Myths and Misconceptions

Myth:  Thoreau was a hermit who was trying to avoid people and society by moving to Walden Pond.

In reality:

  • Henry’s house at Walden Pond was not isolated in the wilderness, but less than half a mile to either the railroad or the main road into Concord.
  • Henry walked into town regularly to visit family and friends, often joining them for dinner at their houses. He also entertained guests and conversed with passersby at his house at Walden Pond.
  • Henry enjoyed talking and traveling with his close friends, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellery Channing, Bronson and May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
  • He even threw parties! Henry’s annual melon party, featuring his own delicious watermelons, was a popular event among his neighbors.
  • Henry went to Walden as an experiment in simple and deliberate living and to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, not as an exercise in complete solitude. He felt that the distance from town helped eliminate some of the more frivolous visits he would otherwise receive while those people he most wanted to see would still make the effort to come out to his house.
  • Henry was certainly a social critic, but he did not seek to cut himself off from society. By living at Walden Pond he was able to immerse himself in nature and distance himself from the bustle of everyday life in town, but he did not cut off contact with the rest of the world. Henry highly valued community and maintained close friendships throughout his life.

Myth: Thoreau was a freeloader.

In reality:

  • Henry earned money in a number of ways and was successful at his professional endeavors. He was a skilled surveyor, a well-received orator who received fees to speak (he was once asked to stand in for Frederick Douglass) and a savvy businessman whose ingenuity propelled the family pencil making business into a national success.
  • Though he called himself a “squatter” on Emerson’s land at Walden Pond, Henry was not taking advantage of their friendship and giving nothing in return. In fact, Henry had agreed to leave the house he had constructed as a study for Emerson at the end of his experiment. Henry also did a variety of work for Emerson while living with him before and after his time at Walden Pond, from household odd jobs to carpentry.
  • Though Henry’s family sometimes invited him to dine with them or brought him food while he was living at Walden, he was not a freeloader. In reality he ate out only occasionally and was perceived by his friends to do so primarily out of consideration for those who wished to extend their hospitality to him.
  • When living with his parents as an adult, Henry did not expect them to cover the expense of his board but contributed money for his rent. Henry was meticulous about paying off his debts.

Misconception:  Walden misrepresents Henry’s real experiences.

  • Henry never intended for Walden to be a biography or an exact chronology of his time at Walden Pond, but neither did he lie nor deceive his readers. Today, Walden fits into the genre of creative non-fiction.
  • Henry does not pretend to be totally isolated, but tells his readers from the start that he was only half a mile (0.8 kilometers) from the railroad station and a fifth of a mile (300 meters) to the main road to Concord. He states that he went into town “every day or two.”
  • Henry never claims to cook all of his meals at his house. He explains that he “dined out occasionally,” but only as often as he ate with friends before moving to Walden Pond.
  •  In writing Walden, Henry compressed two years into one (which informs us very directly) and did not include every event, such as his night in jail or trip to Maine. Henry selected content appropriate to the themes of his work, such as solitude, simplicity, nature and seasons. In Walden, like in all of his works, he aims to get across a specific message to his audience. In order to do that, he creates a persona that is not the same as Henry David Thoreau, the person.

Misconception: Henry was opposed to technology and progress.

In reality:

  • Henry had an open mind and enjoyed learning about new ideas and inventions. He read a German encyclopedia in order to learn how to make better graphite for his family’s pencil making business.
  • Henry liked gadgets; he was adept at using his surveying equipment and he also often carried with him a small telescope and microscope on his nature walks.
  • While he strongly felt people should not let the technological advances of the day rule their lives and substitute technology for connection with Nature (he lamented the fact that farmers who once set their timepieces by the sun started to set them by the train’s stops in town), he did utilize the advances of his day when they served a useful function. For example, he took the train to places like Boston and Cambridge to visit libraries.