The Journal: 1837-1861
By Henry David Thoreau
Edited by Damion Searls
Preface by John R. Stilgoe
New York Review Books. 677 pp. $22.95
“‘What are you doing now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.”
So it began, October 22, 1837. Twenty-year-old David Henry Thoreau, who would never legally change his name to the “Henry David” he preferred, opened his journal with a question thought by most to come from his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. For the next twenty-four years, Thoreau kept at it, until just a few months before the tuberculosis he caught as a young man finally claimed him. He kept at it for over two million words, across 47 messy manuscript volumes, in-between writing and publishing the books and essays; while working as a surveyor, Emerson-family babysitter, and innovator at the family pencil factory; while losing his brother (who died of lockjaw) and one of his two sisters (who died of TB, the family plague); while experimenting at Emerson’s woodlot on Walden Pond for two years, two months, and two days and producing a radical manifesto of how to live in America; while helping runaway slaves for the Underground Railroad; while taking long walks through the fields and woods he seems to have become as intimate with as any human animal can. And while accidentally burning down 100 acres of those same local woods.
The standard 14-volume unabridged version of the journal is now more than a century old; a door-stopping Dover reprint of this presents four pages of journal to each modern page. Princeton University, meanwhile, is half-way through publishing a sixteen-volume definitive edition, under the rubric of the series The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau; each of these volumes retails for nearly $100, generally putting them out of the reach of those of us who are not research libraries. There are a good number of published selections from the journal, but until now no single volume has attempted to distill the work into something you can go camping with. The heroic Damion Searls has now done so in a New York Review Book Classics Original. There will be quibbles, inevitably, but for the non-specialist, this one-handed 667-page abridgment is as close to a canonical window into the Journal most of us are likely to get.
So why should we care? Hopefully, Thoreau needs no introduction as one of the giants of radical America. But usually reduced to handy epigrams today (he was a blogger avant la lettre), he is often more honored in the abstract than as a still-relevant forbearer. Anti-celebrity, he often comes across as misanthropic, prickly, and eccentric. He’s even been accused of being a fraud because while living at Walden he would join his family for dinner. To those who hold these sophomoric views, I recommend Robert Sullivan, who in the recent The Thoreau You Don’t Know, more than rehabilitates him, he reminds us just how vital Thoreau remains. The Journal does the same thing, in Thoreau’s own words.
In a time of radical climate disruption and mass anthropogenic extinction, Thoreau, as one of the founders of both environmentalism and political dissent, makes brand new sense. We must all be naturalists now, radical naturalists – observers and admirers, yes, but also defenders and activists. Even those of us who live in cities - the majority of humans on the earth - are surrounded by wildlife, but we must learn to see it. Thoreau above all teaches us to see.
The Journal starts out conventionally enough, a place for ideas, commonplaces, and drafts of published work; it’s a young writer’s notebook, a little experimental, a little vainglorious. In 1841, he writes, “My Journal is that of me which would else spill over and run to waste, gleanings from the field which in action I reap. I must not live for it, but in it for the gods.” By 1850, it is on the road to being an extraordinary record of a life on Earth, a life in the economy of nature. That life was relatively uneventful in world historical terms, but it was deeply, profoundly active. Searls calls the mature journal “an investigation of dailyness, seasons, and the relationship between self and nature.” As such, it is an admixture of the mundane and the philosophical, the wild animal and the human animal. Here Thoreau observes turtles, here he defends John Brown. Here he describes the coming of spring, “The bluebird carries the sky on his back,” here he takes a sartorial hint from a haymaker who crosses his suspenders both fore and aft, for “I am much troubled by mine slipping off my shoulders.”
His usual method is to make an observation a stepping-stone to a thought, no great leap there in terms of methodology, but ah, those leaps! Almost ever page provides a lovely example. Here is one at random:
“If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year.[…] See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.” (Oct 31, 1857)
But he is not without snark. “Dr. Bartlett handed me a paper to-day, desiring me to subscribe for a statue to Horace Mann. I declined, and said that I thought a man ought not any more to take up room in the world after he was dead. We shall lose one advantage of a man’s dying if we are to have a stature of him forthwith.” (Sept. 18, 1859)
As an ecologist, Thoreau connected the natural systems he knew so well with the political, poetical, and philosophical currents of his day. The Journal is a record of those connections, connections we would do well to update and continue. Reading it is akin to visiting with an extraordinary mind.
I’ll let the better man have the last word: “A truly good book is something as wildly natural and primitive, mysterious and marvelous, ambrosial and fertile, as a lichen or a fungus.”