What did Thoreau learn in jail?

In jail, Thoreau learned that he had much in common with his fellow prisoners, who had formed a decent community within the walls. He also came to understand the town of Concord by being inside one of its institutions and by observing and listening to what went on outside. When he left jail, he found that his neighbors treated him differently and learned "that their friendship was for summer weather only."

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Thoreau found his brief imprisonment interesting for a number of reasons. First, he discovered that the jail was quite a clean and civilized place. He describes his cell, which was whitewashed once a month, as "the whitest, most simply furnished, and probably the neatest apartment in town." His cellmate was congenial and intelligent and seemed quite content with his life in prison, "since he got his board for nothing, and thought that he was well treated." Thoreau was also initiated into the gossip of the prison, which never circulated beyond its walls, and read verses composed by former prisoners. Being inside one of the institutions of the town, he felt he understood it better than before, and that he had never really listened to or looked at what was going on around him when he was outside the jail:

It was like travelling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I never had heard the town-clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of the village.

In jail, Thoreau learned that the prisoners were people much like himself, and they had even managed to form a decent community there. Paradoxically, it was when he left jail that he learned his neighbors in Concord were more distant than he had thought. He found that those among whom he had been accustomed to live did not think much of him, "that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly purpose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions." Although he was only in jail for one night, Thoreau found that his neighbors regarded him quite differently afterwards, and that he had changed too, since he had gained an understanding of how his society dealt with those who did not conform to its rules.

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