Everybody Thinks They Know About Thoreau
Almost everyone has heard of Henry David Thoreau, the writer of Life in the Woods, published in 1854, that came to be known as Walden. Most people know of Thoreau as a naturalist and philosopher who wrote about living a simple life in the woods, apart from the materialism and frenzy that overwhelmed most people.
Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience,” another widely known work, that argued that citizens should not have to honor unjust governments. He had stayed a night in jail rather than pay six years of delinquent poll tax. “Civil Disobedience” is now known across the world as a manifesto for peaceful resistance.
Walden is often anthologized and taught in most American high schools, and the written work of Thoreau has spread across the globe, creating a reputation of him as a literary giant, but there’s so much more to know about Thoreau that affects how we think about him:
Seven Astounding Facts You Probably Don’t Know About Thoreau:
1. He Didn’t Go By His Given Name
Henry David Thoreau was NOT his given name. His name was actually David Henry Thoreau, named for his father’s brother, David, who had died. The famous writer, however, reversed his names and started calling himself Henry David after college graduation. He never legally changed the order of his given nomenclature.
2. Perceived as an “odd-duck”
Thoreau was viewed as an “odd-duck” by many of his neighbors. He had, after all, graduated from Harvard and taken a lowly job as a school teacher, a job he lost because of his disagreement with the philosophy of corporal punishment. He was a non-conformist who marched to the beat of his own drummer, a phrase he actually wrote. Hiking around the region or contemplating trees occupied his time. He never married and only helped at the family pencil factory when he had to — although when he did, his brainpower made the Thoreau Pencils Company a successful enterprise. He was passionate about writing, a quintessential Bohemian.
3. Walden may be better perceived as a grief memoir
In 1942, Henry David Thoreau’s beloved big brother, John Jr, died in his arms from lockjaw (tetanus) that had set in when he cut his finger while sharpening a shaving razor. John Jr. was only 27 years old.
A short two weeks after his brother’s death, Thoreau’s good friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, lost his five-year-old son to scarlet fever. Thoreau knew and loved the little boy, Waldo, and grieved his death.
In a poignant piece published in The Washington Post, author Ron Charles theorizes that Walden was written in isolation a couple of years after the tragedies had occurred as Henry David Thoreau worked through his grief, trying to determine what really mattered in life. In this compelling argument, Charles notes that Thoreau’s journals consist of two million words resulting from almost daily entries.
For six weeks after the death of his brother and Emerson’s son, Thoreau didn’t write at all.
One of the first entries he pens when he does start writing again notes his uncertain bearing and the effect of grief:
“I am like a feather floating in the atmosphere; on every side is depth unfathomable. I feel as if years have been crowded into the last month.”
Much of the time he spent at Walden Pond was used writing “A Week On the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” his recollections of a boat trip he took with his brother as a way to memorialize John’s memory.
4. He Accidentally Burned 300 Acres of Woods
Thoreau loved the woods and went there, “to live deliberately.” His “Succession of Forest Trees,” written in 1860, declared that all trees come from seeds, not the predominant view at the time in the scientific community. He even wrote in his journal on December 12, 1851:
“Ah, dear nature — the mere remembrance, after a short forgetfulness, of the pine woods! I come to it as a hungry man to a crust of bread.”
But as much as he loved the forest, he accidentally burned 300 acres of woods in Concord, Massachusetts, when he and his friend Edward Hoar were cooking up some fish chowder. It was a windy day near Fair Haven Pond, and when their cooking fire spread. (Oops!)
5. More Than Just Good With Words
Thoreau doesn’t write about it much in his journals, but pencils were essential to his life. Not only did he write with them, his family business manufactured them.
Most people know Thoreau as a writer, but few people know that he was also a gifted inventor. It was his invention that helped grind the “plumbago,” (now known as graphite) fine enough that the pencils would make dark, not smeary marks. Thoreau figured out how to add clay to the graphite for a stable lead. He worked on pipe-forming machines, water wheel designs, and the number system for grading pencils.
Henry David Thoreau, often signed the words “Civil Engineer,” after his altered name.
6. His Family Business Might Have Helped Kill Him
Since pencils are made with lead, and since Thoreau spent lots of hours working for his family business figuring out how to grind graphite to fine dust, it makes sense that he probably breathed a lot of it in. In fact, everyone in his family, exposed to graphite constantly, probably did.
Tuberculosis is a disease caused by a bacterial infection of the lungs, which can be caused (in the case of coal mining) or exacerbated by inhalation of dust or foreign particles. Thoreau’s father and his two sisters, all died of tuberculosis, as did Thoreau.
Thoreau’s father died from TB in 1859 at the age of 71.
Helen, his older sister, died at the age of 36. His second sister, Sophia, outlived the rest of her family, dying in 1876 at the age of 57 from tuberculosis.
Henry David Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it for the rest of his life. In 1860, ever the naturalist, he went out in a rainstorm to count the rings of some existing tree stumps. Bronchitis set in, and for the next year or so he suffered periods of debilitation and was often bedridden, dying on May 6, 1862. He was forty-four years old.
7. No Fame in His Lifetime
It took another forty-four years — another whole lifetime — before Henry David Thoreau’s work was accepted.
In 1906, Houghton-Mifflin published a complete set of Thoreau’s writings, a posthumous publication of his writings, both personal and professional, that brought him into the public eye.
Henry David Thoreau was the first American writer to have all of his writings — including his journals — published in full, twenty volumes filled with two million memorable words.