The Influence of Theories of Rhetoric on Thoreau
Annette M. Woodlief
Thoreau Journal Quarterly, VII (January 1975), 13-22.
Any study of Henry David Thoreau's writings should reckon with the rhetoric
of his literary works. He sought not only to express his ideas, but to communicate
them with the same immediacy he had experienced, so that his readers could,
at least partially, recreate living ideas. The vast influence of Walden and
"Civil Disobedience" today suggests that he did succeed in powerfully
affecting many readers' minds.
Thoreau's rhetorical strategies, particularly in Walden, are closely
related to the "new rhetoric" which, as Kenneth Burke has stated,
seeks "to create a dialectic between the writer and the reader" through
identification. Joseph J. Moldenhauer has explored this dialectic in
Walden, finding a carefully counterpointed relationship between the ideal
and the actual writer and the ideal and the actual reader, created primarily
by Thoreau's constant use of paradox. It is, however, not exactly rhetorical
identification that Thoreau desired--he definitely did not wish to foster a
brood of "imitation Thoreaus"; rather, he sought to provoke alert
readers to apprehend and probe truths through their own mental and emotional
resources. Thoreau's rhetoric of paradox, indirection, authority, and irony
works to define, interest, and ultimately involve the reader in a shared experience
As early as 1837, Thoreau had rejected many elements of the rhetorical theories
then current, judging them inadequate, insincere, and sophistic. From time to
time, in his Journal he berated those who tried to separate style from
content by focusing on ornamental and manipulative aspects of rhetoric. He particularly
disliked admonitions to develop a wordy, "flowing" style of what he
called "long, stingy, slimy sentences." Instead, he insisted
that sentences should be simple and compressed, forceful, authoritative--knotted
up with life:
Sentences which suggest far more than they say, which have an atmosphere
about them, which do not merely report an old, but make a new impression;
sentences which suggest as many things and are as durable as Roman aqueducts;
to frame these, that is the art of writing . . . [a style] kinked and
knotted up into something hard and significant, which you could swallow like
a diamond, without digesting.
These would be truly rhetorical sentences, having "the beauty and variety
of mosaic with the strength and compactness of masonry." Note
Thoreau's closest acquaintance with traditional rhetorical theories probably
came at Harvard, particularly in the sophomore rhetoric course taught by Professor
Edward Tyrell Channing [see his Lectures read to the seniors in Harvard College]. Evidently Professor Channing himself did not subscribe
entirely to the rhetorical theories which he taught, and may well have denigrated
theories which emphasized stylistic ornamentation and manipulation of the reader's
emotions. This is indicated by the fact that one of the assigned essay topics
was "The Ways in Which a Man's Style may be said to offend against Simplicity."
Thoreau's academic record at that time suggests also that Channing was not displeased
by Thoreau's opinion about rhetoric:
If the author would acquire literary fame, let him be careful to suggest
such thoughts as are simple and obvious, and to express his meaning distinctly
and in good language. To do this, he must, in the first place, omit all superfluous
ornament, which, though very proper in its place,--if, indeed it can be said
to have any in good composition,--tends rather to distract the mind, than
to render a passage more clear and striking, or an idea more distinct.
It would seem fair to assume, then, that Professor Channing encouraged his
students to study rhetorical theories critically, accepting only those principles
relevant to their own needs and styles. Of course, Thoreau's personality would
have demanded such a careful examination, whether Professor Channing had encouraged
it or not.
Whether Thoreau studied the rhetorical theories of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero,
or Quintilian cannot be determined. These works were not included in the formal
Harvard curriculum, but Channing probably presented them in his lectures. Thoreau
could have read them in Latin and Greek, but the fact that he never mentioned
them by name indicates that Professor Channing may have been his major source
of knowledge about classical rhetoric. The oratorial purposes of these works
would have meant little to him once he left the college debating society, especially
when his later lectures proved unpopular.
Thoreau did agree with Plato that "a good writer is a good man writing."
He would also have acquiesced to Aristotle's more pragmatic claim that the art
of persuasion "supplements nature, in that it helps truth and justice maintain
their natural superiority." Also relevant to his developing literary
purposes would have been Aristotle's discussion of clarity and purity of style,
particularly as conveyed through metaphor and antithesis. Quintilian's
Institutes and Cicero's De Oratore offered little for Thoreau aside
from Cicero's extended description of the plain style. Thoreau definitely rejected
one element of rhetorical theory which had its source in Aristotle and blossomed
fully with the sophists: the idea of style and rhetoric as ornament, manipulating
language and the reader regardless of truth.
Most of Thoreau's knowledge of rhetorical theories probably came from two or
three rhetoric textbooks which were quite popular in the early nineteenth century.
At Harvard he studied Richard Whately's The Elements of Rhetoric (1828)
under Professor Channing. Another text which he owned (and which was in the
curriculum of Concord Academy) was Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and
Belles Lettres (1783). He was probably exposed, perhaps in Channing's lectures,
to George Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), a standard text frequently
republished through the nineteenth century; however, he did not own it or borrow
it from the library that we know of and he may not have read it himself.
Thoreau must have disagreed with much of what he read in Hugh Blair's book,
especially the first chapters on Taste, which call for writing geared to universal
acceptances of the past, "the general sentiments of men." Although
Blair devoted two long chapters to sentence construction, his criteria for a
good sentence--clearness and precision, unity, strength, and harmony--remain
too vague and impressionistic to help a developing writer. Blair did write about
the sublime style of conciseness and simplicity which is derived from nature,
but these words found meaning in the context of Thoreau's writing which Blair
probably never imagined.
If Thoreau was familiar with Campbell's theories, which were based on the empirical
and skeptical lines of David Hume's philosophy, he left no written reaction
to it. It can surely be discounted as having any significant influence on Thoreau's
The textbook which Thoreau did know well was Richard Whately's The Elements
of Rhetoric. For two-thirds of his sophomore year, this was his major rhetoric
text; he was subsequently examined on it by a committee which included Ralph
Waldo Emerson. Fortunately, Whately had much to say to the future writer of
Whately had narrowed the classical definition of rhetoric along practical,
ecclesiastical lines by focusing on oral arguments for religious doctrines.
Thoreau had no particular interest in the persuasive and irrefutable presentation
of a priori religious truths. But he did find here practical advice on
methods of presenting an argument persuasively and without offense, hints which
must have been noticed by the college sophomore already aware of the paradoxical
strain of his thinking. Like Whately, he was soon to be "engaged in the
difficult task of defending a position for which factual evidence is scanty
Whately realized that many arguments require a subtle rhetorical strategy,
particularly those which are paradoxical in nature:
There is a 'Presumption' against anything paradoxical, i. e. contrary to
the prevailing opinion: it may be true; but the Burden of proof lies with
him who maintains it; since man are not to be expected to abandon the prevailing
belief until some reason is show.
Like Thoreau, Whately knew that "paradox" was often used as a term
of reproach, implying absurdity or falsity; this misapprehension he blamed on
"those who are too dull, or too prejudiced, to admit any notion at variance
with those they have been used to entertain." (p. 115) However, this connotation
could be removed, even in "combating deep-rooted prejudices, and maintaining
unpopular and paradoxical truths." The speaker must be subtle and careful
not to overwhelm his audience with "a multitude of the most forcible arguments"
which demonstrate the "extreme absurdity of thinking differently, till
you have affronted the self-esteem of some, and awakened the distrust of others."
Whately emphasized the rhetorical importance of the introduction, or beginning,
as crucial to a paradoxical argument, particularly for undermining objections
immediately without "implying a consciousness that must may be said against"
the speaker's assertions (p. 146). The varying tactics of "Economy"
are foreshadowed in Whately's discussion of kinds of rhetorical introductions:
- The "introduction inquisitive" will "show that the subject
in question is important, curious, or otherwise interesting,
and worthy of attention."
- The "introduction paradoxical" presents an idea which can rarely
be doubted but rouses attention by dwelling "on the seeming improbability
of that which must, after all, be admitted."
- The "introduction corrective strives "to show that the subject
has been neglected, misunderstood, or misrepresented
by others, thus removing "the anticipation of triteness."
- The "introduction preparatory" is used "to explain some peculiarity
is the mode of reasoning to be adopted; to guard against some possible mistake
as to the object proposed; or to apologize for some deficiency."
- The "introduction narrative" describes "some state of things
to which references and allusions are to be made." (pp. 170-71)
Whately was also concerned with the overall "tone of feeling to be manifested
by the writer or speaker himself, in order to excite the most effectually the
desired emotions in the minds of the hearers." Two "opposite methods"
may be chosen for establishing this tone:
the one, which is the more obvious, is to express openly the feeling
in question; the other, to seem labouring to suppress it. In the former
method, the most forcible remarks are introduced,--the most direct as well
as impassioned kinds of description is employed,--and something of exaggeration
introduced, in order to carry the hearers as far as possible in the same direction
in which the Orator seems to be himself hurried, and to infect them to a certain
degree with the emotions and sentiments which he thus manifests: the other
method, which is often no less successful, is to abstain from all remarks,
or from all such as come up to the expression of feeling which the occasion
seems to authorize--to use a gentler mode of expression than the case might
fairly warrant,--to deliver 'an unvarnished tale,' leaving the hearers to
make their own comments--and to appear to stifle and studiously to keep within
bounds such emotions as may seem nature. (p. 199)
Although Thoreau was not so concerned to "infect the emotions" of
his readers, much of the subtle but rhetorical balance of tone in Walden derives
from his use of both exaggeration and litote-like irony.
Whately's chapter on style has been judged "time-worn" and "trite,'
(p. xxi) but Thoreau's writing brings some of the advice to life. Whately calls
for a suggestive, compressed style, with "frequent recurrence of considerable
ellipses," to create a sense of energy and "put the hearer's mind
into the same train of thought as the speaker's, and suggest to him more
than is actually expressed" (p. 309). Antithesis, based on the opposition
of ideas, is particularly recommended as being "calculated to add greatly
to Energy" since "every thing is rendered more striking by contrast,
and almost every kind of subject-matter affords materials for contrasted
expressions," (pp. 322-25), as Thoreau later demonstrated. Also interrogative
sentences can serve the cause of Energy:
It calls the hearer's attention more forcibly to some important point, by
a personal appeal to each individual, either to assent to what is urged, or
to frame a reasonable objection; and it often carries with it an air of triumphant
defiance of an opponent to refute the argument if he can. (p. 327)
Whately was also concerned with the energy of style available through the construction
and order of sentences. In each sentence, words should be arranged so that "there
shall be the least possible occasion for underscoring and italics,""
specifically he noted that "the most Emphatic word will be the Predicate,"
an arrangement which may be aided by the use of "it" as subject. (p.
315) Thoreau was to rely very heavily on the "it is" and "There
is" constructions in Walden, perhaps for this reason. But it is
the problem of obscurity in sentence construction which particularly engaged
A well-constructed sentence of very considerable length may be more readily
understood than a shorter one which is more awkwardly framed. If a sentence
be so constructed that the meaning of each part can be taken in as we proceed
(though it be evident that the sense is not brought to a close,) its length
will be little or no impediment to perspicuity; but if the former part of
the sentence convey no distinct meaning till we arrive nearly at the end,
(however plain it may then appear,) it will be, on the whole, deficient in
perspicuity; for it will need to be read over, or thought over a second
time, in order to be fully comprehended, which is what few readers or hearers
are willing to be burthened with (p. 263)
Thoreau may well have noted this stylistic strategy--and its reverse, since
he did not object at all to the need for a second reading.
Thoreau probably also weighed another suggestion for creating the impression
of clarity and brevity in sentences. Whately recommended the use of a long sentence
followed by a brief one to "produce the effect of brevity":
The hearers will be struck by the forcibleness of the sentence which they
will have been prepared to comprehend; they will understand the long expression,
and remember the shorter. But the force will, in general, be totally destroyed,
or much enfeebled, if the order be reversed;--if the brief expression be put
first, and afterwards expanded and explained. (p. 304)
He relented somewhat by noting the vigorous effect of "a skillful interspersion
of short, pointed, forcible sentences: without strict regard for the foregoing
rule" (p. 306). Although Thoreau was not so concerned with avoiding all
appearances of obscurity, his later strategic ordering of sentences indicates
that he may have examined these comments on style thoughtfully.
I would be foolish to insist that Thoreau consciously incorporated Whately's
rhetorical principles with his own. These ideas were, however, compatible with
Thoreau's artistic aims without clashing with his demand for an organic style;
also Thoreau did study these ideas at a crucial stage in the development of
his own style and ideas about the art of writing. Whately's recommendations
look almost childish in light of what Thoreau was to do with them in Walden.
But he was able to advise the incipient writer about rhetoric wisely, providing
Thoreau a foundation for developing rhetorical strategies in his writings which
are vital elements of his art and influence.