In his essay, “The End of Solitude,” recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, William Deresiewicz argues that we are undergoing a historical shift in the social significance of solitude. Once viewed as a necessary means to better connect with God, or with Nature, or with the fraught Self, solitude has now become synonymous with loneliness in our contemporary culture. Deresiewicz makes the case that those of the web generation, particularly young people today, are increasingly unable to be alone without the fear of feeling lonely or, perhaps worse, feeling bored. Technology has weakened our concentration, our privacy, and most significantly, our propensity for solitude. According to Deresiewicz, our sense of self today is enhanced not by solitary communion but by communal validation: our worth is measured by numbers of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, our identity is only reaffirmed by constant public visibility and validation by others.
Agree or disagree with Deresiewicz, his argument is undeniably provocative, as it forces us to at least contemplate—either alone or in the company of others—the role of solitude in our own lives. His essay certainly got me thinking about solitude. Solitude is something I have always valued. I have always made a space for solitude in my life. But why? Where did I learn to value solitude? Books played a role, this much I know. Books I read when I was younger modeled the idea of standing alone without being lonely. From books I learned not to fear solitude. From books I learned the difference between loneliness and solitude. And the first book to teach me this was a novel published in 1959 called My Side of the Mountain, by Jean George.
George’s book tells the tale of a teenage boy who leaves home in New York City to live in his family’s abandoned old farmland in the Catskills. At the book’s outset, Sam Gribley tells his father he is running away to live in the woods, and his father casually replies, “Sure, go try it. Every boy should try it” (probably not something parents would say in 2010, but this was the fifties). He leaves with only a penknife, a ball of cord, an ax, a flint and steel, and $40. After hitching rides and arriving in the Catskills, Sam finds an isolated part of a mountain where he hollows out a tree and calls it his new home. During the year he spends in the woods, Sam learns how to hunt, fish, whittle, and collect berries and food. Some of these skills he learns on his own, some with the help of books he reads at the closest library he occasionally wanders into town to visit. George’s book includes illustrations teaching the reader such things as how to build shelters, make willow flutes, set snares, and identify wild onions.
Reading this book as a—what, ten or eleven-year-old?—I was entranced. Sam was not scared, not lonely, not in danger. He was communing with animals, with the changing seasons, with the challenging weather, with the complex relationships he observed all around him in nature. During the course of his self-imposed walkabout, Sam embraced solitude as both a rite of passage and an antidote to city life.
My Side of the Mountain both romanticized and validated solitude for me. Its lingering impression was reinforced by other books I read as I grew older. Thoreau’s On Walden Pond. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. These were my literary models of solitude, models that showed me what solitude looked like, showed me what it could produce, showed me why it was important. And there were others: Barry Lopez’s reflections on the revitalizing power of being alone in the wilderness in Crossing Open Ground. Elise Boulding’s beautiful essay on the importance of solitude in the life of a child from her book One Small Plot of Heaven. Annie Dillard’s solitary meditations on God and Nature in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Diana Michener’s “Catching the Sun,” a refreshingly honest essay on the complicated relationship between work, art, solitude, and the self. And Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s teeming, breathing, vibrant love letter to America that was, to me, so clearly the product of his own solitary reflection.
At the same time, literature contrasted these images of solitude with images of loneliness, helping me understand the difference between the two. There was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, drinking sloe gin fizz and listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” in his underground hole, isolated and terribly lonely. In John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, there was Dr. Wilbur Larch, ether addict and secret abortionist, inhaling the anesthetic at the end of the day in his office, revisiting past anguish, doing good works in his orphanage yet so heartbreakingly alone. In novels by J.M. Coetzee and Milan Kundera and Philip Roth, I found protagonists who claimed to be living voluntarily in solitude, but their loneliness was always palpable to me. Reading James Dickey’s poem, “Hospital Window,” with its image of a dying father waving back to his departing son, I was haunted not by the depiction of the old man strangely grinning from his window, but by the looming loneliness trailing his grown child in the street below.
If we have indeed lost sight of the importance of solitude today, perhaps literature can remind us why we must make space for it. If we have come to conflate solitude with loneliness, then perhaps literature can clarify the difference for us. Deresiewicz concludes his essay by asserting, “Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.” For me, books have always suggested ways to stand alone without being lonely. Deresiewicz’s essay prompted me to reflect on this truth, in solitude.