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30 Interesting Henry David Thoreau Facts

by Virupakshi
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henry david thoreau facts

Henry David Thoreau facts in this article takes us through his life, his works and his philosophy. It was this man who wrote the ground-breaking Civil Disobedience essay, which went on to inspire people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. We will learn about funny incidences in his life and why people (his neighbors) used to call him a rascal. Just like many American great men during or before his time, Thoreau also lived a poor life but eventually went on to embrace minimalism and transcendentalism. So, instead of wasting time any further, let us begin with our list.

Henry David Thoreau Facts: 1-5

1. Concord, Massachusetts born, Henry David Thoreau hailed from a poor family. His birth date was 12th of July, 1817. His father, John Thoreau, owned a local factory producing pencils and his mother, Cynthia Dunbarhad, used to rent out rooms of their house for boarders.

2. He was an average student at Concord Academy. Despite being average, he got into Harvard College (now Harvard University) in 1833. He was termed as an individualist since then.

3. He graduated in 1837 (a few sources say that illness forced him to stay out of school for some time). He then entered teaching profession. He was teacher in a town school for a brief time.

4. John Thoreau Jr. (brother of Henry), opened a school in 1838. After teaching in the town school, Henry taught in his brother’s school for some more time. The school was closed after few years due to his brother’s poor health. Henry then gave private teaching a try but failed.

5. But he was quite successful as a writer. He started writing a journal in 1837. After his death when it was published, it came to a whopping 14 volumes.

Henry David Thoreau Facts: 6-10

6. He met Ralph Waldo Emerson after he graduated from college. Emerson was a very good friend of Thoreau and hence, whenever Thoreau had problems, Emerson would do his best to support him.

7. In 1841, Emerson asked Thoreau to be at his home where his writing wouldn’t be interrupted and in 1843, Emerson searched for a tutoring job. The job was at Staten Island, New York. Emerson purposefully looked for that job because Emerson wanted Thoreau to be as close to New York City literary market as possible. The plan failed and Emerson was not at fault.

8. In 1845, Thoreau started to live on Walden Pond (Emerson’s property) and he built a small house

9. In 1847, Emerson again invited Thoreau to his home and offered him to stay with his family. In the mean time, Emerson went to Europe. But mostly he used to live in his home and stay in his room.

10. In 1845 and 1846, he stayed in Walden (Emerson’s property) and wrote a book by the same name, Walden. He wrote about how minimal living is sufficient and useful for humans in that book. This book was printed in year 1954. The success of the book was modest at the beginning but reached a bigger audience way later.

Henry David Thoreau Facts: 11-15

11. He wrote for a magazine called “Dial”. Emerson was the editor of the magazine.

12. In 1849, he wrote “Civil Disobedience” or “Resistance to Civil Government” essay. The reason for writing this essay was that he had to spend 1 night in jail after he refused to pay the poll tax. He also raised his voice against Federal government, protesting against war with Mexico.

13. Little did he know then that this essay would empower men like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, etc. who played a crucial role in giving independence to their own countries.

14. He said that if a man feels that a law is unjust, then he can go against that law, but only if he has guts to face the consequences of going against the law.

15. He penned many other works like “Natural History of Massachusetts” in 1842; poems like” Autumnal Tints” and “Walking” in 1862; books which can be considered as travel guides like “The Maine Woods” in 1864, “Cape Cod” in 1865; and “A Yankee in Canada” in 1866. All these books were published after his death.

Henry David Thoreau Facts: 16-20

16. He wrote another book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” in 1849. This book was mix of everything – poetry, essays, philosophy but the base idea behind this book were the two excursions that he enjoyed with his brother. It wasn’t as big a success as Walden.

17. He was an abolitionist that he went against slavery. He considered John Brown as his hero and became his friend and when Harpers Ferry was raided by John Brown’s men for arms, Brown was caught and was sentenced to death. He strongly defended John Brown and called him an “angel of light”.

18. He was against American-Mexican war but he said nothing when it came to Civil War. He actually welcomed Civil War.

19. He was a Transcendentalist. Emerson was the connecting point between Transcendentalism and Thoreau. Transcendentalism is a philosophy where divinity and nature were given importance over the materialistic lifestyle.

20. Thoreau followed Transcendentalism by word and by action. He spent more time with Mother Nature and he laughingly called himself as “inspector of rainstorms and snow-storms”.

Henry David Thoreau Facts: 21-25

21. After his father’s demise, he had to take care of the factory of pencils because there was no other individual to look after the factory. He researched about how Germans make their pencils and invented a machine which would produce a high quality plumbago (a mixture of lead, graphite and clay) to make pencils.

22. But because of his age, he had to stop some of his activities. He spent less time in the wild and was seen at home most of the times. He died on 6th May, 1862 in his home.

23. Did you know that he accidentally burnt around a hundred to three hundred acres of land? He was cooking fish and because of the strong winds the fire spread and burnt such huge land. Neighbors called him “rascal” and “wood burner” because of this incident.

24. Thoreau sold his house to Emerson (the house near Walden pool was built on Emerson’s property), who in turn sold it to his gardener. In 1849, when his gardener sold the house to a farmer, he used it as a storehouse and then as a pigsty in 1868.

25. He and his brother ended up loving the same girl, Ellen Seawall. However, she rejected both of them, when they proposed. Historians think that Ellen refused because her family didn’t like the liberal views on Christianity that the Thoreau family had.

Henry David Thoreau Facts: 26-30

26. Though we know that he loved Ellen Seawall and proposed her, some of the historians think that he was a gay. The reason for this speculation was that, he preferred to be celibate, he didn’t marry, and most importantly, he mentions about male bodies than female bodies in his journals.

27. His collections went straight to Boston Society of Natural History (of which he was a member). The collections included bird’s eggs, bird’s nests, plants of more than 1000 species, Native Indian and North American antiquities.

28. Henry’s legal name was David Henry. However, after getting a graduate degree from Harvard, he changed his name and switched the first name and the middle name, making it Henry David instead of David Henry.

29. As of today, it is a common practice to pronounce his last name with second syllable emphasis, it turns out that he himself used to pronounce it as ‘THOR-oh’. This means that the emphasis was actually on the first syllable.

30. Henry’s friends actually called him “Mr. Thorough”.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

Image Credit:

  • House replica and statue by RhythmicQuietude at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Image of Henry David Thoreau: By Benjamin D. Maxham active 1848 – 1858 – National Portrait Gallery, Washington, Public Domain

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