Thoreau: Lover or Hater

Over the course of reading Walden, it becomes very easy to see Thoreau as a man preoccupied with what he dislikes. It’s easy to point out his objections to modern living, to excess, too many other things he finds trivial. It’s much harder to find what Thoreau is genuinely positive towards. Clearly, he likes something about his life on Walden Pond, you can see it in the text. But normally people don’t find their heart’s desire in farming beans, they just farm beans. What is it that truly lights up Thoreau’s life. Beneath all the philosophy, what does he love? Is that love more of a driving factor than his hatred for other things?

Using Voyant-tools I found something that surprised me. Plugging in “love,” “hate,” “enjoy,” and “dislike” you see a very clear trend. Love, in some form or another, is used 55 times throughout Walden, compared to a staggering one usage of the word hate. Enjoy in some form is utilized 22 times, whereas dislike does not appear at all. Obviously, context would affect the understanding of these words in action but I find it very intriguing that, at least in language, Thoreau is far more positive than he is negative.

Obviously, Thoreau focuses a lot on his lived philosophy, but I enjoy seeing more obvious correlations with all of the ideals removed. The connection between “love” and “nature” seemed right to me, but I was surprised to see “love” and “talk” connect. Perhaps, despite his more solitary lifestyle, his career as a writer does suggest an element of enjoying communicating. Going in to find some context for this, it seemed obvious that a man who kept up so many letter correspondences, a journal, and frequently entertained house guests loved to talk but it does seem to get lost amongst the miasma of philosophy.

This discovery brought me to my overwhelming question, is Thoreau somebody who defines himself by what he is against or what he is for. In looking at the context in which love is used, I found a passage where Thoreau qualifies his stance on his brand of philosophy. He insists that he is not speaking down on those who are content in life in the modern world, but rather towards those unhappy with their lot in life. He even goes so far as to say that he is not discrediting “those who find their encouragement and inspiration in precisely the present condition of things, and cherish it with the fondness and enthusiasm of lovers— and, to some extent, I reckon myself in this number;” Thoreau calls himself a lover of life. That’s not something you think you’d hear from a man who swore off coffee.

I don’t know if the positive language use, or the occasional swearing he is not as cranky and filled with hate as he appears actually outweigh the tone of the work for the better. But I do find it comforting to see signs that his life was motivated to some degree by the same things as others: rather than defining himself by his “against” positions, Thoreau does seem to find what he enjoys and is in favor of.

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