A few of my classmates have expressed their distaste for Thoreau’s “narcissism”, for establishing himself as a figure of elitism over his audience. Why do we get that message? Why not when we hear philosophers or politicians talk, do we fear the same demanding diction that we do with Thoreau? Throughout reading, I began to theorize the reasons as to why Thoreau might come off so strong, I then came across the reasoning that Thoreau simply does not fear ego. He blatantly states in ‘Economy’ paragraph 2 “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference.”
Is it truly egotism to establish yourself as the narrator of your own story? The difference between “I” and “Ego” is fairly difficult to assume. However, in respect to this piece, Thoreau uses the pronoun “I” as a narrative technique, rather than an intimidation technique. Thoreau establishes himself as the individual telling the story, “[He]should not talk so much about [him]self if there were anybody else whom [he] knew as well”. He does not try to coerce the reader into believing his opinions, but rather is not timid in expressing that they are his opinions and his experiences.
The evidence for Thoreau’s critique for egotism and elitism is in the pudding; well, more like bean pudding. In paragraph 13 of ‘Economy’ Thoreau states “that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours”. Through this quote, Thoreau moves up one level of abstraction from talking about the fact that the sun shines on us all (including our beans) to “could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”. He is implying that the sun has a wider purpose and story rather than just for him. At the end of the paragraph he elaborates that it would be more beneficial to society to see through the eyes of others and consider the fact that you’re a small part of a big picture. That is the reasoning for his insistence throughout the story that he does not want the reader to follow him exactly. He acknowledges his part in the narrative of the Earth as a letter in a novel. The conception that he sees himself as such a trifling detail of the whole picture shows humility, not egotism.
The story Anthem, By Ayn Rand, covers the concept of “I” versus “ego”. One is establishing yourself as an individual, and the other is the manifestation of self worth and self importance. Not to say that Thoreau doesn’t sound a bit insolent at times, because he does. However, I think that Thoreau was aware that once his piece is in the readers hands, it is up for their critique. A pessimistic and critical view of what others hold as truth is bound to garner some negative attention. Nonetheless, for him to truly establish himself as the center narrator for his story, he needs to speak from his point of view, not lessen it for the sentiment of the reader.