Humor in the Writings of Henry David Thoreau

A Book Review By Dr. Lorin Swinehart of:

A Summary and Analysis of:

Humor in the Writings of Henry David Thoreau

 By Major Tomas Benton

Thoreau is a Funny, Funny Man

Humor in the Writings of Henry David Thoreau


On occasion, a work of scholarship appears that is so meticulously researched and so carefully analyzed that it casts new light upon a supposedly familiar subject. Such a work is Major Tomas Benton’s A Summary and Analysis of Humor in the Writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Few of us think of Thoreau as a humorous man. Most view him as the apostle of silence, solitude, and simplicity. Some, who have not expended the effort to actually share in his wisdom, may erroneously regard him simply as a cranky old hermit who lived in the woods. Others, of a more extroverted tendency, wonder how he could have endured his two years and two months in isolation at Walden Pond. Still others, such as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, have been inspired to take action by his concept of civil disobedience as an effective means to seek redress for centuries of cruelty and injustice. Many simply admire his stubborn determination not to live a Life Without Principle, the title of one of his most memorable writings. Like all highly functioning people, Thoreau possessed a rich sense of humor, expressed in such a wry, tongue-in-cheek manner as to be easily overlooked by nearly all but the most careful readers.

In an earlier work, Pieces of My Puzzle, a chronicle of his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder following a hitch as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam, the author describes his spiritual journey on the way to self-actualization. Major Benton moved from site to site, always experiencing new and greater adventures, including a period as manager of The Dolphin Connection in the Florida Keys. One source of wisdom in the course of his travels was Henry David Thoreau. In his introduction, Benton says, “Thoreau’s uniqueness is his many-sided self.”

The same can be said of Benton. He explains that following his tour in Vietnam he began to question many of the suppositions regarding religion and racial issues with which he had been indoctrinated during the years of his boyhood while growing up in a small Virginia town. He adds, “Discovering Thoreau’s personal integrity as expressed in his writings gave me hope.”

Benton’s research drove him not only into Thoreau’s better known publications, like A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, The Maine Woods, Life Without Principle, and especially Walden, but to the man of Concord’s 39 journals, compiled during a 24-year span, a Herculean process.

Throughout his major writings and many of his lesser known ones, Thoreau pokes fun at the foibles and foolishness of his fellow Concordians, microcosms of the human condition in general. Before the publication of Benton’s book, however, it would have been easy to overlook the humor that underpins much of Thoreau’s musings. His powerful essay Life Without Principle provides an excellent example, what one would expect from an Old Testament prophet descending from rarified heights than from the jibes of a standup comedian. Still, Thoreau’s sense of humor shines through when, for instance, he compares his town’s meeting house to a windmill, “Turned either by the winds of doctrine or public opinion.”

Who among us has failed to compare the polemics of politicians to gusts emanating from windbags. Thoreau adds that such windmills are rarely turned by the winds of heaven.

Thoreau pokes fun at a 1667 municipal ordinance mandating that every housekeeper kill twelve blackbirds or six crows because of the damage caused by the creatures to the corn crop. When, in 1695, the law was amended to dictate that every unmarried man be required to kill six blackbirds or three crows as long as he remained single, he notes that the pesky birds continued to demolish the corn crop, even though there were by then so many scarecrows in local fields that they could be mistaken for men. Thoreau concludes that either many men remained unmarried or many blackbirds had made the trip to the altar.

Thoreau was not loath to poke fun at himself on occasion. He tells of cooking and devouring a large clam that he had found along the beach, only to be informed after the fact that parts of it were so poisonous as to kill a cat. Regarding himself as more hardy than a cat, Thoreau continued through the day and the evening without symptoms until laid low in the evening by a severe case of diarrhea, which he appears to find hilarious.  

Thoreau’s humor, touching upon the satirical, does have a bite to it. Mark Twain famously advised that if you scratch a humorist you will find a sad man. Given Thoreau’s often scalding analyses of the habitual busyness and rampant materialism of his neighbors, Twain’s view may be on target. Thoreau may have been a bit prescient, sensing the long-term consequences of Western man’s misguided philosophies, culminating in present  conditions which more closely resemble the theater of the absurd than the much ballyhooed last best hope.

Remembering that the aim of satire is to cause readers to see themselves and their follies as though in a mirror, Thoreau’s condemnation of gold seekers in Australia and California, a stark example of contorted human values and efforts, effectively fills that role and stands the test of time. He eviscerates such men, those who attempt to live by luck in order to acquire the means of commanding the labor of others less lucky, comparing their philosophy and religion to the dust from a puffball and opining that a  hog, who finds his living by rooting in the earth, would be ashamed of such human companionship.

Near the end of his book, Benton adds several pages of quotes from Thoreau’s writings. This is a handy reference for those of us who have been inspired by the great man’s writings and can benefit from having many of the more familiar ones readily at hand.

Major Benton’s book is highly recommended to all who have come to value the wisdom of Thoreau but who would benefit by viewing his wisdom from a different viewpoint. Benton’s research would also benefit the novice who would seek to better understand the devotion others possess for Thoreau. Benton’s Pieces of My Puzzle is highly recommended as a spiritually and intellectually absorbing companion piece.

Publisher: Amazon/Kindle Book Design: Mike Riley ( Book Availability: Online from; locally from Diane Pearl’s until January (Ajijic), La Nueva Pasada Hotel & Restaurant (Ajijic), or directly from the author (


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