Ten Things to Know About Thoreau

by Crystal Sands

1. Thoreau’s mother was pregnant with him in 1816, during the “year without a summer” in New England and other parts of the world. Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in 1815, and the blast was so big, it affected the climate around the world. Many people in New England went hungry, but Thoreau’s mom was known for her frugality and ingenuity. Her son, David Henry Thoreau (he would later change the order of his first and middle names) was born July 12, 1817.

2. Thoreau’s family owned a pencil company. One year, when Thoreau was working at the factory, he developed a new method for making the graphite for pencils that was so effective Thoreau & Son pencils were known as the best in the country. Thoreau’s father did not patent the invention but did keep it a secret. Eventually, pencil companies from all over the world bought their graphite from Thoreau & Son pencils, and the Thoreaus shifted to mainly selling the graphite. We now know the dust from the graphite contributed to Thoreau’s lung problems, which would lead to an early death at the age of 44.

I have always loved pencils. After learning about Thoreau’s involvement in how pencils are made, I love them even more.

3. Thoreau quit an important teaching job because he refused to hit his students. After being reprimanded for not hitting his students, as was deemed standard practice at the time, records indicate he may have hit two students as punishment later that day. That night, Thoreau went to his supervisor’s home and resigned.

This was no small deal. It was in the middle of the year, and Thoreau couldn’t get another job. He returned home a bit of a disgrace, as the people of Concord thought he was ridiculous for not hitting his students.

4. Thoreau would eventually start a school with his older brother, John, where they brought learning to the outdoors. The school did well. Thoreau was very close to his brother, as they had been best friends since childhood.

5. When Thoreau was in his mid 20’s, John, just two years older than Thoreau, died of tetanus. It was a painful death, and Thoreau was with him when his brother died. After John’s death, Thoreau began exhibiting all of the same symptoms John had suffered. The family thought they were about to lose another son. Thoreau did recover, but from that pain, he built a wall around himself. This “empath wall,” as I call it, is common among people who are highly sensitive to and absorbing of other people’s emotions. Thoreau was an empath, and he needed to protect himself from the pain of the world. Many thought he was bitter and grumpy, and that was there, of course; but his works and letters indicated he was a human greatly upset by the injustices and pain of the world.

6. He worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. According to his biographer Laura Dassow-Walls, there are not many records kept by the people who worked on the Underground Railroad, for obvious reasons, but there are primary sources providing record of Thoreau helping people escape to Canada. He could not understand how a “Christian” nation could treat their fellow humans so horrifically as to enslave them.

It’s easy to see why he might have been grumpy. We all should be grumpy.

7. Margaret Fuller, editor of the famous Transcendentalist publication, The Dial, thought his poetry was not very good. On more than one occasion, Emerson sent her some of Thoreau’s poetry to publish, and she wrote Emerson to say she could not publish them. This was hard on Thoreau, but, with her feedback, Fuller helped him become a better poet. When they met, Fuller came to love Thoreau as all of his close friends did. She still wouldn’t publish some of his poetry, but she could see his potential. In his life, Thoreau was not greatly successful as a writer, but his work is important and relevant today.

8. He brought science to Transcendentalism. This may be one of my favorite things about Thoreau. He had such a curious mind, and his love of nature led him to a love of science.

For a good portion of my adult life, I was agnostic leaning a little toward atheism. Many people are happy with those beliefs (or lack thereof, really), but I am one of those people who really wants to believe. I just couldn’t quite get there in my efforts toward religion. But then I fell in love with science and nature, and my curiosity here led me to understand the concept of a force greater than myself.

9. Thoreau wrote entire essays about apples and walking. How dreamy is that?

10. He was fantastic with children, and children loved him. He adored Emerson’s children and even lived with and cared for Emerson’s wife and children while Emerson was on tour in Europe. Thoreau loved the whole family.

During his time living at the Emerson’s, Emerson’s wife, Lidian, crocheted booties for her chickens because the chickens kept trampling her garden. So Thoreau had to catch the chickens and put on the booties. I have a feeling the booties would not be enough to save the garden.

Emerson’s youngest son helped publish and preserve Thoreau’s work after Thoreau’s death on May 6, 1862.

Of course, a list of ten cannot capture the essence of any human in all of our complexities, but these are some of my favorite stories about Thoreau. Laura Dassow-Walls’ biography is so thorough (by the way, the way we say this word is the way we should be saying Thoreau’s name) and ground breaking that she changed the way we understand Thoreau. I am thankful for her years of work.

You can purchase Henry David Thoreau: A Life here at Bookshop.org or at your local bookstore.