Fun Thoreau facts: about his life, his work, and his links with American history
1. Henry David Thoreau was christened David Henry Thoreau; he reversed his first two names after graduating from Harvard. Nobody knows why. Fresh from university, Thoreau decided to change his forenames around and become known as Henry David, though he never formally had his named changed and remained, officially, David Henry. The young Thoreau was an avid reader at university (he studied classics and languages) and amassed some 5,000 pages of notes on the material he’d devoured. Later in life, he would translate Greek tragedy (notably Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes) and write on everything from Indian literature to Sir Walter Raleigh.
2. Nobody is quite sure how to pronounce Thoreau’s name. Although it is most commonly pronounced ‘the-ROH’ but in Thoreau’s own lifetime it appears to have been pronounced ‘THOR-oh’, at least in the part of New England where Thoreau lived. Fellow inhabitant of Concord, Massachusetts, Amos Bronson Alcott (father of novelist Louisa May Alcott), wrote that the name was usually pronounced like the word ‘thorough’ in American English, though ‘THOR-oh’ was more common in New England.
3. For a while, Henry David Thoreau worked in his father’s pencil factory. John Thoreau worked as a pencil-maker, and Henry David (as he by then was) worked in the family firm for a short while after his return to Concord. Henry David Thoreau’s grandfather on his mother’s side was Asa Dunbar, who had led the first ever student protest in America, the so-called ‘Butter Rebellion’ at Harvard in 1766. (The protest has triggered by the poor food given to students at the university; it was a piece of especially rancid butter that tipped Dunbar over the edge.) One can see where Thoreau got his spirit of ‘civil disobedience’ from.
4. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t go to live in the wilderness. Thoreau’s most famous work, the 1854 book Walden, documents Thoreau’s time (more precisely two years, two months, and two days) living by Walden Pond, endeavouring to be self-reliant. It’s a quintessentially American move, a mini-declaration of independence, and one of the key texts in the American Transcendentalist movement. However, Thoreau did not go and live miles from civilisation, but just a couple of miles from his family home in Massachusetts. Walden sold slowly at first, and it was five years before it sold 2,000 copies. An online video game of Walden is reportedly in development. In 2012, the University of Southern California received a grant to develop an online game based on Thoreau’s book. The game has not yet appeared, but it sounds an intriguing idea.
5. Thoreau’s writing has influenced a number of key twentieth-century political figures. His essay on ‘Civil Disobedience‘ (1849) helped to inspire Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The essay, also known as ‘Resistance to Civil Government’, grew out of a lecture Thoreau gave after he’d spent a night in the cells for refusing to pay his poll tax. (He refused on ethical grounds, partly because he opposed slavery in the United States.) It has become, with Walden, Thoreau’s defining work.
Image: Henry David Thoreau in 1856 (author: villy), Wikimedia Commons.