Americans seem to think that they know a lot about Henry Thoreau. If you flip open the guest book in the reconstructed Thoreau cabin at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, you’ll find dozens of comments from visitors: “Thoreau was no hermit! He used to walk into town on weekends to get his mother to do his laundry”; “Thoreau’s mother brought apple pies to him at Walden!”
For all those mistaken visitors, and for those new to the sage of Walden Pond, in this his 200th anniversary year, here are five surprises about Henry David Thoreau:
- He loved to skinny dip. Thoreau famously declared that he “was born in the most estimable place in the world, and in the nick of time, too.” That place was at the junction of the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers, where they became “Concord River.” Haunting riverbanks while plant hunting, he often forded these rivers wearing just his straw hat, to keep the hot summer sun off his head.
- He inherited his mother’s family’s illness of narcolepsy. Thoreau called narcolepsy “the demon that is said to haunt the Jones family, hovering over their eyelids with wings steeped in the juice of poppies.” Though Thoreau complained he was troubled mainly while reading and writing, he also put the illness to use in recovering his dreams.
- He discovered “The Secret” 150 years before Rhonda Byrne. Thoreau and his closest friends considered him uncommonly lucky, especially when it came to rare plants, music boxes, and arrowheads – all of which were gifted to him almost instantly upon asking for them. He made an “atmosphere of expectation” his personal credo: “In the long run, we find what we expect; we shall be fortunate then, if we expect great things.”
- He saw fairies. It is hardly surprising that someone who was as intimate a friend of Mother Nature as Thoreau should have been afforded glimpses of her deepest secrets. Not only did he write of his relationship with the fairy world in three beautiful poems, he was famous among his Concord neighbors for having escorted two generations of children to the places where fairies could be met.
- His favorite word was ‘love.’ The Walden cabin comments also show that people tend to believe that Henry Thoreau was a misanthrope. He was actually the most tender and loving friend, who just happened to be merciless in his criticism of any men who imposed on the liberty of others. “I love . . .” is perhaps the most frequent phrase to appear in his 2 million-word journal. “I love a broad margin in my life”; “I love the wild not less than the good”; “I love to see anything that implies a simpler mode of life and greater nearness to the earth.”
Also be sure to check out THE ILLUSTRATED WALDEN, a sumptuous rediscovery edition of the first illustrated volume of Thoreau’s classic:
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