In the musical spirit of the day (Saint Patrick's) and of Thoreau (the flute player), a How Not to Get Rich Orchestra (above).
It being Saint Patrick's Day, it seems only appropriate to say a few words about Henry David Thoreau and the Irish, or, more specifically, the Irish who came to America when he was writing and working and living in Concord, Massachusetts, as well as New York. A question people might ask when it comes to Thoreau and the Irish might be: huh? A nature writer and the Irish? But the Irish are everywhere in Thoreau country — at Walden Pond, where they were living for a while in small houses (get it?) as they worked on the railroad, and in Concord homes; Thoreau's family employed Irish servants at their home, which was run as a boarding house, given that economic times were tough. Meanwhile, in Boston and New York, in the cities of the Eastern seaboard, the Irish were flooding into America as a result of the Irish famine, what is known as An Gorta Mór, or, in Irish, the Great Hunger. The years of emigration roughly coincided with the year that Thoreau began and finished Walden, when 1.6 million Irish immigrants came to the U.S., more than the total number of all immigrants who had come to the U.S. during the previous 70 years. When he built his house at Walden, he recycled a lot of wood from an Irish worker's house.
Looking at Thoreau and the Irish is a good way to change how you might think of Thoreau — to rethink him as urban, as a reporter on the economic and peopled scene. On the Irish, his opinions start out aligning with the rest of the public's opinion, though maybe not quite as bad. The mayor of Boston, Theodore Lyman, called them "a race that will never be infused into our own, but on the contrary will remain distinct and hostile." And that was a kind of positive version of what he was saying. Crania America, one of many nativist rags at the time, said, "Their wild look and manner, mud cabins and funereal howlings recall… a barbarous age." In Walden, Thoreau starts out hitting the racist stereotypes hard, equating the Irish with a lowly, bog-ish existence, for instance. But as time passes, his opinions change — a little bit in Walden, but a lot in his journals (a complete set of which I bought at the Rare Book Room at Powell's a few years ago while pining for the first edition Ulysses by James Joyce that used to be there — I recommend Yale University Press's excerpts of the journals, his lifelong and amazing project).
In town, he eventually takes up the cause of the Irish, writing letters to relatives back in Ireland, praising their work around town, and noticing that the walls they build are maybe better than the walls people are building in Concord. (See David Foster's Thoreau's Country.) At one point, when a farmer tries to screw over a group of workers, Thoreau complains, fights for them, and eventually takes up a collection in town for the Irish workers, to replace the lost payment. Is he as cool as Margaret Fuller, the Transcendentalist who writes about how the Irish women are practically made slaves as nannies? Not quite, but that's because no one is as cool as Margaret Fuller.
I have argued about this pro-Irish and pro-immigrant Thoreau with Peter Quinn, author of Banished Children of Eve, a great novel about the Civil War draft riots. In his also great book Looking for Jimmy, Quinn posits that Thoreau's description of the immigrants in the opening of Thoreau's Cape Cod is derisive, but I think it is significant that Thoreau's is one of the few descriptions of the horror of the Irish famine at the time, or even until recently. (Melville's Redburn also describes the horror of the famine ships.) I also think the way Thoreau deals with the horror of the scene has a lot to do with the horror that Thoreau had seen in his life: explosions, violent deaths, the death of his brother in his arms — about which I will not go into here, because I am feeling the joy of Saint Patrick's Day. Suffice it to say, when everyone else in America is saying, immigrants out, when they are talking Manifest Destiny, Thoreau is standing at the edge of the nation and looking at the tide of immigrants and seeing immigration (as opposed to God-inspired conquering) as the engine of the American dream.
As far as the Saint Patrick's Day plans of the blogging staff of The Thoreau You Don't Know goes, we are — believe it or not — getting ready to go to the White House for the Saint Patrick's Day reception. We are going in our capacity as the How Not to Get Rich Orchestra, an orchestra that has a flexible lineup but is, at its core, this author and his two children, as managed by the children's mom. We are not good or anything, but we sing a lot of old songs from the I.W.W., or Wobblies, as mentioned in Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook's Lowbrow Northwest. The point being, we sing, which is something you should if you want to not get rich. (The subtitle of How Not to Get Rich is Why Being Bad Off Isn't So Bad, and it was written before the economic collapse but still pertains, if you ask me, the author, which you probably shouldn't.) Other not-get-rich — in the monetary sense — tips include: reading, writing poetry, hanging out with your kids, taking time off. We last sang at Powell's in our capacity as the Cross Country Philharmonic, whose lineup is strikingly similar to the How Not to Get Rich Orchestra's lineup, the difference being that the latter plays more old Irish songs, and the fiddle player and banjo player (neither being me) knowing a bunch of old tunes, thanks to their musical mentor, who can be seen playing guitar here and listened to here.
As an American of Irish descent, I have long been reluctant to venture outside a fortified compound on Saint Patrick's Day, for obvious reasons, but the White House is a different story. Will it be green? God, I hope not. Will it feel green? And what is green, anyway? What is eco? Now we are getting into Thoreau territory, and one answer is as follows: eco comes from the Greek for home. Being eco is keeping house, and paying attention not just to the trees but to the people living with you, recharging your home, renewing, keeping things alive, keeping things green.
[Editor's Note: We would be remiss if we didn't mention the Daily Beast's recommendation of The Thoreau You Don't Know as "injecting some fresh insight into his namesake's life."]