Living in Hell

Anna Sussman '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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In "Slavery in Massachusetts," Henry David Thoreau argues against the legal decision by the state of Massachusetts to return an escaped slave, Anthony Burns, to his master, Charles Suttle. He believes that this upholding of the Fugitive Slave Law, which forces states to return escaped slaves to their owners, is a pitiful and cowardly move, and that the country, and especially the state, he lives in, has fallen into a state of miserable moral decline.

He varies his tone from sarcastic to sermonly, at one point likening living in Massachusetts to living in hell.

At last it occurred to me that what I had lost was a country. I had never respected the Government near to which I had lived, but I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, minding my private affairs, and forget it. For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many percent less since Massachusetts last deliberately sent back an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery. I dwelt before, perhaps, in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not (dwell? or live?) wholly within hell. The site of that political organization called Massachusetts is to me morally covered with volcanic scoria and cinders, such as Milton describes in the infernal regions. If there is any hell more unprincipled than our rulers, and we, the ruled, I feel curious to see it. Life itself being worth less, all things with it, which minister to it, are worth less. Suppose you have a small library, with pictures to adorn the walls-a garden laid out around, and contemplate scientific and literary pursuits, etc, and discover all at once that your villa, with all its contents, is located in hell, and that the justice of the peace has a cloven foot and a forked tail- do not these things suddenly lose value in your eyes? [8]


1. Thoreau uses metaphor many times in this essay. What is one thing that separates this particular instance? Is it more or less convincing as others?

2. Who is he addressing at this point? Does the lifestyle he describes (villa, library, scientific and literary pursuits) make it clear, and do you really think this is who his readership is?

3. Why doesn't he just move out of Massachusetts and America altogether? What, according to you, does he think is worth salvaging in America?

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Last modified 5 October 2003