Henry David Thoreau Was Funnier Than You Think, Particularly on the Subject of Work
John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle on the Necessary “Deep Sincerity” of Dark Humor
Let us consider the brighter and sillier side of Henry David Thoreau on the subject of work. Sometimes, when work is at its worst—its most exacting, alienating, rushed—we need grim humor to be honest with those around us, to break through all of the toxic positivity, prim professionalism, and the artificiality of a human animal in the strange and difficult circumstance of being on the clock. Thoreau was an absolute master of humor. Even near the end of his life, in his last battle with lifelong tuberculosis, when his Calvinistic Aunt Louisa asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau joked, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”
The minutes will pass while we are on the job; that is a certainty. But Thoreau would like to take advantage of the fullness of time even if it means simply stealing just a moment to laugh a little at the absurdity of it all. If time has to kill us, the least we can do is kill time in a humorous way. We speak from experience here.
One of us worked retail for a good number of years, and, slowly, surely, after those eternities of customer service, came to appreciate the wisdom of (or rather wisdom misattributed to) the German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer: “There are two kinds of people in the world. Avoid both of them.”
Jokes at work, some lame, some dark, helped to make the day go faster. “If you need me, hesitate to call.” “How long have I been working for this company? Ever since they threatened to fire me.” In the thick of work, crude humor helps too: “Boss makes a dollar. I make a dime. That’s why I shit on company time.” If you think Thoreau was above crude humor, think again.Jokes disrupt the predictable, permit the impermissible, and treat our dark and painful sides lightheartedly.
Thoreau was a trickster, jokester, punster, almost a Mark Twain, but dry as the Sahara in his delivery; thus Thoreau’s levity, even flippancy, is commonly missed. Thoreau played Puck of Walden Pond—Puck, that “shrewd and knavish” nature sprite, to use Shakespeare’s adjectives from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Around the time of Walden’s publication, Thoreau made a list of his faults, which included “not always earnest” and “playing with words—getting the laugh,—not always simple, strong, and broad.” We find perhaps one the best examples of Thoreau’s “getting the laugh” in the first chapter of Walden. “I have watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry and the nettle tree, the red pine and the black ash, the white grape and the yellow violet, which might have withered else in dry seasons.” Thoreau “watered” the woods of Concord well. This is comic relief in all senses.
Thoreau had good reason to look for a seriousness that laughs. Let’s recount some of those reasons, some we’ve already considered. From his youth to his death at the ripe young age of forty-four, Thoreau suffered from tuberculosis. At thirty-three, all his teeth were gone; he thus had the pleasures of nineteenth-century dentures. At twenty-six, Thoreau accidentally set three hundred acres of forest on fire, a mishap that the townspeople of Concord never forgot—and never let Thoreau forget. At twenty-four, Thoreau lost his older brother, John, who died of tetanus. At twenty, in 1837, Thoreau graduated from Harvard; yet that year also saw the “Panic of 1837,” that economic depression previously mentioned that left few and unappealing employment options for the recent graduate.
We present Thoreau’s low points in reverse chronological order to emphasize the onion-like layering of misfortune in Thoreau’s life; one tear-inducing layer peels away to present another tear-inducing layer. Yet through tears, laughter is sometimes possible. Cry-laughing can look unhinged, and sometimes it is, but sometimes the door really needs to be ripped off its hinges to expose the interior as it is. Short of cry-laughing at work, or just flat-out crying, we can be humorous, since humor unhinges things just enough to give some ventilation to our spirits. Jokes disrupt the predictable, permit the impermissible, and treat our dark and painful sides lightheartedly, with a refreshing burst of impropriety.
Our friend Connor told us, in this vein, about work he once did for a community television station in Pinole, California. His job was to record city events, like football games, parades, and city council meetings. The city council meetings were the driest and dreariest. “It was difficult to pay attention because they went on for so long,” Connor remembers. “One way our director made it easier for us was to crack crude jokes about the board members over our headsets. The game was to not laugh, which was difficult!” Connor recognized the moral delicacy of this game. “While it seemed mean-spirited, it actually helped us do our jobs and film who we were supposed to be filming. If we had nodded off or become bored, there was a chance we would miss an important moment and get in trouble for censoring someone unintentionally.”
The dark joke is necessary on occasion, though we risk violating our codes of professional conduct when we venture to whisper them to the more trustworthy of our coworkers. Of all the contradictions, a dark joke is perhaps the most vital; it is our unhappy happiness. It may be that, in the history of human survival, dark jokes deserve as much credit for survival as hope. Or, if not as much credit, at least significant credit (and more praise than they receive).
A good dark joke is handy in emergencies. Such jokes are shared in combat zones, collapsed mines, hospitals, and on and on. Their emergency value has made the dark joke perhaps the most universal of our esoteric traditions, with millions of behind-the-door novitiates inducted every minute.
One can imagine a dark joke in the mouth of someone about to be executed, or someone starving, or someone lost at sea, where hope may come off as indecent, inhumane even, but not so for the high “dark” spirit of a dark joke. Dark jokes are often keys to a deeper sincerity, not only with others, but with ourselves and our miseries, with the dark and indistinct dissonance in our lives. Which brings us back to “clocking in,” to the mechanical timekeeper that metes out our life at work.
Naturally, there are ethical fine lines in the use of dark jokes, but the abuses of the dark joke shouldn’t condemn the genre. Neither of us, though, are worried about the genre’s future. The dark joke is transfigured by condemnations of it. If you put a scarlet letter on a dark joke, it makes it darker, and the darker it becomes, the more cathartic it is to unleash it; the more cathartic, the more needed. “Dark joke”—with its sharp consonants, those fanged k’s—is like the phrase “pet cobra.” It is a fatal good. It is life secreting a little venom against life for the immunization of life.
Henry knew dark humor. Cape Cod, his last book, published three years after his death, brims with darkness. The book began life as Thoreau’s other books began, as journal entries translated into a series of lectures at the Concord Lyceum. Like his Lyceum lectures for what would become Walden, the audience for Henry’s Cape Cod series, as Emerson reports it, “laughed till they cried.”
In the opening chapter of Cape Cod, auspiciously titled “Shipwreck,” Thoreau sets the stage for his travelogue with a dry and very dark remark: “We left Concord, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, October 9th, 1849. On reaching Boston, we found that the Provincetown steamer, which should have got in the day before, had not yet arrived, on account of a violent storm; and, as we noticed in the streets a handbill headed, ‘Death! one hundred and forty- five lives lost at Cohasset,’ we decided to go by way of Cohasset.” One hundred and forty-five lives lost at Cohasset? Let’s go there.
Henry’s morbid humor invites our morbid curiosity, and he knows it. He veers his travelogue into an account of corpses washed ashore, tangled in seaweed, and “filled with sand.” It is horrible, absolutely, and nothing can be done but grieve. Thoreau does not laugh at these victims, nor at the families arrived to collect the bodies of their loved ones, but at us, at the onlookers, at those who take in the news of such events with melodramatic affectation, when, in fact, grief isn’t there.
Our “deep grief ” for these one hundred and forty-five people lasts an hour or a day, and then we’re fresh again for the next tragedy. We send our “thoughts and prayers”—and go our merry way. Thoreau pushes us to laugh at ourselves for our social pretensions around death, since laughing may be the only way we can be honest with ourselves.Dark jokes are often keys to a deeper sincerity, not only with others, but with ourselves and our miseries.
In Cape Cod, Thoreau uses dark humor to cut through the roots of American history, at the American origin story of virtuous pilgrims founding “a city upon a hill.” Henry and his traveling companion, William Ellery Channing, considered the pilgrim story “under our umbrellas” while walking the stormy beaches of Eastham, a town at the “forearm” of Cape Cod (“Cape Cod is the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts,” writes Thoreau, forever “boxing with northeast storms”). The two friends read Reverend Enoch Pratt’s 1844 Comprehensive History, Ecclesiastical and Civil, of Eastham, Wellfleet and Orleans, and Thoreau, citing Pratt’s book in Cape Cod, sums up one of the lessons they learned:
When the committee from Plymouth had purchased the territory of Eastham of the Indians, “it was demanded, who laid claim to Billingsgate?” which was understood to be all that part of the Cape north of what they had purchased. “The answer was, there was not any who owned it. ‘Then,’ said the committee, ‘that land is ours.’ The Indians answered that it was.” This was a remarkable assertion and admission. The Pilgrims appear to have regarded themselves as Not Any’s representatives. Perhaps this was the first instance of that quiet way of “speaking for” a place not yet occupied, or at least not improved as much as it may be, which their descendants have practiced, and are still practicing so extensively. Not Any seems to have been the sole proprietor of all America before the Yankees. But history says that, when the Pilgrims had held the lands of Billingsgate many years, at length “appeared an Indian, who styled himself Lieutenant Anthony,” who laid claim to them, and of him they bought them. Who knows but a Lieutenant Anthony may be knocking at the door of the White House some day? At any rate, I know that if you hold a thing unjustly, there will surely be the devil to pay at last.
Thoreau mocks American opportunism, all the grubby land grabbing and privatization of wildernesses and the bringing-to-heel of peoples and lands. The thought of all that history of grabbiness crashing down, of Lieutenant Anthony strolling up to the White House and unspooling the whole American enterprise, is a joke that rips the heart out of the American story. Remember, though, Thoreau’s audience at the Lyceum “laughed till they cried.”
Humor can ease the pain of recognition, a pain that may otherwise trigger the instinct to look away, or worse, treat with petulant anger the painful symptom only and not the underlying condition. Dark jokes can help us face dark truths. The last two lines of Cape Cod speak to our need for storms, snows, and darkness to help us heal: “A storm in the fall or winter is the time to visit [Cape Cod]; a light-house or a fisherman’s hut the true hotel. A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” The last line, of course, is a geographic pun. Think of that: Thoreau ends his darkest book with a pun, a punchline.
Endings, in books, jobs, and life, can be funny, even those not intended to be funny. The last paragraph in Walden reads, “I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” That ending is not funny in itself, but we, the authors, find it humorous that the two names addressed at the very end of Walden just happen to be our first names: John (Kaag) and Jonathan (van Belle). We enjoyed it so much that we made it the epigraph of our book. Obviously and unfortunately, Thoreau is not referring to us here. Thoreau is referring to John Bull and Brother Jonathan, the national personifications of Britain and the United States, respectively. Still, it is hard not to hear a customized admonition in this combo of names.
What’s more, Thoreau gently claims that neither John nor Jonathan “will realize all this.” We wholeheartedly agree. We are just two random men, with our own myriad problems, debts, deadlines, mental blocks, and work anxieties. Are we awake to the day? Mostly no. But the zest of Thoreau’s work, comparable in zestiness to Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., helps us wake up a little more each day. What the novelist and critic Jay McInerney wrote of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. applies equally to Thoreau: “He is a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion.” If Thoreau is dark, he is also light.
Excerpted from Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living by John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle. Copyright © 2023. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.