Are We Just a Number? Henry David Thoreau and W.H. Auden

ralph-waldo-emerson-2600-3x2Ralph Waldo Emerson concludes his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841) with the following words: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles” (660).About seven years later, Henry David Thoreau delivered his lecture “Resistant to Civil Govermnet,” which would eventually be renamed “Civil Disobedience” after his death. Thoreau’s lecture, essentially, elaborates on the closing lines of Emerson’s essay, by calling on us, as individuals, to live by our principles rather than adhering to unjust laws and a government that we do not morally agree with. Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” after he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax to support the Mexican-American war, a conflict he disagreed with for multiple reasons, one being because he saw it as a way to extend the institution of slavery even further.

henry_david_thoreauAs I reread “Civil Disobedience,” I could not help but think about how much Thoreau’s essay reminds me of William H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen,” a poem from 1939 that focuses on the loss of identity and individuality in the twentieth century. Thoreau, in 1849, taps into the same sense of anonymity amongst the body politic which arose as a result of the industrial revolution. Today, I want to briefly write about these two texts in relation to one another and how Auden’s poem can be used as a way to help students examine Thoreau’s essay through a modern lens.

From the very beginning, Thoreau comments on the role citizens to serve as nothing more than pawns for those in power. Throughout, Thoreau notes that the majority does not necessarily care about those who serve under them, as long as those who serve underneath them do not challenge their authority.

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. (912)

The citizens who work to serve the power structure are “esteemed good citizens,” without names or differentiating identities. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” presents “JS/07 M 378” as a someone who everyone would agree was a “saint,” because he “served the Greater Community.” He worked everyday, added five children to the population, bought appliances, read the paper, paid his union dues, and went to war. In everything JS/07 did what society expected him to do; however, by doing these things, he lost his identity, becoming nothing more than a number/ cog in the machine, failing to act as the friction that will “counterbalance the evil” (Thoreau 913).

As part of their devotion to the state, the citizens that Thoreau mentions and Auden’s JS/07 serve the government by being a part of the standing army, an entity, according to Thoreau, that works to serve the will of the majority in power and to benefit them, not all. ¬†Thoreau writes, “The standing army is only an arm of the standing government” (911). This observation, of course, is nothing new, but taken in relation to Auden’s poem, which appeared at the opening of World War II, Thoreau’s discussion of the army serving the will of the government in relation to the Mexican-American War can be explored further. JS/07 always adheres to what the government asks of him: “When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.” JS does not question his reason for going to war in much the same way that Thoreau comments on the “standing army.” Both Thoreau’s soldiers and JS/07 do what those in power command the to do.

Ultimately, Auden asks whether or not JS/07 is free: “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:/Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” Even though JS/07 did everything “right” in accordance to society, he exists as nothing more than a number that lacks any sort of identity, including a name. In this way, can say that Js/07 was free or happy? The sarcastic lines that conclude the poem call upon us to question who, in a society that benefits certain individuals, is actually free and happy.

Thoreau answers this question when he describes his night spent in jail. He states that the walls of the jail cell could not hold him because he knew, based on his own principle, that his refusal to pay the poll-tax was morally right. As such, he views himself as free in comparison with those who choose to pay the tax, which supports the war that would expand slavery. Thoreau writes, “I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was” (921-922). Earlier, Thoreau calls upon “those who call themselves Abolitionists” in Massachusetts to withdraw their support from the government as well because the actions of the government go against their beliefs in the end of slavery.

For Thoreau, he is free and happy because he chooses to live his life by his moral compass, not relying on the government or society to tell him what to do or how to think. JS/07, on the other hand, falls in line, becomes an assembly line human, and exits the world without an identity, freedom, or happiness. He existed as “wood and earth and stones” to better the “Greater Community.” Contrasting these texts in the classroom is a good way to get students to see the continued discussions that occurred in the nineteenth century, and earlier, that continue today. Isolation, a lose of identity, happiness, and freedom are all topics that appear throughout literature. There are other texts that could be read in comparison with Thoreau on this point; however, I think in a survey course, Auden’s poem provides an easily digestible morsel that allows students to ponder the universal ideas that Thoreau writes about.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.”American Literature Vol. 1 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 641-660.
Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. American Literature Vol. 1 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 910-92.


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