Analysis & Criticism
How to Live:
Mr. Thoreau’s Example
The New York Tribune
(April 2, 1849)
MR. Thoreau is a young student who has imbibed (or rather refused to stifle) the idea that a man’s soul is better worth living for than his body. Accordingly, he has built him a house ten by fifteen feet, in a piece of unfrequented woods, by the side of a pleasant little lakelet, where he devotes his days to study and reflection, cultivating a small plot of ground, living frugally on vegetables, and working for the neighboring farmers whenever he is in need of money or additional exercise. It thus costs him some six or eight weeks rugged labor per year to earn his food and clothes, and perhaps an hour or two per day extra, to prepare his food and fuel, keep his house in order, &c. He has lived this way four years, and his total expenses for last year were $41 25, and his surplus earnings at the close were $13 21, which he considers a better result than almost any of the farmers of Concord show, though they have worked all the time. By this course Mr. Thoreau lives free from pecuniary obligations or dependence on others, except that he borrows some books, which is an equal pleasure to lender and borrower. The man on whose land he is a squatter is no wise injured or inconvenienced thereby. If all our young men would hear him lecture, we think that some among them would feel less strongly impelled either to come to New York or go to California.
The New York Tribune
(April 7, 1849)
To the Editor of the Tribune:
I notice in your paper of this morning a strong commendation of one Mr. Thoreau for going out into the woods and living in a hut all by himself at the rate of about $45 per annum, in order to illustrate the value of the soul. Having always found The Tribune a friend of sociability and neighborly helping-each-other-along, I felt a little surprise at seeing such a performance held up as an example for the young men of this country, and supposed I must have mistaken the sense of your article. Accordingly I called in my wife, Mrs. Thorough, and we studied it over together, and came to the conclusion that you really believed the Concord hermit had done a fine thing. Now I am puzzled, and write in a friendly way to ask for a little light on this peculiar philosophy. Mrs. T. is more clear in her mind than I am. She will have it that the young man is either a whimsy or else a good-for-nothing, selfish, crab-like sort of chap, who tries to shirk the duties, whose hearty and honest discharge is the only thing that in her view entitles a man to be regarded as a good example. She declares that nobody has a right to live for himself alone, away from the interests, the affections, and the sufferings of his kind. Such a way of going on, she says, is not living, but a cold and snailish kind of existence, which, as she maintains, is both infernal and eternally stupid.
Le Roy Place, April 2, 1849
Mr. Thorough is indeed in a fog — in fact, we suspect there is a mistake in his name, and that he must have been changed at nurse for another boy whose true name was Shallow. Nobody has proposed or suggested that it becomes everybody to go off into the woods, each build himself a hut and live hermit-like, on the vegetable products of his very moderate labor. But there is a large class of young men who aspire to Mental Culture through Study, Reading, Reflection, &c. These are too apt to sacrifice their proper independence in the pursuit of their object — to run in debt, throw themselves on the tender mercies of some patron, relative, Education Society, or something of the sort, or to descend into the lower deep of roping out a thin volume of very thin poems, to be inflicted on a much-enduring public, or to importune some one for a sub-Editorship or the like. Now it does seem to us that Mr. Thoreau has set all his brother aspirants to self-culture, a very wholesome example, and shown them how, by chastening their physical appetites, they may preserve their proper independence without starving their souls. When they shall have conned that lesson, we trust, with Mr. Thorough otherwise Shallow’s permission, he will give them another.
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