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The Great Bean Field Hoax: Thoreau and the Agricultural Reformers


ISSUE:  Summer 1985

Surely, no two figures of antebellum American culture make an odder couple than the fabulous, gaudy promoter of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Phineas Taylor Barnum, and the so-called Hermit of Walden, Henry David Thoreau. What starker contrast could there be, what more striking allegory of the fate of what Barnum once called “the Universal Yankee Nation” in the world of industrial capitalism and mass democracy? P.T.Barnum: the Connecticut farm boy who left the hard soil of his native Bethel to build an entertainment empire upon the sure foundations of well-advertised hoax and deceit. Henry David Thoreau: the much-traveled Concordian who seldom left home, yet established an enduring reputation for a “simple and sincere” way of life. How could one even imagine linking the name of the “prince of humbugs,” the shah of Iranistan—the $150,000 Oriental palace Barnum built in Bridgeport, Connecticut— the popular lecturer on “The Art of Money-Getting,” with that of Concord’s artist of Kouroo, who proved in his $28.121/2 hut by a pond that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone”?

Well, the Knickerbocker magazine of March 1855 did just that, joining Barnum and Thoreau together in an essay provocatively titled “Town and Rural Humbugs.” “Beyond all question,” the anonymous writer explained, “the two most remarkable books that have been published the last year are the “Auto-biography of Barnum” and “Life in the Woods” by Thoreau.” The essay opened as a study in contrasts, with Barnum and Thoreau alike only in the fact that their opposing ways of life were equally unattractive:

If anything is calculated to induce a man to see how few beans will support animal life [the reviewer said], we think it is a contemplation of the life and career of the great showman. If there is any thing calculated to reconcile us, not to the career of Barnum, but to whatever laborious drudgery may be necessary to procure good beefsteaks and oysters . . ., it is the thought of those inevitable beans, that constituted so large a part of the crop of Mr. Thoreau, and that extraordinary compound of cornmeal and water, which he facetiously called bread.

But the difference involved more than a pot of beans. The reviewer had perceptively detected that Barnum and Thoreau stood apart, in distinctive ways, from the shams and illusions that entranced most of their countrymen. The Connecticut showman, of course, profited richly by exploiting the illusions of the public; the “Concord philosopher, or modern Diogenes,” as he was called, preferred simply to live by exposing them. In that difference from their contemporaries, the two were akin. Neither, it appeared, was easily fooled by what the mass of men took to be reality.

So far, so good. Then suddenly, the writer began probing further the resemblance between the two. And now it was more than similarity in difference. Both were artists, mixing nature and art in order to live “by their wits” and not by their hands. Barnum’s physical concoctions—the Feejee Mermaid, the Woolly Horse—were matched by Thoreau’s imaginative ones, like the battle between the ants. Both were “good-natured, genial, pleasant men,” fleecing or scorning their fellows with equal cheerfulness. Both were “compassionate men,” with an occasional moment of pity for the follies of humankind. And finally, “both were humbugs—one a town and the other a rural humbug.”

A staggering conclusion to an essay which had opened with the claim that Barnum and Thoreau were “perfect antipodes to each other”! But nowhere did the writer explain precisely why he thought Thoreau a fraud. My guess is that it was those “horrid beans and that melancholy mixture of meal and water.” Nobody, the author evidently believed, nobody could exist on that miserable fare. Obviously, then, Thoreau had invented the story of his stay at the Pond, beans and all, for the sake of assailing the shams and delusions of his neighbors. The ancient Diogenes would have been pleased.

Now, I want to argue that the Knickerbocker writer was onto something important about Thoreau, though he failed utterly to divine the hidden depths of Walden. Henry David Thoreau was no P.T.Barnum. But he did have a good many tricks up his sleeve. “. . . There are more secrets in my trade,” he observed, “than in most men’s, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature.” Discovering those secrets provides for me much of the challenge and the delight in reading Walden. The one I propose to unravel now is what I have called “the Great Bean Field Hoax.”

Thoreau’s bean field, of course, occupies rich ground in Walden and in American literature. It forms the central part of his experiment in getting a living at the pond “by the labor of my hands only.” The account of that venture, recording in fresh, imaginative detail Thoreau’s progress in farming, from his wars with the woodchucks to his battle with the weeds, and conscientiously itemizing his “income” and his “out-goes” down to the last half-penny, purports to represent a true experience, practical proof of his belief that “to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely. . . .” But, as with everything in Walden, it is more than that. The epic of the bean field also shows off Thoreau in literary high spirits, playfully telling his husbandman’s toils. Indeed, “The Bean-field” chapter, as one scholar has observed, represents “a microcosm of the entire Walden,” an epitome of the techniques and the themes he uses throughout the book. The account of the beans thus could be said to realize perfectly Thoreau’s Transcendental purposes, so integrating the details of experience with their higher meaning that the facts of the Understanding are subtly transformed into the facts of the Imagination.

But the essence of the hoax in 19th-century America was to accomplish a comparable conversion of fact into conviction through the painstaking marshalling of seemingly scientific evidence for outlandish claims. P.T.Barnum was the unchallenged master of the method; at his American Museum in New York City, natural curiosities were exhibited with such “an appearance of scientific validity” that the public could relish the challenge to determine what was authentic and what was not. Perhaps Thoreau discerned the technique during the three visits he made to the museum in the 1850’s, but these came after Walden had been published; besides, Thoreau never evinced any suspicion of the displays, even of the horned “camelopards” he viewed that were only five feet long but stood 18 feet high. Then again Thoreau did not need any lessons from the master.

“The one great rule of composition. . .,” Thoreau proclaimed, “is to speak the truth. This 1st, this 2nd, this 3rd.” But it was not a narrowly literal truth he had in mind. He could, to be sure, be impeccable about the facts when it suited his fancy, insisting, for example, on altering the proofs of Walden to reflect a 15-cent rise in the railroad fare from Concord to Fitchburg. “Here is warranty, if needed,” remarks J.Lyndon Shanley, a distinguished scholar of the book, “for almost all the other facts in Walden, even down to the one cent listed as the cost of chalk.” The trap for the unwary is easily set. Although the railroad fare is exact, although other details demonstrate a precise knowledge of the life of Concord, even stating the typical farm to be the 60 acres which every valuation list I have analyzed, from 1750 to 1850, also shows, it can be demonstrated that Thoreau wickedly assembled the “facts” of his bean field experiment, not to furnish a reliable agricultural report, but to carry out an elaborate spoof. His method was to mingle seeds of truth and fiction so artfully that the innocent reader would be led unhesitatingly to swallow his beans. As Thoreau warned, “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” But Thoreau, as the Knickerbocker remarked, was also a compassionate soul. He carefully provides a creative reader with the clues to detect the witty incongruities of the facts and to laugh at the hoax. In the process, the larger mysteries of Walden are unveiled.

II

The targets of this well-constructed spoof were the agricultural reformers of the day, who carried on an incessant campaign throughout the antebellum era to alter the ways farmers used the land. New England agriculture, went the complaint, was slovenly, wasteful, inefficient, blindly ridden by ignorance and custom, heedless of the long-term damage being done to the land. The chief trouble was that farmers unthinkingly tried to do too much, cultivating far more land than they had the labor or capital to manage with any success. Everything was done “by halves”—”half-farming, half-tilling, and half-manuring”—without any foresight or plan. Farmers labor hard, it was conceded, far harder than they ought, but “to no kind of good purpose.”

Their work hurries them on [a New Hampshire writer lamented], and they have not time to make the necessary retrenchments and improvements; but continue (to use the common expression) “slashing on, heels over head,” without consideration—zeal without improvement; thus they make perfect slaves of themselves, and never reform, pass through the world without enjoying the sweets of living—they follow their fathers’ paths and swerve not.

This was a longstanding objection against American agriculture, dating back to the mid-18th century and deriving its inspiration and ideals from the English Agricultural Revolution. In this perspective, shaped by the Old World realities of abundant, impoverished labor and scarce, expensive land, intelligent farming was intensive farming, directed by educated, progressive gentlemen, whose wise example would be readily imitated by grateful and deferential small farmers. The reformers’ vision, sadly, overlooked one fundamental economic reality: in the setting of the New World, it was rational for farmers to save on labor by exploiting land. Even after circumstances shifted, with crop yields falling and a rising population pressing on the soil, farmers stubbornly refused to change their ways. Instead, they increasingly headed west, where they could live less “thickly” and obtain an easier living from the land.

For the agricultural reformers, many of whom were New England clergymen with the conservative beliefs of the Federalist-Whig tradition, that was the real problem: the continuing exodus of farmers away from the East, away from the hallowed institutions of town and meeting house and into the potential disorder and irreligion of the frontier. It was to discourage this emigration that the Massachusetts Unitarian clergyman Henry Colman abandoned the ministry in the mid-1830’s and sought out the official burden of conducting an agricultural survey of the state. “If the Survey results in no other good,” Colman wrote Whig Governor Edward Everett in a covering letter to his first report, “it will present, I hope, in their true light the motives which the children of Massachusetts have to stay at home.” To that end, Colman comprehensively summarized the expert wisdom of reform in a set of four reports between 1837 and 1841, including a survey of Thoreau’s own Middlesex County. Farmers needed to rationalize and systematize their work; in the words of one of Colman’s reforming predecessors, the Federalist Josiah Quincy, they had “YET TO LEARN THE IMMENSE PRODUCTIVE POWER OF A PERFECTLY CULTIVATED ACRE.” Colman recommended a vast array of specific re-forms—new crops, new fertilizers, new rotations—all gathered together under the belief that if farmers reduced their acreage, consolidated and perfected their methods according to the latest scientific advice of the agricultural improvers, carefully calculated their production by the demands of the market, and withal, continued to practice Poor Richard’s virtues of honesty, industry, and thrift; if they did all these things, then they would easily meet the test of agricultural competition from the West and prosper under God. Of course, they would never grow rich. But parson Colman knew that was not the goal of life. “Good husbandry,” he thought, “promotes good morals.” In Colman’s Whiggish vision, the outcome would be a well-ordered commonwealth, knit together by public virtue and Christian love.

Let the children of Massachusetts then love and honor their good old mother. Her soil may be hard; but labor compels it to be bountiful. Her climate may be harsh; but it gives strength and elasticity to the muscles, and the brightness of its own stars to the mind. Her voice in winter may sometimes be hoarse; and her face wrinkled and frowning; but her children will not love her the less for a sternness of discipline, by which she trains them up in habits of unremitting labor and self-dependence; and thus qualifies them to be the blessings and ornaments of their own community; the substantial pillars of the federal edifice; and the pioneers of learning, civilization, humanity, and religion in the boundless West.

Henry Thoreau had a long familiarity with the institutions and literature of agricultural reform, by the time he began hoeing beans at Walden. Although he had been raised largely in the commercial world of the central villages of New England and, briefly, in Boston, Thoreau could not escape the agricultural concerns of his neighbors. His own father, a storekeeper turned pencil-maker, belonged to the Middlesex Society of Husbandmen and Manufacturers, the local reform association that sought to forge a strong commercial alliance between the farmer and the tradesman, and the Thoreau family actively competed for prizes at the society’s annual fairs. In the manufacturers’ division, John Thoreau, Sr., won an award for his pencils in 1823.In the women’s departments, Henry’s Aunt Maria was once cited for a hearth rug, his sisters Helen and Sophia for their art work. Thoreau himself always took pride in his talent in the garden, especially the melon-patch, but “All that I ever got a premium for,” he once recalled with amusement, “was a monstrous squash—so coarse that nobody could eat it.” Thoreau was also a close reader of the agricultural press—close and selective. “In reading a work on agriculture,” he advises in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,

we have to skip the author’s moral reflections, and the words “Providence” and “He” scattered along the page, to come at the profitable level of what he has to say. . . . There is more religion in men’s science than there is science in their religion. Let us make haste to the report of the committee on swine.

On the surface, there are noticeable affinities between Thoreau’s ideas about agriculture and those of the reformers. Henry Colman decried luxury, encouraged self-sufficiency, and urged farmers to produce their own bread—all favorite themes of Thoreau. Thoreau was probably attracted as well by the improvers’ ideal of “one perfectly cultivated acre,” if only for its uncompromising spirit. It is striking that both in A Week and in Walden Thoreau accepted the reformers’ critique as an accurate depiction of the contemporary state of farming. “Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art,” he lamented in Walden, “but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and crops merely.” Having grown up in a Whig household, he took Whig ideas as a starting point in defining social reality—but not as his ultimate destination.

What radically divided Thoreau from the agricultural improvers was his refusal of intensive cultivation. Thoreau was appalled at the improvers’ vision of a tame, polite landscape of apple orchards and market gardens. Excessive cultivation, he complained in A Week, ground down and pulverized the man along with the soil. It carefully cropped the independent, heroic spirit, fencing him in a solid wall of respectable institutions and “good manners.” “There may be an excess of cultivation as well as of anything else until civilization becomes pathetic. A highly cultivated man—all whose bones can be bent! whose heaven-born virtues are but good manners.” Worse, intensive farming was not only refined but also obscene. The gardener wooed nature too strenuously, laboring with a courtier’s zeal for his reward. Far better for Thoreau was the independence of the Indian, who kept his dignity as he learned the ways of the woods. “If the [Indian] is somewhat of a stranger in [nature’s] midst, the gardener is too much of a familiar. There is something vulgar and foul in the latter’s closeness to his mistress, something noble and cleanly in the former’s distance.” In Walden, Thoreau redou-bled the attack, pouring out his invective on the model farms, whose agricultural experiments filled the pages of the reformers’ reports. The very thought of them raised a vile stench.

A model farm! where the house stands like a fungus in a muck-heap, chambers for men, horses, oxen, and swine, cleansed and uncleansed, all contiguous to one another! Stocked with men! A great grease-spot, redolent of manures and butter-milk! Under a high state of cultivation, being manured with the hearts and brains of men! As if you were to raise your potatoes in the church-yard! Such is a model farm.

No wonder, then, Thoreau boasted that his “was one field not in Mr. Coleman’s [sic] report.”

III

With Thoreau’s disdain for model farms so explicit and so extreme, it becomes obvious that the bean field was no innocent agricultural experiment, whose success would be freely tested by the practical results. Thoreau sets up the account to suggest otherwise, slyly beginning “The Bean-field” chapter as an open inquiry into an as yet unsettled question.”What was the meaning of this so sturdy and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor [with the beans], I knew not. I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. . . . But why should I raise them? . . . What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?” These are essential questions for Thoreau; exploring the meaning of labor, in its broadest sense, forms the central project of the chapter and of the book. But at the same time, what is about to unfold is a wonderfully malicious parody of agricultural reform literature, executed with a completely straight face. In the authentic spirit of P.T.Barnum and Davy Crockett, of the Yankee and the frontiersman, Thoreau concocts out of seemingly plausible, petty details a triumphant tall tale of man and beans.

Let me hasten to add I have no doubt Thoreau actually grew some beans. But why beans? “Wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method,” Thoreau explains, he planted the seeds. Beans were a money crop from the start. It is a believable claim, unless one happens to know that beans were no commercial staple in Concord, in fact, had never been and would never be so in the agricultural history of the town. In the 1840’s, when Thoreau’s farming neighbors set about raising money, they planted grains—corn and oats; they made English hay, the epitome of the cash crop, intensively produced on upland meadows that at the reformers’ urging, had been laboriously redeemed from bogs and swamps; they cut wood; and increasingly, after the coming of the railroad, they milked cows for the city. They did not grow beans. In 1850, half of the farmers in town listed no beans at all in their reports for the U.S.Agricultural Census. And of the 60 who did grow beans, only four raised as many as 12 bushels, Thoreau’s total in 1846.Considering that he produced little else, Thoreau surely deserves to be regarded as the “bean king” of Concord. After all, the eccentric choice of crop led local farmers to christen Thoreau’s field “the Paradise of Beans,” and passersby could not resist the urge to offer the lessons of experience.”Corn, my boy, for fodder; corn for fodder.”

It was not just idiosyncrasy that prompted Thoreau to grow beans. They were, in addition, a humble crop, familiar in every Concord home, so long associated with the New England farmer that they had come to stand as a national symbol of the Yankee. Thoreau’s common white bush bean was the source of Boston’s minor claim to distinction—the baked bean. The famous line about “good old Boston, The home of the bean and the cod,” was invented only in 1910, but even in Thoreau’s day, the Yankee was known by his beans.”This is the happy land of baked beans and pure religion,” the humorist Artemus Ward observed in 1861. Another wit, Josh Billings, developed a considerable monologue on the subject:

Next to rhy bread, beans hav been called by the poets, and philosphers the cumfort, and staff ov life. . . . Beans are az old az Esau, he sold out for bean porridge. . . . I luv beans, but dont hanker for them. But beans, and me wont quarrell. Baked beans are a grate necessity in Nu England, and not to hav a platter ov them for Sunday dinner, iz lookt upon thare az being stuck-up to the neighbors. One ov the old blue laws ov Massachusetts waz, “thou shalt eat baked beans on Sunday.” I kan remember now ov eating baked beans, and rhy, and injun bread every Sunday, when i waz a boy, and luving it, bekauze i was obliged to.

In Walden, Thoreau delights in pretending to be the mythic Yankee, hardheaded, practical, industrious, regularly up for business by dawn. What could be more fitting, then, than to grow beans?

There is one more reason: beans were originally an Indian crop, the cultivation of which the English settlers had adopted from the natives along with Indian corn. Thoreau imaginatively identified with the independent Indian even more strongly than with the canny Yankee, and he was delighted to discover, by the arrowheads he turned up in the course of hoeing, “that an extinct nation had anciently dwelt here and planted corn and beans ere white men came to clear the land, and so, to some extent, had exhausted the soil for this very crop.” Beans thus smacked of the wilderness; they were no kin to English hay.

The crop of English hay is carefully weighed, the moisture calculated, the silicates, and the potash; but in all dells and pond holes in the woods and pastures and swamps grows a rich and various crop only unreaped by man. Mine was, as it were, the connecting link between wild and cultivated fields . . . so my field was, though not in a bad sense, a half-cultivated field. They were beans cheerfully returning to their wild and primitive state that I cultivated , and my hoe played the Rans des Vaches for them.

Thoreau not only defied the wisdom of his elders by specializing in beans. He happily ignored advice on many other matters as well. He planted late. He did nothing to improve the thin soil. No foul manures, no commercial, chemical fertilizers for this field! He left three feet between rows and 18 inches between plants; the New England Farmer that same year recommended around two feet and six inches, respectively. Thoreau’s beans needed room to grow. He hoed them while they were still wet with morning dew: “I would advise you to do all your work if possible, while the dew is on.” He claimed to have spent numerous hours cultivating them, from five a.m.to noon, day in, day out, yet somehow he never managed to cultivate them all, though they occupied fewer than two-and-a-half acres. Nor was he any more diligent about dealing with marauding wood-chucks. He asked one old woodsman: “Mr. W., is there any way to get woodchucks without trapping them—” “Yes, shoot ‘em, you damn fool.” He declined the advice, until there was no choice: it was either him or the woodchucks. Supposedly, Thoreau laid a successful trap, but rather than end the creature’s career of pillaging, he carried it two miles away, administered a schoolmasterly beating with a stick, then let the rogue go in peace.(Later on, he would devour its kinsman.) Who is he to decide, Thoreau asks, who should live and who should die? “These beans have results which are not harvested by me. Do they not grow for woodchucks also?”

Perhaps the most telling clue to Thoreau’s satirical intent is the final accounting of his results. He presents us with a detailed balance sheet as his contribution to the literature of agricultural improvement, “for it is complained that Mr. Coleman [sic] has reported chiefly the expensive experiments of gentlemen farmers.” The table of “outgoes” and “income” appears reassuring on the printed page, until one begins to inspect the figures closely, comparing them with the contemporary accounts of other bean farmers and with the scientific literature on bean culture. Thereupon emerges a sorry record of paltry results. Among Thoreau’s co-workers in the bean fields of Massachusetts in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s, the “brag” crop was 35 bushels per acre, and the normal yield was around 20.Chanticleer could boast at best seven or eight. The futility of Thoreau’s labors, in literal terms, is evident in still another way. Other bean cultivators required only one and a quarter to one and a half quarts of seed to produce a bushel of beans; Thoreau needed four quarts. But then, his rivals for the premiums were not supporting woodchucks with their crop. Thoreau did well in only one aspect of the bean business: he hired his labor cheap, giving only $3 per acre for ploughing, harrowing, and furrowing, when others paid twice that much. Even so, he grumbled that it was “Too much,” Thoreau relished the pretence of being more tightfisted than old “Skin-Flint.”

The point of all these Transcendental high jinks is, I think, to turn the sober literature of agricultural improvement, with its spiritually deadening obsession with crop rotations, manures, turnips, and tools, upside down. The conventional agricultural report of the day would proudly testify that the farmer had taken a rundown field or swamp, fit only for crickets and frogs, and by dint of heroic labor, rational planning, large doses of money, and, not uncommonly, exploitation of Irish laborers, had “raised [the land ] from the dead and adorned [it] with life and beauty.” By contrast, Thoreau claimed to have done just the opposite. He started with exhausted, barren land, did nothing to improve it, obtained little from it, and announced himself quite content. This was a novel achievement, not only in farming, but in American humor. Thoreau had transformed the frontiersman’s tall story into a Transcendental small story, replacing the grandiose with the diminutive and, in the process, deflating the exaggerated material pretensions of his countrymen. At least, one of his reviewers appreciated the jest. Writing in Putnam’s in October 1854, Charles Frederick Briggs remarked that Thoreau’s practical example in farming was unlikely to be imitated.

As he was a squatter, he paid nothing for rent, and as he was making no calculation for future crops, he expended nothing for manure so that the results of his farming will not be highly instructive to young agriculturists, nor be likely to be held up as excitements to farming pursuits by agricultural periodicals.

Still, Briggs could take satisfaction in the fact that Thoreau had cultivated literature rather than beans.

If Mr. Thoreau had been a practical farmer, we should not have been favored with his volume. . . . As it is, we see how much more valuable to mankind is our philosophical vaga-bond than a hundred sturdy agriculturists; any plodder may raise beans, but it is only one in a million who can write a readable volume.

Briggs’ satisfaction in the exchange is today very much our own. Thoreau meant, of course, to “know beans,” not to hoe them, in an imaginative demonstration of how a man’s labor can be so invested with creative spiritual meaning that actor and object become one. “It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans. . . .” As a symbolic project of self-culture, the bean field inverted agricultural reform for Thoreau’s radical, individualistic purposes. Henry Colman urged farmers to reduce their acreage, improve their methods, participate in markets, all for the sake of preserving a traditional, deferential way of life. Thoreau agreed on the need to cut back, but as a means of freeing farmers from the market and thereby enabling them to approach Nature as a source of spiritual growth. As a literary achievement, too, Walden derives its own lessons from agricultural reform. Thoreau labored in his field so devotedly, he says, “if only for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day.” The result was an intensive cultivation of prose, a literary equivalent of hothouse gardening, with Thoreau going over and over the same ground, grafting words with multiple meanings, until he achieved his own “perfectly cultivated acre.” He had learned how to plant his message for the attentive reader and how also to cover it up. That was the secret of the “Great Bean Field Hoax.”

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