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.”

Watch 10 Celebrities Read Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven"

by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” published in 1845, has been inspiring fellow artists for nearly 175 years. From Christopher Walken to Neil Gaiman, here are 10 celebrities putting their own spin on Poe's iconic verses.

1. Neil Gaiman

Literary wunderkind Neil Gaiman is putting his love of all things creepy to good use this year by teaming up with Worldbuilders—a self-described "geek-centered nonprofit supporting humanitarian efforts worldwide"—to assist their group in their fundraising efforts by staging his own candelit reading of Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem.  

2. Christopher Walken

Everyone does a Christopher Walken impression, but rarely do they come close to matching the unique inflection of the real deal. For the Poe tribute album Closed on Account of Rabies (1997), Walken recited the classic narrative poem as various haunting sound effects moaned and whistled in the background.

3. James Earl Jones

There are very few actors whose voices are as iconic as James Earl Jones's. From Darth Vader in the Star Wars films to Mufasa in The Lion King, you always know when the veteran thespian—who had a stutter as a child—is behind a character because of the deep, theatrical boom of his voice.

4. Vincent Price

The legendary actor—and the creepy voice in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—needs no introduction to horror fans (or to those who remember the old Tilex mildew remover commercials). The clip above isn't the only time that Price was recorded reciting Poe’s poetry. If you want more, check out the hour-long Halloween special An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe (1970), during which Price reads “The Tell-Tale Heart,” "The Sphinx," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Pit and the Pendulum."

5. Sir Christopher Lee

Known to younger generations as the actor who played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings franchise, the late Christopher Lee has more than 270 acting credits to his name, dating all the way back to the mid-1940s. Of those credits, Lee has lent his skills and voice to numerous legendary characters, including Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, and Dracula several times over.

6. Stan Lee

If Stan Lee hadn't gone into comics, he could very well have been a voice actor—at least based on his 2008 reading of "The Raven," a poem he said he at one point had memorized.

7. William Shatner

To the world, William Shatner will always be Captain Kirk. The character is so closely tied to the actor’s personality that it’s hard not to see them as the same person, which makes it harder to watch—or take seriously—a young Shatner reciting “The Raven” on stage during Dick Clark’s Magical, Musical Halloween (1983).

8. John Astin

Known primarily for the role of Gomez Addams in the television show The Addams Family, John Astin’s eyes and mustache add to the creepiness (and unintentional humor) of his dramatic reading of "The Raven," as he stands in full costume.

9. Basil Rathbone

Many recordings were made of this Shakespearean stage actor and star of many a Sherlock Holmes movie as he read the works of authors like Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and, of course, Poe. In the recording above, his voice fluctuates from calm and almost musical to loud and quite terrifying as things begin to escalate between man and bird.

10. Tay Zonday

If you're familiar with the Internet at all, then you probably know Tay Zonday. The deep-voiced YouTube celebrity rose to Internet fame with his song and music video "Chocolate Rain" back in 2007, and he has been using his natural voice to delight and unsettle audiences ever since.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

12 Facts About William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

It’s safe to say that there are few people on Earth who don’t know the story of Romeo and Juliet. William Shakespeare's tragic story of two star-crossed lovers has been adapted hundreds—if not thousands—of times over the years, and not always exactly in the Bard’s own words. There have been musical versions, opera renditions, and more than 100 film and TV versions of the play. While George Cukor’s 1936 film, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie, and Baz Luhrmann’s modern (for 1996) adaptation are some of the best known big-screen interpretations of the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets, West Side Story is yet another take on the tale. What is it about this 16th-century play that has had such a lasting impression on readers and audiences? Read on to find out more about William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet .

1. William Shakespeare wasn’t the first person to write about the Montagues and the Capulets.

The Montagues and the Capulets—the two families at the center of the family rivalry that makes Romeo and Juliet’s love an impossible predicament—were kicking around long before William Shakespeare got a hold of them. In “Divine Comedy,” the epic poem that took Dante more than 10 years to complete, he makes the following reference:

"Come and see, you who are negligent, / Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi: / One lot already grieving, the other in fear. / Come, you who are cruel, come and see the distress / Of your noble families, and cleanse their rottenness."

Dante’s “Divine Comedy” was written more than 250 years before Shakespeare was even born.

2. Romeo and Juliet is based on an Arthur Brooke poem.

Cribbing ideas from other writers was a totally normal thing to do back in Shakespeare’s time, so it’s hardly surprising that the story of Romeo and Juliet isn’t exactly an original one. The Bard based his star-crossed lovers on the main characters in Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.”

Much like Shakespeare’s tale, Brooke’s poem is set in Verona, Italy. According to the British Library, “Brooke’s poem describes the ‘deadly’ feud between two wealthy, noble families—Capulet and Montague. Against this backdrop of ‘blacke hate,’ he tells the ‘unhappy’ tale of a beautiful youth, Romeus Montague, whose heart is entrapped by the wise and graceful Juliet Capulet.”

3. It wasn’t always called Romeo and Juliet.

When it was first published, Romeo and Juliet went by a much more descriptive—and much longer—title : The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

4. The first publication of Romeo and Juliet is thought to be an unauthorized version of the play.

Romeo and Juliet was originally published in 1597, in the First Quarto. But Shakespeare scholars have long argued that this version of the play was not only incomplete, but unauthorized. The 1599 version, published in the Second Quarto, is the version of Romeo and Juliet we all know and love today.

5. The ending of Romeo and Juliet was hardly a surprise.

Romeo and Juliet kicks off with a prologue that tells the reader exactly where the play is going:

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

So much for suspense! What the prologue does do, however, is set the stage for the actors to fill in the details of the very broad strokes of the play’s first lines.

6. Juliet is just 13 years old.

We know that Romeo and Juliet are a young couple in love—but it’s easy to miss just how young Juliet is. In Act I, Scene III, Lady Capulet says that Juliet is “not [yet] fourteen.” She is actually just about two weeks shy of her 14th birthday. Romeo’s exact age is never given.

7. The couple’s courtship was indeed a whirlwind.

Romeo and Juliet,Act II- Scene-VI
Sir John Gilbert, Melhoramentos Edition // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Talk about a whirlwind romance! Given that we know Juliet is just 13 years old, her impetuousness might seem more understandable. But from the time they meet to the time they marry, Romeo and Juliet have known each other less than 24 hours.

8. There is no balcony in Romeo and Juliet ‘s “balcony scene.”

One of Romeo and Juliet's most iconic moments is what has become known as “The Balcony Scene,” which occurs in Act II, Scene 2. There’s just one problem: The word balcony is never mentioned in Shakespeare’s play. There’s a good reason for that, too: according to Merriam-Webster, the earliest known usage of the term, originally spelled balcone, didn’t occur until 1618—more than 20 years after Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. According to the play, the scene takes place at Capulet’s Orchard when “Juliet appears above at a window.”

9. It wasn’t until 1662 that a woman played the role of Juliet.

A 17th-century image of Mary Saunderson, an English actress.
A 17th-century image of English actress Mary Saunderson.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

As anyone who has seen Shakespeare in Love knows, back in the Bard’s days and up until 1660, all stage roles were performed by men. But in 1662, actress Mary Saunderson stepped onto the stage as Juliet; she is believed to be the first woman to play the iconic role.

10. One writer dared to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending.

Irish poet and lyricist Nahum Tate, who became England’s poet laureate in 1692, had a penchant for messing around with Shakespeare’s words. In addition to rewriting Shakespeare’s King Lear as 1681’s The History of King Lear—in which he tacked on a happy ending to the tragedy (Cordelia married Edgar)—he did the same with Romeo and Juliet. Unlike his version of King Lear, which became quite popular, his alternate ending for Romeo and Juliet didn’t seem to stick.

11. One theater director eliminated Rosaline from the play altogether.

When we first meet Romeo, it is not Juliet but another woman, Rosaline, upon whom the young lothario has set his sights. But then he meets Juliet and all bets are off. When staging his own version of Romeo and Juliet in 1748, actor/playwright David Garrick opted to lose the Rosaline character altogether as he believed it lessened the impact of Romeo’s love for Juliet and made him seem too “fickle.”

12. Romeo has become shorthand for a male lover.

Romeo and Juliet has had a lasting effect on the English language, including its popularization of words like ladybird and phrases like wild goose chase. But Romeo, too, has his own dictionary entry: in addition to being defined as “the hero of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet who dies for love of Juliet” by Merriam-Webster, Romeo has also come to mean “a male lover.”

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