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.”

10 Amazing Facts About Harriet Beecher Stowe

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Over 41 issues, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published as a serial in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era, the first installment on June 5, 1851. It was first followed by a only small group but its audience steadily grew as the story unfolded.

“Wherever I went among the friends of the Era, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin a theme for admiring remark,” journalist and social critic Grace Greenwood wrote in a travelogue published in the Era. “[E]verywhere I went, I saw it read with pleasant smiles and irrepressible tears.’” The story was discussed in other abolitionist publications, such as Frederick Douglass’s Paper, and helped sell $2 annual subscriptions to the Era.

The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin exploded once it was made available in a more accessible format. Some publishers claim the book edition is the second best-selling title of the 19th century, after the Bible.

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe's father and all seven of her brothers were ministers.

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her mother, Roxana Beecher, died five years later. Over the course of two marriages, her father, Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher, fathered 13 children, 11 of whom survived into adulthood. He preached loudly against slavery. All seven of his sons followed him into the ministry. Henry Ward Beecher carried on his father’s abolitionist mission and according to legend sent rifles to anti-slavery settlers in Kansas and Nebraska in crates marked “Bibles.”

The women of the Beecher family were also encouraged to rise to positions of influence and rally against injustice. Eldest child Catharine Beecher co-founded the Hartford Female Seminary and Isabella Beecher Hooker was a prominent suffragist.

2. The Fugitive Slave Act—and a surprise $100 gift—inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1832, Harriet Beecher moved to Cincinnati with her father, who assumed the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary. According to Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D. Hedrick, the Ohio city introduced her to former slaves and African-American freemen and there she first practiced writing, in a literary group called the Semi-Colon Club.

She married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at Lane, and eventually relocated to Brunswick, Maine, when he went to work at Bowdoin College. By then, Stowe had published two books, Primary Geography for Children and the short story collection New England Sketches. She was also a contributor to newspapers supporting temperance and abolitionism, writing “sketches,” brief descriptive stories meant to illustrate a political point.

Following a positive response to her The Freeman’s Dream: A Parable, Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the anti-slavery paper The National Era, sent her $100 to encourage her to continue supplying the paper with material. The 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, obligating authorities in free states to re-enslave refugees, took the slavery fight northward. It also encouraged Stowe to step up her game.

“I am at present occupied upon a story which will be a much longer one than any I have ever written,” Beecher Stowe wrote in a letter to Bailey, “embracing a series of sketches which give the lights and shadows of the ‘patriarchal institution’ [of slavery], written either from observation, incidents which have occurred in the sphere of my personal knowledge, or in the knowledge of my friends.” For material, she scoured the written accounts belayed by escaped slaves.

3. Uncle Tom's Cabin made her rich and famous.

According to Henry Louis Gate Jr.’s introduction to the annotated edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, The National Era paid Stowe $300 for 43 chapters. Before the serial’s completion, Stowe signed a contract with John P. Jewett and Co. to publish a two-volume bound book edition, and that’s when it really took off. Released on March 20, 1852, the book sold 10,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week and 300,000 in the first year. In the U.K., 1.5 million copies flew off the shelves in the first year. Stowe was paid 10 cents for each one sold. According to a London Times article published six months after the book’s release, she had already amassed $10,000 in royalties. “We believe [that this is] the largest sum of money ever received by any author, either American or European, from the sales of a single work in so short a period of time,” the Times stated.

4. She went to court to stop an unauthorized translation of Uncle Tom's Cabin ... and lost.

Immediately after Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a literary sensation, a Philadelphia-based German-language paper, Die Freie Presse, began publishing an unauthorized translation. Stowe took the publisher, F.W. Thomas, to court. American copyright laws were notoriously weak at the time, irking British writers whose work was widely pirated. As someone who overnight became America’s favorite author, Stowe had much at stake testing them.

The case put her in the Philadelphia courtroom of Justice Robert Grier, a notorious enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Act. “By the publication of Mrs. Stowe's book, the creations of the genius and imagination of the author have become as much public property as those of Homer or Cervantes,” Grier ruled. The precedent set by Stowe vs. Thomas meant that authors had the right to prevent others from printing their exact words, but almost nothing else. “All her conceptions and inventions may be used and abused by imitators, play-rights and poet-asters,” ruled Grier.

5. Beecher Stowe visited Abraham Lincoln.

Though Stowe had criticized what she saw as his slowness in emancipation and willingness to seek compromise to prevent succession, Stowe visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1862, during the early days of the Civil War. Reportedly, Lincoln greeted her with, “So this is the little woman who brought on this big Civil War,” but scholars have dismissed the quote as Stowe family legend spread after her death.

Details of their conversation are limited to vague entries in their respective diaries. Lincoln may have bantered with her over his love of open fires (“I always had one to home,” he reportedly said), while Stowe got down to business and quizzed him: “Mr. Lincoln, I want to ask you about your views on emancipation.”

6. Beecher Stowe wrote a lot of things that weren't Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Stowe wrote more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction, plus essays, poems, articles, and hymns.

7. The Stowes wintered in the former slave state of Florida.

The influx of wealth from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the end of the Civil War allowed the Stowes to purchase a winter home in Mandarin, Florida, in 1867. It may have seemed strange—and perilous—for a famous anti-slavery crusader to buy 30 acres in a former slave state so soon after the war, yet six years after the purchase, she wrote to a local newspaper, “In all this time I have not received even an incivility from any native Floridian.”

8. Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain were neighbors.

The Stowes’ primary residence, beginning in 1864, was a villa in the Nook Farm section of Hartford, Connecticut, a neighborhood populated by prominent citizens, including Mark Twain. The homes of Nook Farm had few fences, and doors stayed open in sunny weather, creating an air of gentility. That did not prevent Twain from writing a somewhat unflattering portrait of Stowe, as she gave way to what was probably Alzheimer’s disease, in his autobiography:

“Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe who was a near neighbor of ours in Hartford, with no fence between. In those days she made as much use of our grounds as of her own in pleasant weather. Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irishwoman, assigned to her as a guardian.”

9. Beecher Stowe outlived four of her seven children.

While continuing a lucrative and prolific writing career, Stowe birthed and cared for seven children. When she passed away in 85 in 1896, she had outlived four of them, as bad fortune seemed to follow their offspring.

Their third, Henry, drowned in a swimming accident in 1857. The fourth, Frederick, mysteriously disappeared en route to California in 1870. The fifth, Georgiana, died from septicemia, probably related to morphine in 1890. (She was an addict.) The sixth, Samuel, died from cholera in infancy in 1849. These losses informed several of Stowe’s works.

10. There are several Harriet Beecher Stowe houses you can visit.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe House of Cincinnati is where she lived after following her father to Lane. The Harriet Beecher Stowe House on the campus of Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine, is where she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It became a restaurant from 1946 to 1998 and is now a faculty office building, but one room is open to the public and dedicated to Stowe. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preserves her home in Hartford. Her home in Florida is gone but is marked by a plaque.

Letters by Otto Frank, Anne Frank's Father, Are Being Digitized for the First Time

Spencer Platt, Getty Images
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Decades after his family was ousted from their attic hiding space, Otto Frank began corresponding with a pen pal named Ryan Cooper. Throughout the 1970s, Frank and Cooper exchanged letters, with Frank offering perspectives on his time in seclusion and captivity during World War II. His daughter Anne’s famous diary was written while the family was hiding from German forces in Amsterdam.

Now, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is making those letters available digitally for the first time to commemorate what would have been Anne’s 90th birthday on June 12.

Cooper, an artist in California who was then in his 20s, struck up a pen pal relationship with Frank. In addition to garnering advice on a variety of topics, Cooper was able to learn more about the young woman whose Diary of Anne Frank went on to become one of the best-known chronicles of the war and who tragically died of typhus while being held in a concentration camp in 1945. The letters also reveal more about Otto Frank, who appeared determined to keep the memory of his daughter alive even as his own health began to deteriorate. Frank died in 1980 at the age of 91 as the family's only survivor of the war.

Cooper amassed more than 80 letters in total, including some from Miep Gies, who protected Anne’s writings until the war ended. The museum is expected to make all of it accessible online in the near future.

[h/t Smithsonian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER