Humor and Overstatement in "A Plea for John Brown"

Kevin Zimmer '02, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In "A Plea for John Brown", Thoreau often relies on humorous exaggeration and semi-satiric modes to illustrate how his audience has completely misinterpreted John Brown's life. In discussing the nature of John Brown's education, Throreau playfully states:

He did not go to the college called Harvard, good old Alma Mater as she is. He was not fed on the pap that is there furnished. As he phrased it, "I know no more of grammar than one of your calves." But he went to the great University of the West, where he sedulously pursued the study of Liberty, for which he had early betrayed a fondness, and having taken many degrees, he finally commenced the public practice of Humanity in Kansas, as you all know. Such were his humanities, and not any study of grammar. He would have left a Greek accent slanting the wrong way, and righted up a falling man.

By humorously re-defining the priorities and values of a good education, Thoreau places a higher value on Brown's lived experience than his relative lack of formal education. Does the humor of this passage detract from the overall efficacy of his goal in reversing public opinion on Brown? Or does it help to maintain the attention of the audience? How does Thoreau's play on the word "humanity" reinforce his admiration of Brown? Is the inclusion of the phrase "as you all know" (dare I say) patronizing to his audience? Is Thoreau calling attention to the sheer contrast between the public's condemnation of Brown and his own idolization of him?

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Last modified 6 March 2002