The month of May is come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom and to bring forth fruit! If you're literary enough to recognize that quote from Thomas Malory, you might also know that May is one of the best months of the year to be a bookworm, what with Independent Bookstore Day and National Library Legislative Day, not to mention the birthdays of Whitman, Emerson, and Thomas Pynchon. But you might be surprised by how much of what you think you remember about American literature is wrong. Luckily, Jeopardy! champ and man of letters Ken Jennings is here to set us straight. Let every lusty brain begin to blossom and bring forth fruit!
The Debunker: Did Henry David Thoreau Live in Solitude at Walden Pond?
"When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself." So begins Walden, a work by Henry David Thoreau in which the famed American poet and philosopher describes the two years he spent living in a one-room cabin near Concord, Massachusetts. Life in the Woods, he subtitled the book. Modern readers, taken with the romantic idea of a man living alone with nature, often imagine Thoreau as a secluded hermit.
If that's what you think, a quick visit to modern-day Concord will straighten you out. Walden Pond isn't found in any forest primeval, but just a mile outside town, near two major roads. The suburbs, as it were, even in 1845. The woods actually belonged to Thoreau's friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was letting his friend camp out back. Far from being Kit Carson, Thoreau was actually more like a 19th-century Kato Kaelin.
There's a much-quoted section of Walden called "Solitude," in which Thoreau extols the virtues of getting away from it all. But everyone forgets the very next section, called "Visitors," which is devoted to Thoreau's hundreds of guests, both friends from town and strangers just passing through. Thoreau wrote that he always kept a couple spare chairs out for company, and sometimes had as many as "twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under (his) roof." We also know that he took every excuse to stroll into town for a dinner party with friends, or to drop laundry off at home. Yes, Mr. "I Wished To Live Deliberately" still had Mom wash his undies. Some hermit.
Quick Quiz: The Walden Woods Project, a nonprofit that saved Thoreau's woods from development, was founded by what musician, who sang his hits "The Boys of Summer" and "The End of the Innocence" at a benefit there in 1993?
Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.