The Influence of Theories of Rhetoric on Thoreau

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. Note 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. Note 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 of discovery.

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." Note 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. Note

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. Note

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." Note 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. Note 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. Note

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." Note 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 rhetoric.

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 Walden.

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 or lacking." Note

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." (p. 165)

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:

  1. The "introduction inquisitive" will "show that the subject in question is important, curious, or otherwise interesting, and worthy of attention."
  2. 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."
  3. The "introduction corrective strives "to show that the subject has been neglected, misunderstood, or misrepresented by others, thus removing "the anticipation of triteness."
  4. 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."
  5. 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 Whately:

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.

Annette M. Woodlief
Thoreau Journal Quarterly, VII (January 1975), 13-22.