The Use of Personification in Thoreau's "Slavery in Massachusetts"

Jessica Grose 04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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In his condemnation of newspapers and newspaper men in "Slavery in Massachusetts," Thoreau uses the convention of personification to show his disdain for the servility of these journalists:

Could slavery suggest a more complete servility than some of these journals exhibit? Is there any dust which their conduct does not lick, and make fouler still with its slime? I do not know whether the Boston Herald is still in existence, but I remember to have seen it about the streets when Simms was carried off. Did it not act its part well -- serve its master faithfully? How could it have gone lower on its belly? How can a man stoop lower than he is low? Do more than put his extremities in the place of the head he has? Than make his head his lower extremity? When I have taken up this paper with my cuffs turned up, I have heard the gurgling of the sewer through every column. I have felt that I was handling a paper picked out of the public gutters, a leaf from the gospel of the gambling house, the groggery and the brother, harmonizing with the gospel of the Merchant's exchange.


1. Thoreau seems to be comparing anti-abolitionist newspapers to obsequious slaves when he asks the question "Did it not act its part well -- serve its master faithfully?" Do you think this is an appropriate comparison? Why do you think he chooses to personify newspapers in particular as a rhetorical strategy?

2. In an earlier paragraph, Thoreau states that newspapers are the modern man's bible. How does this play into the personification of newspapers as debased humans? What other images does Thoreau use to continue the biblical connection?

3. Another strategy Thoreau uses in this passage is the repetition of pointed rhetorical questions. Is this an effective approach?

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Last modified 6 March 2002