Student Question

How did Thoreau construct his cabin in Walden?

Quick answer:

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau built his cabin on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau bought a nearby shanty from an Irish railroad worker, tore it down, then used the boards to build his own cabin on Emerson’s land.

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Before Henry David Thoreau could build his cabin, he needed land to build his cabin on. That land was acquired through Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was a famous writer who had bought lots of cheap land that he wasn’t using. Rather than leave it unoccupied, he let his friend Thoreau use a piece of the land for his own ascetic project. Thoreau found a nearby shanty owned by an Irish railroad worker named James Collins. After acquiring Collins's rudimentary cabin for $4.25, Thoreau tore it down and used the boards for his own cabin on Emerson’s land.

According to Thoreau, the cabin cost around $28 to build. Thoreau had to buy the lime, the nails, and the plaster. He did not have to buy the wood, since he apparently used the pine trees on Emerson’s land for free. Thoreau didn’t have to pay for additional laborers, because he built his cabin on his own.

The story of Thoreau, his cabin, and his life on Walden Pond has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. For all of Thoreau’s talk about isolation, solitude, and frugality, Thoreau might not have been able to build his cabin at all if not for his connections to Emerson and Emerson’s own participation in the capitalist marketplace.

Even after Thoreau built his cabin, his life wasn’t as remote and secluded as it’s commonly portrayed. His cabin was near a train and only twenty minutes away from Concord.

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How does Henry David Thoreau go about building his cabin from start to finish in Walden?

Henry David Thoreau begins by building the frame for his cabin, as described in Walden. To do so, he borrows an axe, which he uses to cut down tall white pine trees. He hews (cuts) the main timbers to be six inches square and also uses the axe to cut studs, rafters, and floor boards. He then carefully mortises and tenons (attaches by pegs and slots) the parts of each side of the frame of the house. At this point the four sides of the house are lying on the ground, ready to be raised.

Thoreau then buys a shanty, so he can disassemble and use its boards and nails as well as its roofing material. He takes apart the shanty, wheeling the boards and other materials in small loads to his building site, where the sides of the frame are lying on the ground. He leaves the boards and roofing out in the sun to bleach and warp back to proper shape.

He then gathers friends to raise the frame. They do so. When they are gone, Thoreau brings in stones in armfuls and builds a foundation for a chimney, which he will finish in the fall. For now, he hangs the boards and roofing on the frame and has a snug home.

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