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.”

7 Surprising Facts About The Giving Tree

Harper Children's
Harper Children's

Some readers remember The Giving Tree as a sweet picture book about the strength of unconditional love. To others, it was a heartbreaking tale that messed them up during story time. No matter your interpretation of the story, The Giving Tree is a children’s classic that helped make Shel Silverstein a household name—even if it took him a while to get there.

1. Multiple publishers rejected The Giving Tree.

Shel Silverstein had only sold one children’s book—Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back—when he went about finding a publisher for The Giving Tree. The book’s somber themes made it a hard sell. One editor at Simon & Schuster described it as “too sad” for kids and “too simple” for adults, while another editor called the titular tree “sick” and “neurotic.” Other publishers were moved by the story, which follows the relationship between a boy and a tree over the course of his lifetime, but ultimately felt it was too risky for the genre. After four years of searching for a publisher, Silverstein finally found a home for the book at Harper Children’s, when editor Ursula Nordstrom recognized its potential.

2. The Giving Tree was a surprise success.

The Giving Tree received a small release in 1964 with just 5000 to 7500 copies printed for the first edition. Though its publisher clearly underestimated its potential popularity, it didn’t take long for the book to explode into a modern classic. It quickly became one of the most successful children’s books of the era and made Silverstein an important figure in the industry. Today, nearly 55 years after it was first published, The Giving Tree has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

3. There are various interpretations of the relationship at the center of the story—not all of them positive.

The Giving Tree centers on the relationship between a tree and a boy throughout the stages of his life—from his childhood to his elderly years. In each stage, the tree provides the boy with whatever he needs, ultimately giving him a stump to sit on when the tree has nothing else to give. Positive interpretations of this story paint it as a parable of unconditional love: When it first hit shelves, The Giving Tree was a hit with Protestant ministers, who applied Christian themes to the book. But according to some critics, the book depicts an abusive relationship, with the tree literally allowing herself to be destroyed to keep the perpetually dissatisfied boy happy while receiving nothing in return. Other interpretations compare the relationship between the tree and the boy to those between a mother and child, two aging friends, and Mother Nature and humanity.

4. The author’s photo is infamous.

The author’s photograph on the back of The Giving Tree—depicting a bearded, bald-headed Silverstein glaring at the camera—has gained a reputation of its own. A Chicago Tribune writer called it “demonic” while a writer for NJ.com pointed out his “jagged menacing teeth.” In the children’s book Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw, there’s an entire passage where the main character’s dad uses Silverstein's photo to terrorize his son into staying in bed.

5. The Giving Tree isn’t Shel Silverstein’s favorite work.

The Giving Tree may be among Silverstein's most successful and recognizable works, but when asked what his favorite pieces of his writing were in a 1975 Publisher’s Weekly interview, he left it off the list. “I like Uncle Shelby's ABZ, A Giraffe and a Half, and Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back—I think I like that one the most," the author said. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t proud of the book that helped launch his career. On the book’s popularity, he said "What I do is good ... I wouldn't let it out if I didn't think it was."

6. Silverstein dedicated The Giving Tree to an ex-girlfriend.

The Giving Tree’s short dedication, “For Nicky,” is meant for an old girlfriend of the children’s book author.

7. Silverstein hated happy endings.

In case The Giving Tree doesn’t make it clear enough, Silverstein stated in an 1978 interview that he detests happy endings. He told The New York Times Book Review that he believed cheery conclusions “create an alienation” in young readers. He explained his stance further, saying "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back." The Giving Tree features what is perhaps Silverstein’s best-known sad ending, if not one of the most infamous endings in children’s literature.

How to Download Thousands of Classic Books and Movies That Just Entered the Public Domain

iStock.com/hocus-focus
iStock.com/hocus-focus

You may want to check the amount of available storage space on your e-reader, because classic books by Lewis Carroll, Agatha Christie, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf are now in the public domain. As Motherboard reports, the copyright on tens of thousands of books from 1923 expired on January 1, which means that these titles are now in the public domain and can be legally downloaded for free.

Because the copyright on works published between 1923 and 1977 is good for 95 years, this marks the first time in decades that a large number of books, movies, and songs has entered the public domain. Next year, items from 1924 will be available for download, and so on.

The list of titles up for grabs includes Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, The World Crisis by Winston Churchill, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, and many more.

Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain has painstakingly listed nearly all of the new public domain works in an Excel spreadsheet, and a condensed list of the top titles is also available on its website. Unfortunately, you can’t get them all in one place, but a few reliable sources probably have what you’re looking for.

Project Gutenberg, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive are a few of the digital libraries that let you download or read books online for free. You can also check the selections available on Read Print and The Literature Network. If those options fail, try searching for a specific title on Google Books.

A few noteworthy movies also recently entered the public domain. Some of them include Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Charlie Chaplin's The Pilgrim. This essentially means these films can now be shown in theaters or public screenings without fear of violating copyright laws. Some of them are also available for viewing or download on the Internet Moving Image Archive.

[h/t Motherboard]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER