Comparing Introductions by Ruskin and Thoreau

Marlene Sloger, American Civilzation Graduate Student, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In the first paragraph of “Traffic,” Ruskin apologizes to his audience for his inability to speak on the specific subject matter they requested, but goes on to explain why he is not merely unwilling but unable to do so. As we discussed last week, Ruskin uses different techniques (humor, apology, scorn) in this first paragraph to set up a specific dynamic with the audience.

In the same vein of subject matter and audience, consider these first two paragraphs from Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle”:

At a Lyceum, not long since, I felt that the lecturer had chosen a theme too foreign to himself, and so failed to interest me as much as he might have done. He described things not in or near to his heart, but toward his extremities and superficies. There was, in this sense, no truly central or centralizing thought in the lecture. I would have had him deal with his privatest experience, as the poet does. The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended my answer. I am surprised, as well as delighted, when this happens, it is such a rare use he would make of me, as if he were acquainted with the tool. Commonly, if men want anything of me, it is only to know how many acres I make of their land – since I am a surveyor – or, at most, what trivial news I have burdened myself with. They never will go to law for my meat; they prefer the shell. A man once came a considerable distance to ask me to lecture on Slavery; but on conversing with him, I found that he and his clique expected seven eights of the lecture to be theirs, and only one eighth mine; so I declined. I take it for granted, when I am invited to lecture anywhere – for I have had a little experience in that business – that there is a desire to hear what I think of some subject, though I may be the greatest fool in the country – and not that I should say pleasant things merely, or such as the audience will assent to; and I resolve, accordingly, that I will give them a strong dose of myself. They have sent for me, and engaged to pay for me, and I am determined that they shall have me, though I bore them beyond all precedent.

So now I would say something similar to you, my readers. Since you are my readers, and I have not been much of a traveller, I will not talk about people a thousand miles off, but come as near home as I can. As the time is short, I will leave out all the flattery, and retain all the criticism.

In what ways are Thoreau and Ruskin using similar or different strategies to deal with their audience? Are these paragraphs from Thoreau thematically similar to the opening paragraphs of Ruskin’s “Traffic”? In looking only at these two paragraphs from Thoreau, you notice that he does not refer to the reader directly until the second paragraph. Is this significant?

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Last modified 6 March 2002