“Brute Neighbors”

  1. What are some features of Thoreau’s style? How does he use metaphors? (173, 179, details often symbolic, 175) What are some features of his allusions? (erudite, surprising)
  2. What does it mean to say that Pilpay & Co. have put animals to their best use? (these are Indian animal fables)? (best to use them as subjects of meditation, "to carry some portion of our thoughts," 173)
  3. What aspects of animal life does he seem to focus on? (animal intelligence and interactions with humans, including himself, drama of animal life, even alleged capacity for games, 179) In what contexts does he place the animals he describes?
  4. What animals does he choose to portray? (mice, partridge, woodcock, ants, loon, cat) What do these have in common? (fairly common)
  5. Is there a meaning to the order in which they are presented? (ever more complicated interactions) Are they presented with respect? (birds are brave in risking themselves to protect young)
  6. What are some striking features of the description of the battle of the ants? (finds it heroic, notes its savagery and the bravery of its participants?
  7. What is the purpose of the classical and historical comparisons, including that with the famed battle of Concord? What seems his attitude towards the latter event? (somewhat wry, 177)
  8. What is added by his final description of the battle as occurring in the “Presidency of Polk”? (is the latter intended to poke fun at it or to heroize it--or perhaps to insert himself into the succession of chroniclers who have examined such conflicts)
  9. What is added to the account by the fact that the narrator fails to intervene in what he sees? (no relief for unpleasant features of sight of warfare) Why do you think he doesn’t do so?
  10. Had there been an ultimate purpose to the ants' conflict? In what way does the futility of ant warfare comment on human warfare? (brutal and mindless)
  11. Do you think it is likely that the loon he describes was laughing at him? (180) What may have been the motive of its call? What qualities does Thoreau ascribe to the bird? (power, intelligence, even humor; anthropomorphizes interpretation of loon's call)
  12. What interest does he take in the "winged" cat? What causes the cat's extra growth of fur? Is it significant that he states that he called to visit the cat, not its owner? (178) What unexpected parallel does he find with himself? (a poet should have a winged cat, 178) Has he previously characterized himself or mentioned an occupation?
  13. What final reflections on animal life might a reader of this essay be expected to have?
  14. Are these points with which Emerson would have agreed? What are differences in Thoreau’s mode of making his observations? (Thoreau interacts with specific animals, finds drama in these interactions)


  1. What are some of the meanings of Thoreau’s statement, “in Wildness is the preservation of the World”?
  2. What unexpected moral does he derive from the fable of Romulus and Remus? In what way does his claim that "because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the norther forests who were" make sense? (181) Why wouldn't this description apply more to the legendary descendants of Romulus and Remus than to the Germanic tribes?
  3. What are some notable passages or aspects of Thoreau’s presentation? (e. g., as in “I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows.”)
  4. In view of his praise of the fitness of a tanned skin, what seems his attitude toward the woods' original native inhabitants? (finds farmer stronger and more natural, 184, plough and spade is better than implements Indians had for farming, 185)
  5. What kinds of land does he most desire? (swamps, uncultivated land, 182, Dismal Swamp, 183)
  6. What is the significance of Thoreau’s desire to turn houses backwards to face the woods? (183) What merits does he find in deserted places, forests, and swamps? (sacred and restorative places)
  7. Which aspects of history and culture does he feel have been neglected? (184) What has been the value of swamps and wild lands to earlier societies? (earlier cultures were surrounded by the primitive forests which sustained them)
  8. What is the point of his story of the owner who swam in the mud of his own property? (184) What changes does he wish to make in it, and does Thoreau approve? (wishes to surround it with a ditch and farm it--Thoreau sees him as "the type of a class," perhaps an acquisitive one)
  9. Which forms of literature does he most value? Why is mythology more valuable than later and more elaborated literatures? (closer to nature and to "free and wild thinking") Was this a common view at the time?
  10. What is his view of the nature of genius? Would this have been a common romantic idea? (genius is highly original and shatters precedent) What does he find inferior about English literature until now? (reflects classical origins rather than a "wild strain," 185)
  11. What should be the subject matter and form of the ideal poet? (should give expression to Nature rather than books, 185) What Romantic poet may he have been reading? (Wordsworth)
  12. Why does he prefer classical literature to English literature? (has its roots in Grecian mythology, a great dragon-tree, 186)
  13. What perspective does he suggest the future may take to literature founded on the American wilderness, "the St. Lawrence, and the Mississippi"? (when American liberty has become a fiction of the past, . . . the poets of the world will be inspired by American mythology")
  14. What do you make of his suggestion that American liberty is "to some extent a fiction of the present"? (186)
  15. What meaning does he extract from the fossil record? Does he believe in evolution? (yes, speaks of a previous state of existence; myths and other "expressions of truth" hark back to a "previous state of organize existence," 186)
  16. What are some examples of "wild and free" phenomena? (bugle's sound, cries of wild beasts)
  17. Why does Thoreau identify with these? (favors non-conformity, "all men are not equally fit subjects for civilization")
  18. What pleases him about an escaped cow? (reasserts its native rights, 187) What analogy does he make between trapped animals (reduced from venison to beef) and victims of "the Evil One"? ("the Evil One has cried, "Whoa!" to mankind," 187)
  19. What kind of persons does Thoreau admire? (187) What does he mean by “wild men,” and what forces attempt to break or tame them?
  20. What is the social value of individual differences and traits? (187) Would this idea have needed expression in the 1860s? Is it still relevant?
  21. Does Thoreau seem to emphasize the same aspects of nature as had Wordsworth? Ruskin? Emerson?
  22. What does Thoreau add to the discussion that we have not found in earlier writers? (detailed observations of animals, dislike of changes in land with increased population and urbanization) How may some of his observations have reflected social changes between 1800 and 1860?

Selection from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)

What different nomenclatures have been applied to the river near Concord, Massachusetts, and which name does Thoreau believe will last? (Grass-ground River, 171)

What pronoun does he use in describing the river, and what effect does this have on the reader? ("you"--gives sense of immediacy and excitement; reader traces the river's path along with author) 

What different work patterns have been caused by the dams? (172, everything wetter, can no longer raise hay)

What animals does he note? (ducks, gulls, mice, moles, winged titmice, 172-73) What phenomena reassure him that "the last day is not yet at hand"? Where might he have become familiar with this phrase? (biblical, from sermons)

What visions are granted to "men you never heard of before"? What traits does he ascribe to these woodsmen/outdoorsmen? ("fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain, than a chestnut is of meat," 173)

Against what stereotypes or assumptions is he reacting in saying these are "men who were out not only in '75 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives"? (rejects assumption that only those who fought in America's wars are true patriots)

What is the significance of the claim that these woodsmen and farmers are "greater men than Homer, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, only they never got time to say so"? (173) (democratic ideal, belief in silent, unrecognized merit)

What authors might Thoreau have read who proclaimed similar sentiments? (Thomas Gray, "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," "mute inglorious Miltons"; Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) proclaims that history has failed to recognize multitudes of unsung worker heroes) How have these men left a record of their thoughts? (on face of earth, through their ploughing, etc.)

Is there a place for women in Thoreau's conception of unrecorded greatness?

Does Thoreau speak from a knowledge of specific persons who are "greater men than Homer,"  or is his conception of the wise farmer/laborer somewhat abstract?