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How much do Americans learn about Henry David Thoreau in school?

I never read a complete Thoreau work, only excerpts in our high school anthologies. Remember this from Walden? Emphases mine:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

What follows is the truth about the man who lived simply — ‘deliberately’ — along Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts:

I spent hours reading the …

Walden Pond was actually on his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property:

Thoreau was not exactly roughing it and eating berries:

Someone from Concord knew this already …

Thoreau did not do his own laundry, a subject of much conversation not only on this particular Twitter thread but also from others elsewhere. Rumours abound about who actually did his laundry, as he gave no clear indication in writing. The following 2013 article from Orion explores the topic in depth:


The Orion article explains that household duties were largely divided by sex. Generally speaking, women worked indoors and men worked outdoors.

It posits that even though Thoreau, as a Transcendentalist, did not like the notion of hired servants, he might have made use of his family’s servants — i.e. Irish — to do his laundry.

Assuming his mother did his laundry lends itself to a bit of fun:

She also brought him ‘donuts’, likely to have been drop doughnuts, or fritters, rather than the ring doughnuts we know today:

Thoreau’s mum ran a boarding house. His father owned a pencil factory. Thoreau completed his education at Harvard.

If Thoreau were alive today, he’d probably be a bit like this:

Or this (‘I am an adult!’):

Thoreau was a frequent lunch and dinner guest at the Emersons’ house, although Mrs E apparently got a bit fed up with his freeloading:

She might have done his laundry, too:

Thoreau saw many from that era’s literary set and was well known for his melon parties. These people did not live in isolation writing in a garret. Teachers, particularly in secondary school, should make this clear. They all knew each other — just as celebs today all know each other:

True, because he felt superior to the poor:

He was nasty about the Irishman’s family from whom he purchased the wooden boards for his cabin:

A 2015 article on Thoreau in the New Yorker has a quote from Walden on the poor:

Unsurprisingly, this thoroughgoing misanthrope did not care to help other people. “I confess that I have hitherto indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises,” Thoreau wrote in “Walden.” He had “tried it fairly” and was “satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.” Nor did spontaneous generosity: “I require of a visitor that he be not actually starving, though he may have the very best appetite in the world, however he got it. Objects of charity are not guests.” In what is by now a grand American tradition, Thoreau justified his own parsimony by impugning the needy. “Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it.” Thinking of that state of affairs, Thoreau writes, “I began to pity myself, and I saw that it would be a greater charity to bestow on me a flannel shirt than a whole slop-shop on him.”

Here’s another quote from the same article on his own superiority — to anyone, in fact:

“Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men,” he wrote in “Walden,” “it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded.”

He accidentally started a raging fire in Concord then watched the townspeople frantically try to extinguish it, which might have been the reason for moving to Walden Pond:

It is said that Thoreau’s good friend Louisa May Alcott modelled one of her characters on him:

This I did not know:

Similarly, if Louisa May Alcott’s mother hadn’t up and pulled her family out of the failing Utopia commune Louisa’s father had set up, the family would have starved to death. The women in that family worked to keep themselves alive. We would have no “Little Women” without them.

Fortunately, students in Massachusetts, particularly Concord, know about the true Thoreau from school:

I fully agree with this:

I never visited Walden Pond, even though I had opportunities to do so. Friends who lived nearby said it required an early start — in order to get a parking place. Oh, the irony:

Someone really should make a movie about the real Henry David Thoreau, whose real name, incidentally, was David Henry Thoreau:

So would I — and I rarely venture out to the cinema.

It would be a blockbuster hit.

Further reading:

‘Why Do We Love Henry David Thoreau?’ (New Yorker)

‘Six Facts About Henry David Thoreau’s Walden’ (Books Tell You Why)


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