by Henry David Thoreau
John Field, Irishman
The Irish characters are the only ones with names in Walden. This is not because of their significance, unfortunately, but because they are the least likely characters to actually read the book. Thoreau's characterization of Irish people often follows the racial stereotyping of his time. Remember, this was an era when Irish immigrants were flooding into the United States to escape famine conditions in Ireland. Anti-immigration sentiment portrayed the Irish as impoverished and backwards, with a tendency to create large families that they could not support. According to their critics, this all suggested moral weakness. (You can learn all about Irish immigration to the US, and anti-Irish stereotypes, in our guide to the history of Early Immigration in America.)
The Irish characters that appear in the novel – John Field, James Collins, Seeley – all fit this stereotype, and Thoreau will even go so far as to say that "the culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe" (Baker Farm.3). Like the woodchopper, the Irish characters in Walden serve as examples of incomplete human beings, too involved in their animal existence to attain intellectual enlightenment. Ouch.