Beyond Walden

Danny Heitman complicates our assumptions about Henry David Thoreau:

Despite his fame as a champion of solitude—a practice that he chronicled with wisdom and wit, Thoreau made no secret of the social life he indulged during his stay at Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847. In fact, one of the chapters of Walden, titled "Visitors," offers an extended account of Thoreau’s dealings with others. "I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a blood- sucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way," Thoreau tells readers. "I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar- room, if my business called me thither."

In a subsequent part of "Visitors"—one which ranks among the most-quoted passages in American literature—the lifelong bachelor Thoreau lays out his rules for entertaining:

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up. It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain. I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another.

With Thoreau’s favorable musings on human company hiding in plain sight, why does his reputation as a monastic scribe persist? "Walden is one of those books . . . that a lot of people have a strong opinion about but don’t really read," says Witherell.