Thoreau's Voice

Jamie Effros '03, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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Thoreau brilliantly carves out arguments using satire, sarcasm, passionate prose, and scathing attacks. More impressively though, he managed to use these techniques and many more while still creating a distinctive and engaging personal voice. His techniques, and hence his language, fluctuate through his diverse prose.

In "Slavery in Massachusetts," Thoreau opens with a very conversational and neutral tone. As he continues into the meat of his argument though, his language and tone begin to shift into a commanding presence.

Again it happens that the Boston Court-House is full of armed men, holding prisoner and trying a MAN, to find out if he is not really a SLAVE. Does anyone think that justice or God await Mr. Loring's decision? For him to sit there deciding still, when this question is already decided from eternity to eternity, and the unlettered slave himself and the multitude around have long since heard and assented to the decision, is simply to make himself ridiculous. We may be tempted to ask from whom he received his commission, and who he is that received it; what novel statutes he obeys, and what precedents are to him authority. Such an arbiter's very existence is an impertinence. We do not ask him to make up his mind, but to make up his pack.

This passage occurs directly after he asks to be heard on that which he could not say in the meeting of the citizens of concord. After laying down the context and basis for his argument, he now dives right in. Thoreau's language in this passage is increasingly more complex than in his opening paragraph. He makes bold, broad statements regarding his opinion and sets down the groundwork for his series of accusations against the governing individuals and institutions. Does a pattern emerge in the way Thoreau construct his statements, accusations, and recountings? Are his different vocal methods in place in order to reach a diverse audience, or are they placed in a particular rhetorical order to drive his point home.

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Last modified 6 March 2002