Walden | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Walden | Chapter 10 : Baker Farm | Summary

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Summary

This chapter opens with an extended description of the beauty of the woods Thoreau explores. Certain trees are as important to him as shrines. Other natural adornments—holly berries, flowers—are so beautiful as to be "too fair for mortal taste."

For Thoreau, natural beauty trumps human sordidness. On one tramp through the woods, Thoreau is caught in a sudden shower that turns into a thunderstorm. He dashes to the nearest hut to take shelter. In the hut lives an Irish American man named John Field and his family. As the storm rages, Thoreau listens to Field's tale of their miserable lives.

Thoreau then lectures Field about, basically, how much better off he'd be if he lived more like Thoreau. As he puts it, "I tried to help him with my experience." His food is way too expensive; if he only avoided milk, meat, and other luxuries, he wouldn't have to work as hard for pay. If he worked less, he wouldn't need such "stout" clothing and could instead wear "light shoes and thin clothing," like Thoreau. He and his family could roam through the woods looking for huckleberries "for their amusement." By this point Field and his wife are staring uncomprehendingly at Thoreau.

Thoreau asks Field for a drink; in full anthropologist mode he's hoping for a chance to examine the family's well. The water is predictably dirty—like gruel, says Thoreau—but he forces it down. "I am not squeamish in such cases when manners are concerned," he says proudly.

Field seems disinclined to follow Thoreau's advice. Thoreau leaves, marveling at the poorer man's "shiftlessness."

Analysis

The radiantly lovely vision of the woods that opens this chapter offers an excellent contrast to the squalor of John Field's hut. No doubt Thoreau intended the contrast to be clear. For him, nature's beauty is morally perfect; the struggles of John Field and his family teach a negative moral lesson.

It must be said that Thoreau comes off badly in this chapter. For the modern reader, his behavior is inexcusable. He seems to view his class prejudice as a perfectly valid anthropological perspective: "I purposely talked to him as if he were a philosopher, or desired to be one ... But alas! The culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe," he states.

Almost two million Irish immigrated to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. In 1845, 1 in 50 Boston residents was Irish; 10 years later, that ratio was 1 in 5. Many Irish immigrants arrived without the skills necessary to find work, meaning that it was hard for them to find any but the most menial jobs; this fact, in turn, led to public perception of the Irish as being little more than cheap laborers.

In 19th-century Massachusetts, few groups were lower in the pecking order than the Irish. The Know-Nothing political party, which had been formed specifically to keep Irish immigrants out of the United States, rose to power in 1850s' Boston. Among other laws, they established one that required mandatory readings of the King James Bible in public schools; Irish Catholics used a different Bible version. "No Irish need apply" was a common line in job postings.

"Poor John Field!—I trust he does not read this, unless he will improve by it," Thoreau comments. His staunchly abolitionist politics seem inconsistent with his portrayal of the Irish. But he was a man of his time, and white classism directed against poorer whites was very strong in Massachusetts.

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