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.”

8 Facts About Niccolò Machiavelli

iStock/dcerbino
iStock/dcerbino

Niccolò Machiavelli is arguably the most influential political thinker from the Italian Renaissance. Following the publication of his political theory masterwork The Prince in 1932, his name became synonymous with ruthless political machinations. But was this Florentine philosopher really that bad?

1. HE HAD A FRONT-ROW SEAT TO RENAISSANCE POWER STRUGGLES.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 in the independent Republic of Florence. Long before he became known as the first modern political theorist (not to mention an inspiration for House of Cards), Machiavelli worked as a diplomat in the service of the Florentine government. In 1498, at only 29 years old, he was appointed as the head of the Second Chancery, which put him in control of the city's foreign relations. His number-one concern was the potential return of the Medici family—the most infamous power brokers in Renaissance Italy—who had been ousted from Florence in 1494. Machiavelli oversaw the recruitment and training of an official militia to keep them at bay, but his army was no match for the Medici, who were supported by Rome's papal militia. When the Medici retook Florence in 1512, their first order of business was to fire—and, just for the heck of it, torture—Machiavelli.

2. HE WROTE THE PRINCE TO REGAIN LOST STATUS.

As a diplomat and a scholar in an age of constant warfare, Machiavelli observed and absorbed the rules of the political game. After he lost his job as a diplomat (and even served a short time in jail), he turned to scholarship, poring over the Latin texts of ancient Roman political philosophers for inspiration. By the end of 1513, he had completed the first version of what would become his masterwork: The Prince, a handbook for the power-hungry. The book offered tips to rising politicians for seizing power, and advice to incumbent princes for keeping it.

Ironically, Machiavelli dedicated the book to the Medici, hoping it would bring him back into their good graces. It remains unclear whether it was ever read by its intended audience, and Machiavelli never got to see The Prince go viral. It was published in 1532, five years after its author's death.

3. HE COMPARED THE NEED FOR LOVE TO THE VALUE OF FEAR.

One of The Prince’s primary lessons was that leaders must always try to strike a balance between seeking the love of their subordinates and inspiring fear. If a leader is too soft or kind, the people may become unruly; too cruel, and they might rebel. Machiavelli had a clear preference. "Since love and fear can hardly exist together,” he wrote, “if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

4. THE PRINCE’S RUTHLESSNESS MADE IT NOTORIOUS.

Machiavelli’s political thesis became notorious because it focused almost entirely on helping rulers get what they want at whatever cost—in other words, the end always justified the means. Other political thinkers, while acknowledging Machiavelli’s brilliance, were appalled by his mercenary take on statesmanship. In the 18th century, French essayist Denis Diderot described Machiavelli's work as "abhorrent" and summed up The Prince as "the art of tyranny." Friedrich Schiller, a proponent of liberal democracy, referred to The Prince as an unwitting satire of the kind of monarchical rule it supposedly espouses (“a terrible satire against princes”). David Hume, the Scottish polymath and inveterate skeptic, called Machiavelli "a great genius" whose reasoning is "extremely defective.” Wrote Hume, "There scarcely is any maxim in his Prince which subsequent experience has not entirely refuted.”

But 20th-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell disagreed, saying that Machiavelli was merely being honest on a subject that most preferred with a good sugarcoating. “Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches itself to his name, is due to the indignation of hypocrites,” Russell wrote [PDF/a>], “who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.”

5. SHAKESPEARE CALLED VILLAINS “MACHIAVELS.”

Machiavelli’s notoriety spread so quickly that by the 16th century his name had found its way into the English language as an epithet for crookedness. In Elizabethan theatre, it came to denote a dramatic type: An incorrigible schemer driven by greed and unbridled ambition. In the prologue for The Jew of Malta, playwright Christopher Marlowe introduces his villain as “a sound Machiavill.” Even William Shakespeare used the term as a derogatory shorthand. “Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?” one character in The Merry Wives of Windsor asks rhetorically, before adding an indignant, “No!”

6. THE PRINCE WAS BANNED BY THE POPE.

When Machiavelli was out of a job, he did what most Renaissance thinkers did: He found a patron. Pope Clement VII, a Medici who had been elected in 1523, was happy to support the scholar. The pope even commissioned one of Machiavelli’s longest works, the Florentine Histories, which Machiavelli presented in 1526. But after the posthumous publication of The Prince in 1532, the papacy’s attitude toward Machiavelli’s work chilled. When Pope Paul VI established Rome's first Index of Forbidden Books in 1557, he made sure to include The Prince for its promulgation of dishonesty and dirty politics. (Machiavelli’s passion for classical writers and their pagan culture didn’t appeal to Pope Paul, either [PDF].)

7. HE COLLABORATED WITH LEONARDO DA VINCI.

In 1503, when Machiavelli was struggling to fortify Florence against its enemies, he turned to the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.

According to a 1939 biography of Leonardo, the two "seem to have become intimate" when they met in Florence. Machiavelli used his power to procure commissions for Leonardo and even appointed him Florence's military engineer between 1502 and 1503. Machiavelli was hoping to harness Leonardo’s ingenuity to capture Pisa, a fledgling city-state which Florentine leaders had been eager to subdue for decades. As expected, Leonardo came up with a revolutionary plan. He contrived a system of dams that would block off one of Pisa’s main waterways, which could have brought Pisa to the brink of a drought and given Machiavelli all the leverage he could have asked for. But the plan failed. The dam system ended up interrupting Florence's own agriculture, and so the government terminated the project. Leonardo left his post after only eight months.

Some scholars believe that the encounter with Leonardo left a deep mark on Machiavelli’s political thinking. They point to Machiavelli’s repeated emphasis on the power of technological innovation to decide a war, a view which they believe Leonardo had inspired. Machiavelli’s writing is rife with idiosyncratic expressions that seem to have almost been lifted from Leonardo's notebooks.

8. HE ACTUALLY BELIEVED IN A JUST GOVERNMENT.

Scholar Erica Benner argues that, despite his reputation, Machiavelli wasn’t amoral. Although The Prince openly encouraged politicians to take and offer bribes, cheat, threaten, and even kill if necessary, Machiavelli knew that even rulers had to obey some sense of justice, Benner wrote in The Guardian. He recognized that the race for power comes with very few scruples, but he also recognized that without respect for justice, society falls into chaos.

16 Things You Might Not Know About William Shakespeare

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Despite his many contributions to English literature, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s life. For the past four centuries, historians have had the difficult task of piecing together the Bard's biography with only a handful of old legal documents. Here's what we do know about the celebrated actor, poet, and playwright.

1. HIS WRITING WAS LIKELY INFLUENCED BY HIS FATHER'S LEGAL TROUBLES.

When Shakespeare was about 5 years old, his father, John—a glovemaker—was accused of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing by Crown informers. The ordeal plunged the elder Shakespeare into legal troubles that would plague him for the next decade. "William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," historian Glyn Parry told The Guardian. Parry argues that the experience likely shaped Shakespeare's attitudes toward power, class, and the monarchy—major themes in his future works.

2. HE GOT MARRIED BECAUSE OF AN UNEXPECTED PREGNANCY.

Shakespeare was 18 when he learned that Anne Hathaway, 26, was pregnant with his first child. The couple quickly decided to marry in November 1582 and greeted daughter Susanna in May 1583. Two years later, they had twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare has no living direct descendants: Hamnet died at age 11, probably a victim of some disease; Judith outlived her three children; and Susanna had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was childless.

3. NOBODY KNOWS WHAT HE DID BETWEEN 1585 AND 1592.

After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare fell off the map for seven years. One unsubstantiated theory—and there are many—suggests that he supported his family by working as a lawyer or legal clerk. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays show an impressive grasp of legal knowledge. "No dramatist of the time … used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness," wrote 19th-century literary critic Richard Grant White. (High praise considering that Shakespeare once wrote, "Let's kill all the lawyers.")

4. HE WAS, FIRST AND FOREMOST, AN ACTOR.

An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shakespeare became an actor at a time when the job was considered downright unsavory. "[A]ctors were already marked as undesirables by England's vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage," John Paul Rollert wrote in The Atlantic. "Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged." Little is known of Shakespeare's acting chops, but it's believed Shakespeare favored playing "kingly parts," including the ghost in his own Hamlet.

5. HE MAY HAVE PARTICIPATED IN ORGANIZED CRIME.

In the 1590s, many of London's theaters operated as shady fronts for organized crime. (The Lord Mayor of London decried the theater—and specifically plans for the new Swan Theatre, where Shakespeare may have briefly worked—as a meeting spot for "thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, conny-catching persons, practisers of treason, and such other like.") In 1596, Swan Theater owner Francis Langley accused William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte of making death threats. Soon after, Wayte retaliated with the same accusations against Langley and—for some reason—William Shakespeare. This has led historian Mike Dash to suggest that Shakespeare may have been involved in some unspoken criminal activity.

6. HE WAS A MATCHMAKER (AND MARITAL PEACE-MAKER).

It may be no surprise that the author of Romeo and Juliet had a penchant for bringing lovers together: He once helped arrange the marriage of his landlord's daughter. The only reason we know this, however, is because the marriage had a rocky start. When a dispute over the dowry boiled over, Shakespeare had to go to court to act as a character witness for his landlord, whom he called a "very honest fellow." The transcript is the only record of Shakespeare speaking.

7. THE FIRST PRINTED REFERENCE TO SHAKESPEARE AS A PLAYWRIGHT IS AN INSULT.

The first mention of William Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592, when the dramatist Robert Greene (or possibly Henry Chettle) called him an "upstart Crow [who] … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." (In other words: A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.) Future reviewers would offer kinder words; in 1598, the critic Francis Meres called him "mellifluous and honey-tongued."

8. HE LIKELY HELPED STEAL A THEATER, PIECE BY PIECE.

In 1596, the Theatre in Shoreditch—where Shakespeare cut his teeth as an actor—went dark. The lease for the property on which it was built had expired, and Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to take their show elsewhere. Two years later, the former owners hatched a crazy plan to take their playhouse back. One winter night in 1598, a group armed themselves with swords and axes, snuck into the theater, and began dismantling the playhouse piece by piece—although it would take more than one night to demolish it. While there's no evidence that Shakespeare joined the crew, he certainly knew about the raid. Eventually, parts of the playhouse would go into the construction of a new theater just south of the River Thames. Its new name? The Globe.

9. ONLY ONE HANDWRITTEN SCRIPT OF SHAKESPEARE'S EXISTS.

Five examples of the autograph of English playwright William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Five examples of the autograph of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Anyone interested in studying the Bard's cramped handwriting has only one reliable place to look—the original draft of the Book of Sir Thomas More, a politically-charged play that targeted, in-part, xenophobia in England. Written mainly by dramatist Anthony Munday, the play was completed with the help of four fellow playwrights. One of them, presumed to be Shakespeare, helped write a stirring monologue in which the lead character asks an anti-immigrant mob to imagine themselves as refugees.

Say now the king …
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?

The play, by the way, would not be performed. Censors believed it could start a riot.

10. HE MIGHT HAVE KNOWN A GUY.

Shakespeare might have had some, well, experience with drugs. According to analyses by South African scientists, a handful of 400-year-old clay tobacco pipes excavated from the playwright's Stratford garden contained potential evidence of cannabis (although the study authors noted that "Unequivocal evidence for Cannabis has not been obtained"). Other pipes nearby contained remnants of cocaine and hallucinogens. (There's no evidence that any of these pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but it does indicate that "narcotics were accessible" at the time, the Telegraph reports.)

11. HE DODGED THE TAXMAN.

In the late 16th century, English residents had to pay a tax on personal wealth called a lay subsidy. In 1597, Shakespeare was supposed to pay a tax of five shillings. The following year, he was supposed to pay a larger tax of 13 shillings and 4 pence. Documents show that the Bard never paid the piper. (His reasons are a matter of speculation, but it could have been a clerical error because he'd already moved away from the parish.)

12. HE WAS A GRAIN HOARDER.

According to the UK Parliament, between 1604 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were enacted, which restricted the use of vital, publicly-used farmland. Ensuing riots in 1607, called the Midland Revolts, coincided with a period of devastating food shortages. It appears that Shakespeare responded to the situation by hoarding grain. According to the Los Angeles Times, he "purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen."

13. THE GLOBE BURNED DOWN DURING ONE OF HIS PLAYS.

An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

On June 29, 1613, a prop cannon caused a fire at the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Sparks landed on the thatched roof and flames quickly spread. "It kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground," a witness Sir Henry Wotton claimed. According to The Telegraph, "the only reported injury was a man whose flaming breeches were eventually put out using a handy bottle of ale."

14. HE LAID A CURSE UPON HIS OWN GRAVE.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, grave-robbing was extremely common. To ensure he'd rest through eternity peacefully, the Bard is believed to have penned this curse, which appears on his gravestone.

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust Encloased heare:
Bleste be [the] man [that] spares these stones,
And curst be he [that] moves my bones.

Unfortunately, somebody apparently ignored the dead man's foreboding words. In 2016, researchers scanned the grave with ground-penetrating radar and discovered that grave robbers might have stolen Shakespeare's skull.

15. HIS LEGACY HAS KILLED A LOT A TREES.

And we're not just talking about the millions of copies of books that have been printed with Shakespeare's name on them. In 1762, an anonymous magazine writer claimed that a drunken Shakespeare, after an evening out on the town, once spent the night sleeping under a crabtree in Bidford-upon-Avon. The story is probably a legend, but that never stopped souvenir-hungry Shakespeare lovers from flocking to the famed crabtree and picking it to pieces. By 1824, the tree was nothing but a stump and had to be uprooted.

16. HIS LEGACY LIVED ON THANKS TO TWO FELLOW ACTORS.

The cover of a 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

Shortly after Shakespeare died, two of his longtime friends and colleagues—John Heminge and Henry Condell—edited Shakespeare's plays and collected them in a 1623 book titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. That same book, now called the First Folio, helped preserve Shakespeare's work for the coming generations and is widely considered one of the most significant books printed in English.

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