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Thoreau’s classic is updated for a new generation of readers.
NEW ENGLANDERS TEND TO BE proprietary about Henry David Thoreau, as though he were a next-door neighbor. He is our writer, the voice of this wild landscape (though now much tamed) we call home.
Yet how many of us have read The Maine Woods, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, or the classic, Walden? How much do we really know about the man, the writer, New England’s favorite literary son? Jeffrey Cramer ’77, curator of collections at the Walden Woods Project’s Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, half a mile from Walden Pond, is a Thoreau scholar—a Thoreauvian, in the lexicon. He confides that the author remains something of an enigma, even if one has daily access, as Cramer does, to 95 percent of everything ever published by or about Thoreau.
“We have 8,000 books and some 50,000 documents,” says Cramer of the collection. “We have only a few original manuscripts, but we own the most complete collection of works relating to Thoreau.” The library, in keeping with the Institute’s mission, also holds related writings penned by other notables, such as Emerson, Paul Brooks, and Scott and Helen Nearing. With an advanced degree in library science, Cramer is well suited to care for this unique resource, but it is his personal passion for Thoreau that led him to edit a new annotated version of Walden, in time for the book’s sesquicentennial.
Cramer’s fascination with the author was sparked during his years at UMass Amherst. “A friend of mine said ‘you’ve got to read this,’” he says. “I liked Walden, but more so, it haunted me. After graduating, I took to visiting Walden Pond almost every weekend.”
The writings Thoreau started while living for two years and two months in a hand-hewn cabin beside the pond became the classic book, which was first published in 1854. In it the author sets forth his ideas on how an individual should best live in harmony with his or her own nature and with nature itself.
Several years ago Cramer began editing Walden, taking pains to incorporate into his annotations the biographical, historical and geographical contexts of Thoreau’s life and times. Drawing on contemporary accounts and texts, and using other Thoreau texts as a gloss, the new edition uses Thoreau’s own sources to insure that the annotations remain relevant to the historical period in which the author lived and wrote. “I wanted to examine Walden in light of the research and commentary that has been published in the last 150 years,” says Cramer, “and to present a reliable text with as comprehensive a series of annotations as possible.”
Cramer says the project made him feel like the traveler Thoreau wrote about in the final chapter of Walden who was told by a boy that the swamp before him had a hard bottom. As the traveler’s horse sunk in up to its girths, he said, “I thought you said that this bog had a hard bottom.” “So it has,” answered the boy, “but you have not got half way to it yet.”
Likewise, we may never get to the bottom of Walden, says Cramer, “but I hope we have gotten that much closer.”
A River Ran through It: Although his book was a natural outgrowth of his stay, Thoreau did not go to Walden to write Walden, but to write A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, about a two-week river excursion he took with his brother, John, who died in 1842.
Taxing Matters: Thoreau should not have spent his famous night in jail for nonpayment of taxes during his Walden years, because someone had paid for them anonymously. The jailor, Sam Staples, had already removed his boots for the night and decided to let Thoreau remain locked up until morning. Thoreau was irate—not that he had spent a night in jail, but that someone had paid his poll tax; he had declined to pay as an anti-slavery statement.
Using His Head: Thoreau gathered the lining of his hat to make a shelf inside on which he could place the plants he collected while botanizing. He believed “there is something in the darkness and the vapors that arise from the head—at least if you take a bath—which preserves flowers through a long walk.”
Making the Grade: Having developed a method for baking graphite and clay in the manufacturing of pencils (the Thoreau family business) and thus controlling how hard or soft the final product was, Thoreau began the process of grading pencils in this country.
Family Friend: In March 1858, when Elizabeth Alcott (“Beth” of Little Women) died, Thoreau was one of the select few who carried her casket out of the Alcott home.
Humble Bookshelf: When Thoreau had to buy back the unsold copies of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he humorously wrote in his journal: “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself.”
First on the Block: Always advanced in his thinking, Thoreau was reading one of the first copies of Darwin’s Origin of Species to circulate in this country, a mere five weeks after it was published in London.
Understudy: When in November 1859 abolitionist Frederick Douglass fled to Canada following his alleged connection with John Brown’s raid of Harper’s Ferry, it was Thoreau who was asked to replace him as a speaker in Boston.
Henry, Spurned: Thoreau was once in love with Ellen Sewall and proposed marriage, but was rejected because her father, a Unitarian minister, did not approve of the transcendental and somewhat radical philosophies of her suitor.
Thoroughly Mispronounced: Thoreau’s name is properly pronounced like the word “thorough,” with the accent on the first syllable, not on the second, and he would often make self-referencing puns in his writing, such as “a thoroughbred business man.”
For more information about Thoreau and the treasures found at the Thoreau Institute, visit www.walden.org/institute or e-mail Jeff at Jeff.Cramer@walden.org.
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Walden, Revisited: larger image