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Henry David Thoreau for Kids
His Life and Ideas, with 21 Activities
By Corinne Hosfeld Smith
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Corinne Hosfeld Smith
All rights reserved.
AT HOME IN CONCORD
David Henry Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. His parents, John Thoreau and Cynthia (Dunbar) Thoreau, already had two small children: five-year-old Helen and two-year-old John Jr. John was a quiet man. Cynthia was an outspoken woman. The family lived in part of a farmhouse that Cynthia had grown up in as a teen.
Henry's father was trying to make a living as both a storekeeper and a farmer. Unfortunately, his timing was bad — 1816 was known to many as the "Year Without a Summer." On the other side of the planet, an Indonesian volcano named Tambora had erupted in 1815. It sent so much thick ash into the Earth's atmosphere that it affected the next growing season in North America and northern Europe. People living in Massachusetts saw frost in every month of 1816. More northern states and Canada had snow in every month. As a result, many crops didn't have a chance to grow well, or even at all. Anyone who raised vegetables for others had problems producing enough to sell.
Although conditions were better the following year, the Thoreaus decided to leave the farm and move closer to the town center. They left Concord altogether in 1818. They spent several years in Chelmsford and in Boston. John Thoreau worked at various jobs, most often as a store manager. By March 1823, the Thoreaus came back to Concord for good. They brought with them a new member of the family, baby Sophia (so-FYE-ah), who was two years younger than Henry.
As you talk with people about Henry Thoreau, you will hear them pronounce his last name in two different ways. Some will say "thih-ROW," with the accent on the last syllable. Some will say, "THOR-oh," with the accent on the first syllable, sounding almost like the word "thorough." How did Henry and his family pronounce it?
Clues can be found in Henry's own writings. Once he made fun of his name and claimed that his ancestors worshipped Thor, the god of thunder and lightning in Norse mythology. He used forms of the word "thorough" at times to describe himself, too. He seemed to favor the accent on the first syllable.
Notes from friends who heard his name firsthand agree. Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Daniel Ricketson, and Edward Emerson referred to him in their writings as "Thorow," "Thoro," or even "Thorough." They spelled his name the way it sounded to them.
Today people use both versions. But the one like "thorough" is probably the correct one.
A Revolutionary Town
Concord was the oldest inland town in the nation and was founded in 1635. Native Americans and later white English colonists settled where the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers met to form the Concord River. The town sat 20 miles west of the Massachusetts state capital of Boston. Concord was known as a country town or an agricultural town. It had a courthouse and was a seat of government for Middlesex County. But it was also famous for its history. Here, shots were exchanged between colonial minutemen and British soldiers on April 19, 1775. The gunfire that took place at the North Bridge marked the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.
Here people passed Revolutionary era sites every day. The road they took to Lexington was the same route the redcoats had used when they marched from Boston. Back then, some of the soldiers had gathered at Wright's Tavern, right in the center of Concord. The minister's house still sat within sight of the battleground. But the wooden bridge itself had been gone for many years. The gray stone walls on both riverbanks marked where it once stood.
To young Henry, the town had more to offer than just the Main Street businesses, homes, and history. There was a whole natural world to explore. "I think I could write a poem to be called 'Concord,'" he said later. "For argument I should have the River, the Woods, the Ponds, the Hills, the Fields, the Swamps and Meadows, the Streets and Buildings, and the Villagers. Then Morning, Noon, and Evening, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, Night, Indian Summer, and the Mountains in the Horizon." Henry and his brother John spent their days outside whenever they were free from school. All of Concord was their playground.
A Boyhood on the Pond
One of the most interesting spots within Concord's borders was Walden Pond, a lake that was about a mile south of Main Street. Henry was only five years old when he first saw it. He always remembered how he felt at this new sight. He and his family had come from Boston to visit his grandmother, and they made a special trip to the pond. "That woodland vision for a long time made the drapery of my dreams," Henry said. To his child's eyes, it was beautiful and peaceful. It was not at all like busy Boston, which then had more than 43,000 residents. Here at Walden, it was as if "sunshine and shadow were the only inhabitants" among the pine trees. It would be a great place to live someday, he thought.
Henry was thin and had brown hair and gray-green eyes. But when people first met him, they focused on his large nose. Some said it looked like an eagle's beak, or like the one they'd seen on a bust of Caesar, the ancient Roman emperor. Henry was just as quiet and serious as a judge, they said. "Judge" even became one of his nicknames. The truth was that he felt comfortable being alone, without a lot of others chattering around him. "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion," he said. And exploring the fields and woods around town restored his energy and gave him time to think. He loved to walk or to "saunter" by himself, or with a friend he could trust.
The New England Town
In the six states that make up the New England region, the word "town" means something different than it does in other parts of the country or the world. Here, a town is a larger defined area and a unit of government, not just a close community of homes and businesses. Other parts of the United States would call this a township or even a county.
In the early days, life in each town centered around one church that stood near a common, an empty yard intended to be shared by everyone. This small settlement was surrounded by mostly open land at first. As more people arrived, they bought property and built houses farther away from the church and the common. But they were still residents of the town.
Henry once wrote, "I have travelled a good deal in Concord." He meant that he did more than just wander the streets where people lived. He explored the fields, hills, swamps, rivers, ponds, and woods within its borders, too. The Town of Concord covered 25 square miles, or 16,520 acres of land. Henry was familiar with every part of it. He didn't have to go "out of town" to find something interesting.
Explore Your Town's History
Henry loved Concord. He wrote this note in his journal on December 5, 1856: "I have never gotten over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too."
Your hometown may not be as famous as his, and it may not attract as many tourists. But yours has an important story behind it. What is it?
WHAT YOU NEED
* A print or online town history, if one exists
* The archive of a local historical society, if one exists
* Conversations with older residents
Using these resources, try to learn the answers to these questions:
[right arrow] When was the town founded?
[right arrow] How was it named?
[right arrow] Why did people come to live here at first?
[right arrow] Why do they live here now?
[right arrow] Where is the oldest building?
[right arrow] Are any historic sites open to the public? (If so, visit them.)
[right arrow] Are any sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places? (If so, visit them.)
[right arrow]What main businesses have been here through the years?
[right arrow] Did any important events ever happen here?
[right arrow] Do you hold any annual events or celebrations?
[right arrow] Is anyone "famous" from here, from the past or from the present? If so, where did they live?
What can you do with the details you learn?
[right arrow] You can become an informal tour guide to friends and out-of-town visitors.
[right arrow] You can create a walking tour of important sites.
[right arrow] You can create a brochure that promotes your town's best and most important features.
[right arrow] You can begin to write a history of your town, if none exists.
[right arrow] You can even organize a town historical society, if none exists.
Learn more about your place, and be proud of it!
The Thoreaus had returned to Concord in 1823 to join the family business of making pencils. Cynthia Thoreau's brother, Charles Dunbar, had discovered a graphite supply in New Hampshire. He and business partner Cyrus Stow used it to make Dunbar & Stow pencils. When Stow left the partnership, Charles invited John Thoreau to take his place. They changed the name to John Thoreau & Company. At the time, the best pencils were imported from Germany and France. American pencils were often made of gritty lead and were difficult to write with. They smudged the paper. Thoreau pencils were of higher quality, and they began to sell well.
After John Jr. and Henry graduated from the Concord Academy, the family decided it could only afford to send one brother to Harvard College. They chose Henry. At the end of August 1833, he and his friend Charles Stearns Wheeler traveled the fifteen miles to Cambridge, to theirr shared room in Hollis Hall. Except for some time away due to illness and to teach elsewhere for a few months, Henry spent the next four years there.
An Independent Learner
Harvard College was founded in Cambridge in 1636, just one year after the town of Concord. By 1833, it was still the only college located in eastern Massachusetts. Many men in New England came to Harvard to get a good education. Henry was lucky enough to live within walking distance of it.
He took the standard courses in English, history, mathematics, natural and intellectual philosophy, Greek, and Latin. The professors' lectures weren't all that inspirational, however. Students were rarely asked to participate actively in class. And if Henry wanted to walk to the banks of the Charles River to study nature in person, he had to do it on his own. Field trips were unheard of.
For him, the best part of Harvard was its library. There he could read and learn about anything he wanted to. He taught himself the basics of French, German, Italian, and Spanish. He read books of English poetry. He began a habit of copying favorite passages into special notebooks so he could review them later. Even after he graduated on August 30, 1837 — ranked as number 19 in a class of 50 — he continued to check out books from the college library as an alumnus. He did this for the rest of his life.
A Harvard man could choose from among four possible careers: doctor, lawyer, minister, or teacher. But people could also teach without earning college degrees. Henry's older siblings, Helen and John, both taught in Taunton, about 50 miles southeast of Concord.
In the fall of 1837, Henry got a job with the Concord public schools. He was one of two teachers assigned to the first floor of a brick building in the town center. The building was otherwise used for meetings by the adult men's group the Masons. During the weekdays, about 50 students crowded into each classroom. Both were cramped and noisy.
Henry had been teaching for almost two weeks when he was visited by a member of the school committee. (In other parts of the country, this group may be called the school board.) The man was shocked at how unruly the students were. He told Henry to discipline the children immediately. Henry didn't think a nonteacher — and an elected official, at that — should be giving a real teacher such advice. He picked out several students at random and smacked the tops of their hands with a ferule, a ruler-like piece of wood used for punishment. Those who were chosen were upset. They had known their teacher as a kind person. It was unlike him to be violent without reason. Later that day, Henry resigned from the job. No one was going to tell him what to do.
Soon Henry did something else that was unusual. He changed his name. His official given name was David Henry Thoreau, even though his family members always called him Henry. Now he switched the names around and began signing his name as Henry David Thoreau. He didn't ask any town or government agency to make the change official. He just started using it this way.
A Well-Respected Friend
People in Concord thought Henry was odd. First, he left a decent teaching job at a time when money and jobs were tough to come by. And then he changed his name! Henry was certainly not a typical young man.
He had at least one well-respected friend in town. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a noteworthy writer and lecturer who lived in a large white house on the road to Cambridge. Although he was born in Boston, he had close ties to Concord. His grandfather, William Emerson, had been the first minister to live in the parish house near the North Bridge.
Waldo, as his friends called him, was a Harvard graduate who had served as a minister in Boston. He resigned when he realized he no longer believed in some of the rituals of the church. In 1834, he boarded with his step-grandfather and current minister Ezra Ripley at his house by the North Bridge. Here he wrote his beliefs in his first book, called Nature. As part of Henry's graduation day at Harvard, Emerson spoke on "The American Scholar." He encouraged Americans to think for themselves, to develop theeir own culture, and to leave European traditions behind.
On the Fourth of July, 1837, Concord celebrated the country's independence by dedicating a granite tower monument at the North Bridge site. To honor the event, a choir sang a four-stanza poem written by Emerson. Henry was among the singers. The poem began:
What Is Transcendentalism?
Henry and his best friends were transcendentalists. This did not mean they were part of a club, an organized movement, or a religion. If transcendentalists were in the same place at the same time, it was because they wanted to meet and talk with "like-minded men and women," said Frederic Henry Hedge. Otherwise, they were independent writers and philosophers who loved nature and trusted their instincts. They thought they could each find God and a spiritual connection to the universe by spending time outside and in the natural world, and not by sitting in a church pew, listening to a minister preach or read verses. Transcendentalism was a way of looking at religion that went against what a lot of people believed at the time. Its "members" were often viewed as radicals.
Transcendentalism began in America when Ralph Waldo Emerson published his first book, Nature, in 1836. "The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship," he wrote. His words influenced other writers who felt the same way. Because Emerson lived in Concord, that was where transcendentalism was based in the mid-1800s. Henry was one of Emerson's followers and friends. Other transcendentalists included Bronson Alcott, Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, Frederic Henry Hedge, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, and Jones Very.
Emerson had not invented transcendental ideas. They could be traced to Europe and to the works of German philosophers and writers like Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Immanuel Kant. Transcendentalism could also be found in the essays and poetry of British writers Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. The Americans read and were inspired by the writings of these men, as well as those by their own acknowledged leader, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to
April's breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Emerson started a second American revolution by beginning the transcendentalist movement in Concord. He became a mentor to Henry and to other writers and philosophers, who often gathered at his home for conversations. Henry even lived there on occasion, helping take care of the Emerson family.
A New Lifelong Habit
Keeping a journal or writing in a daily diary was something that many people did in the 1800s, especially the transcendentalists. Sometimes they would loan their journals to friends so they could read each others' opinions and discuss them together later.
On October 22, 1837, Waldo Emerson asked Henry if he kept a journal. His young friend started one immediately. Henry wrote entries nearly every day for the rest of his life, filling 33 notebooks. Sometimes he took parts of these writings and created longer essays, lectures, or even books from them. Henry also contributed seven essays and four poems to the Dial, the transcendentalist magazine that was published in the early 1840s.
Excerpted from Henry David Thoreau for Kids by Corinne Hosfeld Smith. Copyright © 2016 Corinne Hosfeld Smith. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: What Makes Henry Thoreau Important?,
1 At Home in Concord,
2 Walden Pond, A Week, and Walden,
3 Civil Rights and Social Reforms,
4 Exploring New England's Mountains,
5 Going Farther Afield,
6 An Enduring Legacy,