A silhouette of a man alone in the woods.

Was Henry David Thoreau a recluse? How remote was his cabin on Walden Pond? Why did he value solitude?

For Henry David Thoreau, solitude served as a major motivation for living in the woods at Walden Pond. He defined solitude as spending time by himself without feeling alone. But, he was no hermit. He left the woods at times and welcomed guests to his cabin.

Read more to learn about Thoreau’s time alone—and with others—during his Walden years.

Henry David Thoreau & Solitude

According to Henry David Thoreau, solitude enables us to find meaning and spiritual purpose. True solitude is also an antidote to a kind of loneliness that Thoreau contends is far too common in society. He argues that people feel more lonely when they spend too much time in society than when they spend time alone, deeply absorbed in their work, in the way that farmers or students become immersed in their tasks. That said, while Thoreau sought solitude, he also believed that he could reap the benefits of time spent alone without being a hermit.

(Shortform note: Thoreau’s decision to seek a life of solitude—as other Transcendentalists were turning to communal living—was unusual. Historians note that, in Thoreau’s time, few people chose to live alone. The self-sufficiency characteristic of the traditional New England way of life was built on family labor and collaboration. Thoreau, for example, lived in the Emerson household as a gardener, handyman, and babysitter. Similarly, throughout his life, he supported and was supported by his friends and family in Concord. The town offered him a community of care that enabled him to spend time in thought, alone, when he needed to.)

The Biggest Myth About Thoreau’s Time at Walden

Thoreau spends much of the book explaining how he spent his time when he lived in the woods. Amid his accounts of cultivating beans, watching birds, canoeing on the pond, and observing the trees, he also describes passing his time in a way that tends to surprise people: interacting with other people. A pervasive myth about the time Thoreau spent at Walden Pond is that he left society behind to live like a hermit in the woods. But when he moved to the woods, Thoreau didn’t so much disengage from society as deepen his resistance to the parts of the modern world that he found objectionable. We’ll explore how Thoreau participated in society even when he was living on the outskirts of town. 

(Shortform note: It’s a common mistake to construe Thoreau as an “asocial hermit,” Alda Balthrop-Lewis writes in Thoreau’s Religion. She explains that even as he sought solitude, Thoreau wasn’t actually trying to live without human society. He put effort into maintaining his relationships and striking up new friendships while at Walden. He also adopted a view of social life inclusive not just of humans but of all the inhabitants of Walden Woods. That included the animals, plants, and even the memory of Walden’s past human inhabitants, all of whom he regarded as part of a society he was joining by moving to Walden Pond.) 

He Walked Into Town Every Few Days

Contrary to popular perception, Thoreau didn’t live deep in the wilderness. Instead, he built his cabin at the edge of the woods, right outside of Concord. He walked the short route into town regularly, following the tracks of the Fitchburg railroad. He writes that, when he was in town, he enjoyed catching up on gossip and news, observing how people lived, buying the rye or cornmeal he needed, and then escaping to the woods again.

Though Thoreau writes that he disliked modern society’s materialism and its lack of meaningful connection with nature—two topics that he addresses repeatedly throughout the book—he didn’t leave Concord or its social issues behind when he moved to Walden. He sought to strike a balance between removing himself physically (and spiritually) from life in Concord and continuing to engage thoughtfully and critically with its society and politics.

He Entertained Visitors at His Cabin

Because he built his cabin within walking distance of Concord, Thoreau could regularly host visitors. He notes that when he outfitted the cabin, he chose to have not one or even two chairs, but three. He anticipated that there might be occasions to entertain several visitors. Thoreau explains that he enjoyed the company of people who visited the woods with the intention of really leaving the preoccupations of the city behind them. Thoreau writes that he often had philosophical discussions with people who passed through the woods.

Henry David Thoreau: Solitude—but Not Isolation—at Walden Pond

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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