No, Thoreau was not a hermit (Walden 98)

Henry David Thoreau, taken August 1861 (seven years after the publication of Walden) at his second and final photographic sitting. He died of tuberculosis less than a year later. Wikimedia Commons

Henry David Thoreau, taken August 1861 (seven years after the publication of Walden) at his second and final photographic sitting. He died of tuberculosis less than a year later. Wikimedia Commons

“I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me thither.” —Henry David Thoreau, “Visitors,” Walden

One of the most persistent myths about Thoreau is that he was a hermit who spent his life living alone in the woods. Anyone who says this has obviously not read Walden.

It’s also inaccurate to say that Thoreau didn’t like other people, or that he wasn’t interested in what they had to say. It’s true, he could be a difficult friend at times. Biographer Robert Richardson says he was “capable of a kind of tart defensive superiority which, when not laced with wit, could irritate — and continues to irritate — his detractors.” (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, p. 185) But Richardson also notes that “friendship was, in certain ways, vital to him.” And, for what it’s worth, local children “were so deeply impressed with his minute knowledge of everything in town they thought it was Mr. Thoreau who had made Concord.” (p. 296)

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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4 thoughts on “No, Thoreau was not a hermit (Walden 98)

  1. Gail

    Definitely not a hermit, even during his two years in the woods, from what I can gather from reading Walden. Every day at noon he goes to the village and observes people, gets invited into their homes, and to various functions, and doesn’t return to the woods till it gets dark. And even when he’s in his cabin, he seems to be frequently visited by people who are curious. But he’s only a mile from the village, so he’s not very cut off. It’s quite fascinating – I’m reading it for the first time. Not being American, it’s not a classic that I grew up with, so I didn’t have many preconceived ideas.

    Reply
    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      I think a lot of people read some of his quotes about solitude, know that he lived alone in a cabin in the woods, and jump to conclusions. He was a more interesting person than that. I think the move to the woods was more about freedom from obligation than it was about isolation. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  2. Tim King

    yes, quite true. He would quite often follow the train tracks back to town and get a hot meal at his mom’s house. He also had her do his laundry there !! He would do side jobs for neighbors in exchange for meals or a bed for a night here and there too.

    Reply
    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      It’s those little details that remind that in many ways he was just an ordinary guy, makin’ a few bucks on the side, having mom do his laundry, just getting by. That ordinariness would have been highly visible to anyone in Concord at that time. I wonder how many of his neighbors recognized that there was also something extraordinary about him?

      Reply

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