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7 Things We Have Forgotten About Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was an oddball job quitter and ne'er-do-well who evolved into the bearded sage of literature, natural history, and civil liberties.
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Henry David Thoreau was an oddball job quitter and ne'er-do-well who evolved into the bearded sage of literature, natural history, and civil liberties. I wrote The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond [Bloomsbury, $27.00] to resurrect his everyday life before he became a writer--when he was still a yearning, struggling nobody like the rest of us. In the century and a half since Thoreau's death in 1862, at the age of 44, millions of people around the world have enjoyed Walden and his other books. Understandably, however, many details of his life are unknown to most readers. Here are seven fascinating aspects of Thoreau's life that we have forgotten.

1. He was not a hermit.
Thoreau spent most of his life in the busy little town of Concord, Massachusetts--at first living in his parents' boarding house, and later, after their pencil business prospered, in a big house on Main Street. He spent only two years and two months in his cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, just outside Concord, and during this time he did not avoid people.
"Every day or two I strolled to the village," he wrote, "to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs."

2. He pronounced his name as "Thorough."
"We always called my friend Thó-row," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson's son Edward, "the h sounded, and accent on the first syllable." For several weeks after meeting Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to him in his journal as "Mr. Thorow." And Thoreau's friend Daniel Ricketson addressed letters to him as "Mr. Thorough" and "Mr. Thoroughly Good."

3. He tried to make it as a freelance writer in New York City.
For six months in 1843, Thoreau lived with Ralph Waldo Emerson's brother on Staten Island, tutoring his children. He spent his spare time tramping from one magazine office to another. At the offices of the New Mirror, the New World, and Brother Jonathan, he was told that they were already saturated with contributions. The Democratic Review cautiously expressed interest. The Knickerbocker claimed to be too poor to pay anything. He kept trying.

Meanwhile he prowled the city, dodging the dense traffic--workaday hackney cabs, sporty high-wheeled phaetons, the vagabond pigs that acted as if they owned the island. He saw Irish immigrants fleeing the famine, arriving by the hundreds and cooking their frugal meals over tiny fires in the dockyards. He wandered past hulking workmen dragging blocks of ice, with insulating sawdust still clinging to its slippery surface, into rowdy taverns and dark basement-level oyster bars. This is not our usual image of Thoreau.

4. Both Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. credited Thoreau with inspiring their nonviolent activism with his 1849 essay now called "Civil Disobedience."
"Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet," wrote Gandhi, "and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practice in himself. He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced." King insisted that "Civil Disobedience," which he first read as a student at Morehouse College, was his "first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance... Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I re-read the work several times...The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement."

5. The future patron saint of natural history started a forest fire.
In 1844 Thoreau and another young man were boating on the Concord River when they stopped to cook fish they had caught. Foolishly they built a campfire in a dry stump near drought-parched woods, and it escaped and raced toward the village. Soon the fire was a half mile wide. It burned more than 300 acres of woodland. "Don't talk to me of Henry Thoreau!" a woman recalled later. "Didn't I all that winter have to go school with a smootched apron or dress because I had to pitch in and help fill the wood box with partly charred wood?" For years neighbors yelled "Woodsburner!" at Thoreau and even labeled him "a damned rascal." Apparently the only thing that came between Thoreau and jail on this occasion was the high social status of his friend's father.

6. He taught school.
After a brief stint teaching in a public school the year before, in 1838 Henry and his brother John began operating a small private school in Concord. Unlike other teachers in the region, who kept whips and paddles on their desk to thrash children for the slightest offence, the Thoreau brothers rejected corporal punishment. Their curriculum also included long recesses, open windows, and field trips. They even taught about Native Americans during boat trips to former Indian hunting camps.

7. He was a devoted member of a large, affectionate family.
Although he omits the topic from Walden and his other books, Thoreau was a family man. He had two sisters, an older and a younger, as well as an older brother. He enjoyed the company of his intelligent and lively sisters, but his brother John he idolized. He followed him into teaching and into studying Native Americans. After a young woman turned down John's marriage proposal, Henry asked her himself.