Rich Man, Poor Man: A Short Reflection on Thoreau’s “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”

In “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Thoreau teaches us a great lesson on the importance of contentedness. While he is always moving–sauntering, as it were–he is never doing so in search of wealth; at least not monetary wealth. Instead, his constant forward movement is in search of purpose and higher understanding of himself and of the world around him. The search, however, is not motivated by a sense of dissatisfaction for his circumstances. In fact, the opening paragraphs of this chapter reveal the transcendentalist nature of his understanding of both wealth and possession.

Being “rich” is not necessarily about the quantity or even the quality of what we possess, but rather our appreciation for the fact that we have it. After returning the Hollowell’s farm with no penalty assessed, he remarks:

I let him keep the ten dollars and the farm too, for I had carried it far enough; or rather, to be generous, I sold him the farm for just what I gave for it, and, as he was not a rich man, made him a present of ten dollars, and still had my ten cents, and seeds, and materials for a wheelbarrow left. I found thus that I had been a rich man without any damage to my poverty. But I had retained the landscape, and I have since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow. With respect to landscapes, — “I am a monarch of all I survey, / My right there is none to dispute” (“Where I Lived” 79).

Although the purchase of the farm had been made, and ownership had passed from one hand to the other, Thoreau did not punish the seller for reneging on the deal. Selling the farm back to him for exactly what he paid, and “gifting” the extra ten dollars indicates his greater understanding of the concept of ownership. To whom does land truly belong? By whose right does the owner claim it? There is no real authority which gives one man over another the right to a piece of land except the respect for laws which back the ownership. But, even those laws are no real authority if one man decides to take the land by force and has the force to keep it–we need only look to our own history with Native Americans to see that. Thoreau understood that the land was no more his to buy than it was Hollowell’s to sell, so there was nothing to be gained to charge the extra fee. There was, in fact, everything to be lost.

The lines I find most telling in this passage are the last two. Thoreau writes, “I found thus that I had been a rich man without damage to my poverty.” The meaning of this line is two-fold. Upon buying the land he was, materially, a man of great wealth. He owned a piece of land to cultivate either for sustenance or profit. With that land he would likely be able to live quite comfortably for as long as he had it. But, in returning it, he had not damaged his ability to provide for himself. Materially, he was in no worse a position than he was when he set out to buy the farm. He had enough money to buy what he might need immediately, seeds to plant a crop for the future, and materials for a wheelbarrow to carry it away. He was no worse off than before. There is, I believe, a more important meaning here. He had also been a “rich man” without damaging his integrity. He had not laid claim to any part of the land, even symbolically in the ten-dollar penalty, which had never truly changed hands. His character was in no worse a position than it had been before he made the deal. He was a man who could be trusted to do the right thing, which was, as we understand from his “honest man” in “Civil Disobedience,” truly important to Thoreau. But, we learn in the last line that, even after he returned the land to its owner, he never lost possession of it. He “retained the landscape” in his memory. Once he had seen it, and walked it, and smelled it, and tasted its produce, and heard the sounds on and around it, he would never be without it again. He could walk away from it, as a poet, having, “enjoyed the most valuable part of [the] farm” (80), and he could return to it in his memory at any time and take with him what it produced. These lines reveal an incredibly important part of Thoreau’s character–a belief that life is about far more than material possessions, and that we should be content to live in a way that brings us closer to our world–even the people in it.

This passage teaches us that contentment is about being satisfied with what we have. If we have enough and if we do not want for anything, then we are, by all accounts, rich. We should not fear that life is or will be meaningless if we lack great wealth or material possessions. Just like the farm, if we experience life to its fullest then we have gotten the best from it that we can hope to get. It reminds me of some lines from Shakespeare’s “Othello.” In Act 3, Scene 3, Iago cautions Othello against jealousy:

Poor and content is rich, and rich enough,
But riches fineless is as poor as winter
To him that ever fears he shall be poor.
Good heaven, the souls of all my tribe defend
From jealousy (836)!

It does not matter how poor we might be where money or possessions are concerned. If we are content with our life, and if we are not focused on fear, then we are “rich.” Thoreau challenges common notions of rich and poor. In “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” he makes clear that the importance of life is purpose instead of possessions.

Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” William Shakespeare: Complete Plays. Fall River Press, 2012.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.” Walden. Edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer. Yale UP, 2004.


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