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.”

The One Harry Potter Character JK Rowling Regrets Killing Off

Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images
Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images

Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't read or watched the Harry Potter series: Many beloved characters die. From Dobby to Snape to Dumbledore (and the list goes on), Potterheads have reason to shed a tear during nearly every book and/or film. It was surely upsetting for JK Rowling to write these deaths, but she has spoken out about the one character she actually regrets killing off.

According to IGN, Rowling once wrote on Pottermore about how she regretted killing Florean Fortescue. If you don't remember him, you're probably not alone; he's the owner of an ice cream parlor in Diagon Alley, and a minor character. So why, out of the multiple heartbreaking deaths she concocted, does the acclaimed author feel so strongly about killing off Florean?

"I originally planned Florean to be the conduit for clues that I needed to give Harry during his quest for the Hallows, which is why I established an acquaintance fairly early on," Rowling explained. "The problem was that when I came to write the key parts of Deathly Hallows, I decided that Phineas Nigellus Black was a much more satisfactory means of conveying clues. I seemed to have him kidnapped and killed for no good reason. He is not the first wizard whom Voldemort murdered because he knew too much (or too little), but he is the only one I feel guilty about, because it was all my fault."

So basically, Florean was created as a plot device that ultimately was not needed in the end. As he faces death "for no good reason" according to Rowling, it seems his character's demise was just the result of a little narrative reorganization. As Rowling of all people should know, there could have been worse ways to go.

A 17th-Century Noblewoman's Rare Poems About War-Torn England Can Be Read Online

Hajotthu, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Hajotthu, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Hester Pulter wasn't famous for anything in particular, but the 17th-century aristocrat's poems have historical value for other reasons. Pulter wrote about science, religion, politics, the English Civil War (fought from 1642 to 1651), and even the execution of Charles I, which wouldn't be all that unusual, except for the fact that she was a woman. And a woman of high social standing at that.

Although her poems can now be read online for free via The Pulter Project, the noblewoman probably never meant for them to be published back in the 1600s, according to Samantha Snively, a Ph.D candidate in Early Modern Literature at the University of California, Davis.

"In order to avoid slander, the few women who did publish usually wrote about topics more aligned with proper womanly values: household guides, devotional books and diaries, or memoirs of their husbands," Snively wrote for The Conversation. "An aristocratic woman like Hester would have been expected to behave modestly, keep quiet, and focus on her household rather than write about political conflicts and scientific experimentation."

According to Smithsonian magazine, Pulter's poems went largely unread for centuries until 1996, when a graduate student at the University of Leeds pulled them from the shelves of the university's Brotherton Library while undertaking a project to digitize 17th-century poetry manuscripts. The online portal includes both digital versions of Pulter's original manuscripts as well as transcriptions of her writings.

Pulter, who was likely born in or around Dublin in June 1605, wrote most of her poems in the 1640s and 1650s at the height of the English Civil War. As such, her poems reflect her "deeply felt responses to the carnage and chaos of the mid-seventeenth century, as to the afflictions and losses in her own life," The Pulter Project notes.

Despite being the daughter of a chief justice on the king's bench in Ireland, Pulter was critical of different political factions, including the Parliamentarians and the ruling class, while also revering monarchs like Charles I.

Snively noted that Pulter's body of work contains "early feminist ideas and addresses, in complex ways, how society constricts women's behavior, devalues their work, and diminishes their intellectual value."

Pulter—the daughter of James Ley, who became the first Earl of Marlborough—gave birth to 15 children and rarely left her home. In one poem, she laments, "Why must I thus forever be confined / Against the noble freedom of my mind?"

[h/t Smithsonian]

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