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.”

This App Lets You Download Free E-Books, Magazines, Comic Books, and Audiobooks From Your Library

boggy22, iStock via Getty Images
boggy22, iStock via Getty Images

Even if your local library is closed during the novel coronavirus outbreak, you can still use your library card in quarantine. As Thrillist reports, Libby is an app that works with local libraries to give you free access to audiobooks, e-books, comic books, and magazines wherever you are.

Libby, an app from the digital reading company Overdrive, is connected to 90 percent of public libraries in North America. To use the app, just enter the information from your library card and start browsing digital titles available through your local branches. If you don't have a library card yet, some participating libraries will allow you to sign up for a digital card in the app. That way, you don't have to leave home to start reading.

As more people are looking for e-books and audiobooks to pass the time at home, Overdrive has made it possible for multiple users to check out the same title at once. That means as more libraries shift to a 100 percent online loan system for the time being, it will be easier to meet their patrons' needs.

No matter what your current literary mood may be, you should have no trouble finding something to read on Libby. Downloadable titles from the New York Public Library currently available through the app include the e-book of Becoming by Michelle Obama, the e-book of Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, and the audiobook of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. After you download a book, you can send it to your Kindle device, and all items are automatically returned on their due date. Download the free app today to start browsing.

[h/t Thrillist]

5 People Who Were Amazingly Productive In Quarantine

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Life has changed rapidly since WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. As the novel coronavirus that causes the disease has spread across the U.S., offices have closed, public spaces have emptied, and officials have urged people to stay home as much as possible. Many Americans have suddenly found themselves with more free time (at least the ones without kids home from school to take care of) and limited ways to spend it. Isolation or quarantine is a great time to prioritize your mental and physical well-being, but if you also want to use it to be productive, you have plenty of historical role models to choose from. William Shakespeare wasn’t the only person who produced some of his best work during a pandemic—here are some other great thinkers and artists who used social distancing to their advantage.

1. William Shakespeare

“William Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine” is exactly the type of exaggerated story you’d expect to see spread during a wild news cycle, but this is one viral tidbit that’s rooted in truth. Shakespeare was an actor and shareholder with The King’s Men theater troupe when the bubonic plague forced London theaters to close in the early 17th century. The official rule was that after weeks, when the death toll exceeded 30, public playhouses had to shut down. This meant that the theater industry was paralyzed for much of 1606 when the plague returned to the city. After suddenly finding himself without a steady job and lots of free time, Shakespeare got to writing. He composed King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra before the year was over.

2. Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton dispersing light with a glass prism.
Isaac Newton dispersing light with a glass prism.
Apic/Getty Images

A few decades after an isolated Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous plays, Isaac Newton found himself having to avoid disease in England. In 1665, when Newton was in his early 20s, one of the last major outbreaks of the bubonic plague hit the country. Classes at Cambridge University were canceled, so Newton retreated to his family estate roughly 60 miles away to continue his studies there. He didn’t have to worry about responding to professors' emails or video conferencing into classes, and with zero structure, he excelled. The young mathematician produced some of his best work during his year in quarantine, writing the papers that would become early calculus and developing his theories on optics while playing with prisms in his bedroom. This was also the time when his theory of gravity germinated. While an apple likely didn’t hit Newton on the head, there was an apple tree outside his window that may have inspired his revelation.

3. Edvard Munch

The Scream painter Edvard Munch didn’t just witness the Spanish Flu pandemic change the world around him—he contracted the disease around the beginning of 1919, while living in Norway. But instead of becoming one of its many victims, Munch lived to continue making great art. As soon as he felt physically capable, he gathered his painting supplies and began capturing his physical state. Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu shows him with thinning hair and a gaunt face sitting in front of his sickbed.

4. Thomas Nashe

Engraving of Thomas Nashe.
Engraving of Thomas Nashe.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas Nashe was an Elizabethan playwright who gained fame around the same time as William Shakespeare. When the bubonic plague hit London in 1592, Nashe fled to the English countryside to avoid infection. This was the same time he wrote Summers' Last Will and Testament, a play that reflects his experiences living through the pandemic. One famous passage reads:

Adieu, farewell earths blisse,
This world uncertaine is,
Fond are lifes lustful joyes,
Death proves them all but toyes,
None from his darts can flye;
I am sick, I must dye:
Lord, have mercy on us.

5. Giovanni Boccaccio

Portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio.
Portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Florentine writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio was personally affected by the bubonic plague. When it hit Florence in 1348, both his father and stepmother succumbed to the disease. Boccaccio survived the outbreak by fleeing the city and hiding out in the Tuscan countryside. During this period, he wrote The Decameron [PDF], a collection of novellas framed as stories a group of friends tell each other while quarantined inside a villa during the plague.

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