Close Reading American Literature

Is the Dream True?



“Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.” (Walden 142)

In this quote from his book Walden, Hendry David Thoreau is telling us that men’s desire for business and confidence in such enterprise has blinded them from their real position and status as servants of rich entrepreneurs. He gives us an example of just that when in the Baker Farm portion of Walden, Thoreau writes about his encounter with John Field, an immigrant Irishman. He tells us that despite his hard work and effort John Field remains poor. What Thoreau is saying here can parallel with the ideal that you will achieve the “American dream,” one where you can attain success in wealth and luxury through “sacrifice, risk taking, and hard work.” However, as Thoreau points out many Americans similar to John Field will still remain poor in spite of their hard work and initiatives.

In Baker Farm Thoreau reflects on the advice he gives to John Field:

“I tried to help him with my experience-…

that I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them; again, as I did not work hard, I did not have to eat hard, and it cost me but a trifle for my food; but as he began with tea, and coffee, and butter, and milk, and beef, he had to work hard to pay for them… (Walden 140)

Thoreau refers to tea, coffee, butter, milk, and fresh meat as luxuries that this family can do without in order to economize to build a fair and suitable home. Thoreau claims that such luxuries are not necessities in life and that all essential necessities are offered by nature at little or no cost at all. Could it be that these luxuries Thoreau is referring to were obtained from the profit of enterprise at the cost of slavery? My answer would be a resounding yes!

It is obvious that the only ones profiting from this enterprise of goods were the government and the one percent of society. We can make a comparison to a more modern enterprise today like free trade, which also is a successful enterprise for only corporation owners. In the end they profit at not only the cost of the poorest in our society but also at the cost of the destruction of our natural resources.

Walden, Civil Disobedience and Other Writings by Henry D. Thoreau

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3 thoughts on “Is the Dream True?

  1. I think you chose a great portion of text to analyze and you have a good idea of what you want to write about, but the analysis itself is a bit cluttered. Do you want to discuss the impossibility of the American Dream as depicted in Walden or how “luxuries” in life indirectly perpetuate slavery? If you wish to confine the argument to Thoreau, I think it is important to note the manner in which he glorifies poverty and farmers and how it is problematic since he is not in a position of true poverty – he is a man who has the ability to leisurely try out an experiment of seclusion and “simple” living. This is not something John Field had the luxury or privilege of doing. In a way, that itself shows the inaccessibility of better living to those who most desire it. In that vein of thought, perhaps you may want to discuss the limitations of Thoreau’s criticism and his problematic position in the argument. Hope this helps!

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