In the play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, why does Thoreau believe that calling a man loony is a great compliment to the man and a great insult to the loon?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In the play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Henry David Thoreau and a fellow prisoner hear the call of a loon. Thoreau asks Bailey if he has ever befriended a loon, to which Bailey jokingly replies, “Not till tonight” – that is, not until meeting Thoreau.  To this joke, Thoreau responds as follows:

Any time you hear a man called “loony,” just remember that’s a great compliment to the man and a great disrespect to the loon. A loon doesn’t wage war, his government is perfect, being nonexistent. He is the world’s best fisherman and completely in control of his senses . . . .

Thoreau’s response is typical of the historical person and also of the central character in this play. He highly values nature, thinks that humans often fall short of the standards set by nature, shows a strong respect for political independence, shows a strong disdain for war, and also shows a strong respect for real-world, practical abilities. His praise of the loon shows his willingness and ability to think in unconventional terms – to challenge common assumptions and typical values. In all these ways, Thoreau’s joke about the loon carries series overtones, even as it implies and exemplifies Thoreau’s sense of humor and lack of personal pretentiousness.