How Alone Was Thoreau, Exactly?

In her scathing attack of Henry David Thoreau and Walden, Kathryn Schulz implies that Thoreau deliberately misleads readers into thinking he is more secluded from society than he is. However, defenders of Thoreau point out that he never does mislead readers; it is only common misconception that has lead people to view him as a recluse. So I began to wonder, what does Thoreau have to say on his isolation? And can distant reading help me determine that?

Using Voyant Tools to comb through Walden, if one enters words into the tool below, they will find words are that are commonly found near the original word. Of the words I chose to look at, three had to do with seclusion–loneliness, hermit, and alone–and three had to do with companionship–friend, Concord, and neighbor. While no definitive answer was found as to Thoreau’s own view of his separation–with this method, anyway–it was interesting to see which words were linked with each other.

Some things pointed more towards Thoreau being a member of society. He has “old” “friends,” “Concord” is “good,” his “neighbors” are also “good” and “known,” and his “loneliness” is found to be “relieved.” However, other things indicate that Thoreau was distant from others. He “avoided” his “neighbors,” and they were a mile away, maybe even a “good” “mile” if one is to read it that way. Additionally, he is “let” “alone” a “great” “deal.”

Ultimately, only six words and their correlates cannot tell us anything about Walden. Such information as I was trying to glean must be found from reading the book. But that does not mean that analyzing the novel from afar does not tell us interesting things as well. This provides a framework for what words and sections to study in order to determine more about Thoreau’s greatest work.

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