In his book WaldenHenry David Thoreau declared his love for nature, simplicity and independence. Although most people know about Thoreau’s time in Walden Woods, as well as his transcendentalism, abolitionist views, and writing about civil disobedience, there is much more to uncover about him. Here are some things you may not have known about Henry David Thoreau, who was born on July 12, 1817.
1. You are probably mispronouncing Henry David Thoreau’s name.
David Henry Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817 and changed his first and last name after graduating from Harvard. However, his legal name has always been David Henry. Although most people today pronounce Thoreau̵
2. Henry David Thoreau invented a pen improvement machine.
In the 1820s, Thoreau’s father started making pencils with a black lead. Between teaching students, measuring land, and working as a craftsman, Thoreau made money by working for his family’s pencil business. After researching German pencil making techniques, he invented a grinder that made Plumbago of better quality (a mixture of lead, graphite, and clay in a pencil). After his father’s death, Thoreau ran the family pencil company.
3. Henry David Thoreau accidentally burned hundreds of acres of forest.
In 1844, a year before moving into a house in Walden Woods, 26-year-old Thoreau cooked fish he had caught with a friend in the woods outside of Concord. The grass around the fire caught fire and the flames burned between 100 and 300 acres thanks to strong winds. Years later, his neighbors derogantly called him a rascal and a forest burner. In a diary entry from 1850, Thoreau described how the earth was “unusually dry” – it hadn’t rained much – and how the fire “spread” quickly. Although he initially felt guilty, he wrote that he soon realized that fire is natural and that lightning could light a fire in the forest as easily as his cooking accident.
4. Henry David Thoreau’s house on Walden Pond later became a pigsty.
After Thoreau left the house he built in Walden Woods in 1847, the structure went through several 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 shed before the wood was used to repair Clark’s barn. Today you can see replicas of Thoreau’s house near Walden Pond, Massachusetts.
5. Henry David Thoreau and his brother both fell in love with the same woman.
In 1839 Thoreau wrote in his diary 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 refused. Like any good brother, Thoreau wrote a letter to Sewall and suggested that he marry him instead. Sewall also declined, probably because her family disapproved of the Thoreau family liberal Views on Christianity.
Despite the marriage proposal mentioned above, some historians and biographers speculate that Thoreau was gay. He never married, supposedly preferred celibacy, and his diaries reveal clues to male bodies, but not female ones.
6. Despite the widespread misunderstanding, Henry David Thoreau was not a loner.
Historians have debunked the misunderstanding that Thoreau was a selfish hermit who lived alone to stay away from other people. Instead of 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 hut 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 forest, he often entertained guests, visited friends and went to the (nearby) town of Concord. At his funeral in the first parish church in Concord, a large group of friends were present to mourn and celebrate his life.
7. Henry David Thoreau was a minimalist.
Long before tiny houses were in vogue, Thoreau wrote about the benefits of a simple, minimalist lifestyle. in the Waldenhe wrote about giving up the luxury of everyday life to calm the mind and give time to think. “My greatest ability was to want little,” he wrote. Thoreau also referred to his love for simplicity in writing: “It is the fault of some excellent writers that they express themselves with too much depth and detail. They give the most faithful, natural, and lifelike report of their mental and physical sensations, but they lack moderation and sensitivity. “
8. Henry David Thoreau made plenty of notes.
Though a minimalist, Thoreau wrote a wealth of notes and ideas in his diaries, essays, and letters. He noted his observations of nature and wrote extensively about everything from the spread of plant seeds across the country to the changing temperature of the Walden Pond and animal behavior. In addition to his wealth of notes and environmental data, Thoreau also collected hundreds of plant specimens and bird eggs.
9. Henry David Thoreau was praised for its originality.
In 1862 newspapers reported extensively on 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. Henry David Thoreau donated his collections to the Boston Society of Natural History.
After Thoreau’s death, the Boston Society of Natural History received a great gift. Thoreau, a member, gave the company its collections of plants, Indian antiques, and bird eggs and nests. The plants were pressed and numbered – there were more than 1,000 species – and the Native American antiquities contained stone weapons that Thoreau found while walking in Concord.
11. Don Henley of the Eagles is a big fan of Henry David Thoreau.
A big fan of Thoreau and transcendentalism, the Eagles’ musician Don Henley of the Eagles started the Walden Woods project in 1990 to prevent 68 acres of Walden Woods from being converted into offices and condominiums. The project managed to save the forest, and today the Walden Woods project is a nonprofit organization that preserves Walden Woods, preserves Thoreau’s legacy, and maintains an archive of Thoreau’s books, maps, letters, and manuscripts. In an interview with conservation Henley magazine described the importance of preserving Walden Woods: “The pond and forests 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 in which he formulated his theory of forest succession, a forerunner of contemporary ecological science. “
This story was updated for 2020.