11 Simple Facts About Henry David Thoreau

By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau declared his love of nature, simplicity, and independence. Although most people know about Thoreau’s time in Walden Woods, as well as his Transcendentalism, abolitionist views, and writing on civil disobedience, there’s a lot more to uncover about him. In honor of his birthday (he would’ve turned 201 years old today), here are 11 things you might not have known about Henry David Thoreau.

1. WE’RE PROBABLY MISPRONOUNCING HIS NAME.

Born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817, David Henry Thoreau switched his first and middle names after graduating from Harvard. His legal name, though, was always David Henry. Although most people today pronounce Thoreau’s surname with the emphasis on the second syllable, he most likely pronounced it “THOR-oh.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son, Edward, wrote that the accent in Thoreau’s name was on the first syllable, and other friends called him “Mr. Thorough.”

2. HE INVENTED A MACHINE TO IMPROVE PENCILS.

In the 1820s, Thoreau’s father started manufacturing black-lead pencils. Between teaching students, surveying land, and working as a handyman, Thoreau made money by working for his family’s pencil business. After researching German techniques for making pencils, he invented a grinding machine that made better quality plumbago (a mixture of the lead, graphite, and clay inside a pencil). After his father died, Thoreau ran the family’s pencil company.

3. HE ACCIDENTALLY BURNED HUNDREDS OF ACRES OF WOODS.

In 1844, a year before moving into a house in Walden Woods, the 26-year-old Thoreau was cooking fish he had caught with a friend in the woods outside Concord. The grass around the fire ignited, and the flames burned between 100 and 300 acres of land, thanks to strong winds. Even years later, his neighbors disparagingly called him a rascal and a woods burner. In an 1850 journal entry, Thoreau described how the earth was “uncommonly dry”—there hadn’t been much rain—and how the fire “spread rapidly.” Although he initially felt guilty, he wrote that he soon realized that fire is natural, and lightning could have sparked a fire in the woods just as easily as his cooking accident did.

4. HIS HOUSE AT WALDEN POND LATER BECAME A PIGSTY.

After Thoreau left the home he built in Walden Woods in 1847, the structure went through multiple iterations. He sold the house to Emerson (it was on land that Emerson already owned), and Emerson sold it to his gardener. The gardener never moved in, so the house was empty until a farmer named James Clark bought it in 1849. Clark moved it to his nearby farm and used it to store grain. In 1868, the roof of the building was removed from the base and used to cover a pigsty. In 1875, the rest of the structure was used as a shed before its timber was used to fix Clark’s barn. Today, you can see replicas of Thoreau’s house near Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

5. HE AND HIS BROTHER WERE CAUGHT IN A LOVE TRIANGLE.

In 1839, Thoreau wrote in his journal about how he fell in love with Ellen Sewall, an 18-year-old from Cape Cod. In 1840, Thoreau’s older brother John proposed marriage to Sewall but was rejected. So, like any good brother, Thoreau wrote a letter to Sewall, proposing that she marry him instead. Sewall rejected him too, probably due to her family disapproving of the Thoreau family’s liberal views on Christianity.

Despite the aforementioned marriage proposal, some historians and biographers speculate that Thoreau was gay. He never married, reportedly preferred celibacy, and his journals reveal references to male bodies but no female ones.

6. DESPITE POPULAR MISCONCEPTION, HE WASN’T A LONER.

Historians have debunked the misconception that Thoreau was a selfish hermit who lived alone so he could stay away from other people. Rather than being a loner, Thoreau was an individualist who was close to his family members and lived with Emerson’s family (on and off) for years. To build his cabin in the woods, he got help from his friends including Emerson and Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott. During his stay in the woods, he frequently entertained guests, visited friends, and walked to the (nearby) town of Concord. At his funeral at Concord’s First Parish Church, a large group of friends attended to mourn and celebrate his life.

7. HE WAS A MINIMALIST.

Long before tiny houses were trendy, Thoreau wrote about the benefits of living a simple, minimalist lifestyle. In Walden, he wrote about giving up the luxuries of everyday life in order to quiet the mind and have time for thinking. “My greatest skill has been to want but little,” he wrote. Thoreau also related his love of simplicity to the craft of writing: “It is the fault of some excellent writers ... that they express themselves with too great fullness and detail. They give the most faithful, natural, and lifelike account of their sensations, mental and physical, but they lack moderation and sententiousness.”

8. HE TOOK COPIOUS NOTES.

Although he was a minimalist, Thoreau wrote an abundance of notes and ideas in his journals, essays, and letters. He jotted down his observations of nature, writing in detail about everything from how plant seeds spread across the land to the changing temperature of Walden Pond to animal behavior. In addition to his plethora of notes and environmental data, Thoreau also collected hundreds of plant specimens and birds’ eggs.

9. HE WAS PRAISED FOR HIS ORIGINALITY.

In 1862, newspapers widely reported the news of Thoreau’s death. Obituaries for the 44-year-old writer appeared in The Boston Transcript, The Boston Daily Advertiser, The Liberator, The Boston Journal, The New-York Daily Tribune, and The Salem Observer. The obituaries describe Thoreau as an “eccentric author” and “one of the most original thinkers our country has produced.”

10. HE DONATED HIS COLLECTIONS TO THE BOSTON SOCIETY OF NATURAL HISTORY.

After Thoreau’s death, the Boston Society of Natural History got a huge gift. Thoreau, a member, gave the society his collections of plants, Indian antiquities, and birds’ eggs and nests. The plants were pressed and numbered—there were more than 1000 species—and the Native American antiquities included stone weapons that Thoreau had found while walking in Concord.

11. DON HENLEY OF THE EAGLES IS A HUGE FAN.

As a big fan of both Thoreau and Transcendentalism, musician Don Henley of the Eagles started The Walden Woods Project in 1990 to stop 68 acres of Walden Woods from being turned into offices and condominiums. The project succeeded in saving the woods, and today The Walden Woods Project is a nonprofit organization that conserves Walden Woods, preserves Thoreau’s legacy, and manages an archive of Thoreau’s books, maps, letters, and manuscripts. In an interview with Preservation Magazine, Henley described the importance of preserving Walden Woods: “The pond and the woods that inspired the writing of Walden are historically significant not only because they were the setting for a great American classic, but also because Walden Woods was Henry David Thoreau's living laboratory, where he formulated his theory of forest succession, a precursor to contemporary ecological science.”

Audible Makes Hundreds of Audiobooks Available for Free While Schools Are Closed

This gleeful teen is probably not listening to Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.
This gleeful teen is probably not listening to Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.
max-kegfire/iStock via Getty Images

To keep kids occupied and educated at home, Audible recently launched “Audible Stories,” a completely free online library with hundreds of audiobooks that’ll stay “open” for as long as schools are closed.

The stories are split into categories like “Littlest Listeners,” “Elementary,” “Tween,” and “Teen,” so parents can easily choose an age-appropriate bedtime story for their toddlers, and high-schoolers can automatically bypass titles like ABC: Learn Your Alphabet With Songs and Rhymes. And while the platform might’ve been created mainly for the benefit of housebound schoolchildren, you definitely don’t have to be a kid to appreciate the calming adventures of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. There’s even a “Literary Classics” section with audiobooks that appeal to listeners of any age, like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Some of the audiobooks even feature the familiar voices of top-notch talent from your favorite films and television series. Westworld’s Thandie Newton narrates Jane Eyre, Scarlett Johansson lends her versatile voice to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Rachel McAdams brings her own spirited spin to Anne of Green Gables. The crown jewel of the site is probably Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, read by Stephen Fry.

You don’t need an Audible account or the Audible app to access the platform. Just open "stories.audible.com" in any web browser on any device. And if you want to take a break from listening, Audible will save your spot (but only for the most recent audiobook you’ve played).

The digital library is not just for English-speaking users—there are titles narrated in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese, too, including foreign-language versions of classics like Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. If you're interested in Audible's full offering, you can try out a 30-day free trial.

Looking for something to do while you listen? Here’s how to grow your own yeast for sourdough bread.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

The Top 25 Bestselling E-Books on Amazon Right Now

Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

Right now, the ability to access books on your tablet or phone—without leaving your house or waiting days for an order to arrive in the mail—seems more magical than ever. With just about every book at your fingertips, however, it might be a little difficult to decide which one to choose.

You could ask for recommendations from friends and family, or use this website, which specializes in personalized reading lists based on books you’ve already read and loved. Or you could check out Amazon’s current list of bestselling e-books—updated by the hour—to see what the general population just can’t get enough of. As of this morning (March 31), Elle Marr’s highly anticipated thriller The Missing Sister sits in the number one spot; since its publication date isn’t until April 1, that means it’s gotten to the top of the list on pre-orders alone.

There are several other riveting thrillers on the list, including Dean Koontz’s latest, In the Heart of the Fire, and Christopher Greyson’s murder mystery The Girl Who Lived. Plenty of other genres are well-represented, too, from Stephen R. Covey’s classic self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Jory John’s charming children’s story The Bad Seed.

And, of course, it would hardly seem like a bestseller list if Harry Potter didn’t make an appearance or two. According to this data, more than a few people are spending their quarantine time reading (or re-reading) J.K. Rowling’s beloved series—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are at number seven and number 17, respectively.

Look through March 31’s top 25 below:

  1. The Missing Sister by Elle Marr // $5
  1. Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis // $13
  1. Wall of Silence by Tracy Buchanan // $5
  1. The Bad Seed by Jory John // $13
  1. The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms // $2
  1. Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan // $5
  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey // $6
  1. When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal // $5
  1. Rough Edge by Lauren Landish // $4
  1. The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy // $1
  1. If You Tell by Gregg Olsen // $2
  1. Now, Then, and Everywhen by Rysa Walker // $5
  1. The Girl Who Lived by Christopher Greyson // $10
  1. Rain Will Come by Thomas Holgate // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Other Family by Loretta Nyhan // $5
  1. In the Heart of the Fire by Dean Koontz // $2
  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng // $10
  1. Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes by James Dean // $8
  1. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson // $15
  1. Unlimited Memory by Kevin Horsley // $10
  1. Lift Her Up by T.S. Joyce // $1
  1. In an Instant by Suzanne Redfearn // $5

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

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