two, three, and four years, it being understood that partitions are run through those cellars which are adapted to the size of the family. The wealthy and principal men in New England, in the beginning of the colonies, commenced their first dwelling-houses in this fashion for two reasons: firstly, in order not to waste time in building, and not to want food the next season; secondly, in order not to discourage poor laboring people whom they brought over in numbers from Fatherland. In the course of three or four years, when the country became adapted to agriculture, they built themselves handsome houses, spending on them several thousands."
Thoreau explains the purpose of this story in his next paragraph.
| In this course which our ancestors took there was a show of prudence at least, as if their principle were to satisfy the more pressing wants first. But are the more pressing wants satisfied now? When I think of acquiring for myself one of our luxurious dwellings, I am deterred, for, so to speak, the country is not yet adapted to human culture, and we are still forced to cut our spiritual bread far thinner than our forefathers did their wheaten. Not that all architectural ornament is to be neglected even in the rudest periods; but let our houses first be lined with beauty, where they come in contact with our lives, like the tenement of the shellfish, and not overlaid with it. But, alas! I have been inside one or two of them, and know what they are lined with.
||Continuing with his theme that "the cart before the horse is neither beautiful or useful" and the story about the original settlers building simple shelters, Thoreau suggests that it is still too soon to be seeking after luxury. While we have satisfied our basic material desires, we still have not solved basic human problems and live in spiritual poverty as a result.
| Though we are not so degenerate but that we might possibly live in a cave or a wigwam or wear skins today, it certainly is better to accept the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of mankind offer. In such a neighborhood as this, boards and shingles, lime and bricks, are cheaper and more easily obtained than suitable caves, or whole logs, or bark in sufficient quantities, or even well-tempered clay or flat stones. I speak understandingly on this subject, for I have made myself acquainted with it both theoretically and practically. With a little more wit we might use these materials so as to become richer than the richest now are, and make our civilization a blessing. The civilized man is a more experienced and wiser savage. But to make haste to my own experiment.
||Back when Mother Earth News was writing frequent articles on making one's home from stone, dirt, logs, or cordwood, I compared the cost and trouble of these methods to conventional design and decided the latter took less time and money.
Aqain, Thoreau emphasizes that he is not rejecting the benefits of civilization; instead, he is pointing out that we are not using these benefits wisely.
|Comments | SECTIONS: | The New World | Writing |Thoreau | Home | Bike Pages ||
|WALDEN: | Economy I | Economy II | Economy III | Economy IV | Where I Lived | Reading | Sounds | Solitude ||
|WALDEN: | Visitors |The Bean-Field | The Village | The Ponds | Baker Farm | Higher Laws | Brute Neighbors ||
|WALDEN: | House Warming | Former Inhabitants | Winter Animals | The Pond in Winter | Spring | Conclusion ||