Jul 12, 2011

Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was born on this very day in 1817. Ever since we read and discussed excerpts from Walden in college, I've found him to be a very interesting persona (I  think the word most students used was cool). Some of his major ideas such as abolitionism, tax resistance, development criticism, civil disobedience, conscientious objection, direct action, environmentalism, anarchism, simple living, have influenced and inspired the thoughts and actions of Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather and many more.

I've compiled some maybe less-known but very interesting and funny facts about Thoreau that they usually don't teach you in school. Below are several of my favorite quotes:

  • Thoreau wore a neck-beard for many years, which he insisted many women found attractive. However, Louisa May Alcott mentioned to Ralph Waldo Emerson that Thoreau's facial hair "will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man's virtue in perpetuity."
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that "[Thoreau] is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty."
  • he studied at Harvard University and completed his masters degree, but he refused to pay five dollars for his diploma so his masters degree had no academic merit
  • after he graduated in 1837, he joined the faculty of the Concord public school, but resigned after a few weeks rather than administer corporal punishment.
  • he contracted tuberculosis in  1835, but what eventually killed him was bronchitis following a late night excursion to count the rings of tree stumps during a rain storm
  • when his aunt Louisa asked him in his last weeks if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded: "I did not know we had ever quarreled."
  • he died on May 6, 1862 (aged 44). His last words were "Now comes good sailing", followed by two lone words, "moose" and "Indian". (I checked, moose stands for "headstrong, unstoppable, longevity, value, integrity")
  • he was buried at the Author's Ridge (the burial site of a number of famous Concordians, including some of the United States' greatest authors and thinkers) at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (no, not that Sleepy Hollow)

"Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business." 

"Writing your name can lead to writing sentences. And the next thing you'll be doing is writing paragraphs, and then books. And then you'll be in as much trouble as I am!"

"A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting." 

 "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."

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."  

"How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."
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