University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Henry David Thoreau

Volume V · Winter 1950 · Number 2
Henry David Thoreau

The year 1949 was the centennial of the publication of Thoreau's first book, A Week On the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Rush Rhees Library placed on display an exhibit of Thoreau manuscripts, first editions, limited editions, and other works by and about him to commemorate this occasion, and sponsored a coffee-hour discussion on Thoreau led by Professor Margaret Denny. The library was most fortunate in being able to borrow from Mr. W. Stephen Thomas, Director of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences, five original Thoreau manuscripts and several mementoes of Thoreau, to which were added books and manuscripts from the Treasure Room for this exhibit.

The first manuscript from Mr. Thomas' collection was a poem written by Thoreau in 1842 to his brother, John, who died that year of lockjaw. When the poem first appeared after Henry Thoreau's death, edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, five stanzas of the full poem shown in this manuscript were omitted.

One of the principles of Thoreau's philosophy was cultivation of the spirit of inward discovery. He believed in knowing thoroughly his own locale-whether it was the neighboring wood lot or a recess of the mind. This attitude is illustrated in the second manuscript, which is from "Ktaadn and the Maine Woods" in which he says, "We have advanced by leaps and bounds to the Pacific and left many a lesser Oregon and California unexplored behind us."

The third manuscript was from his Journal and describes the common sucker and the common eel. This passage was incorporated in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers but with considerable change, for all his writings went through a number of drafts. Another of the manuscripts was an early draft, also from the Journal,and was likewise incorporated in the Week. An arresting sentence in this is: "I suppose that what is in other men religion is in me love of nature." The last manuscript includes three epitaph poems, "Here Lies an Honest Man,""Epitaph to an Engraver," and "On a Goodman," plus a prose eulogy of Captain Jonathan Foster who died "19th of May in the 50th year of our independence..."

Mr. Thomas also lent us Thoreau's Greek and English Lexicon which bears Thoreau's signature on the title-page, a tintype of Thoreau taken two years before he died, a plaque of Thoreau, a Dutch edition of Walden, as well as first editions of Maine Woods, A Yankee in Canada With Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, The Moon, and several limited editions of works by or about Thoreau.

The Charles A. Brown Autograph Collection provided a letter from Moncure Daniel Conway to Thoreau in which Conway asks for a gift contribution to the new Dial -- "one of those fresh wood-zephyrs that fan our fevered hearts and bring health to blase cheeks." He wants some of the pearls which Thoreau finds in his Oriental Sea upstairs. A rough draft in pencil, in Thoreau's handwriting, of the latter's reply appears on the letter. Thoreau declined, saying he had nothing at hand and other engagements demanded his efforts.

Rush Rhees Library owns both a first and second edition of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The first edition was presented by Rev. E. L. Magoon, who also gave a first edition of Excursions, while the second came from the library of Professor Chester P. Dewey. One thousand copies of the first edition were printed, but only about three hundred were sold or given away during Thoreau's lifetime. The remaining copies were returned to him, which prompted the following entry in his Journalfor October 28, 1853:

"For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they arrived today by express, filling the man's wagon, 706 copies of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain. There was just one piece of good luck in the venture. The unbound were tied up by the printer four years ago in stout wrappers, and inscribed,

H. D. Thoreau's
Concord River
50 cops.

So Munroe had only to cross out 'River' and write 'Mass.' and deliver them to the expressman at once. I can now see what I write for, the result of my labors."

After Thoreau's death the unsold copies were bound and sold as the second edition with the 1862 imprint by Ticknor and Fields. The binders failed to remove the leaf announcing the future publications of Walden, while the title page, under Thoreau's name, gives "Author of 'Walden'." Sanborn, one of Thoreau's biographers, asserts that "his investment in his first volume, the Week, was the largest he made, and for that he paid by the toil of his hands in pencil-making, or by kindred labors."

Mrs. Henry G. Danforth recently presented the Library with a first edition of Walden, Thoreau's second book and his best known work. Walden, like the Week, was written largely, if not entirely, in Thoreau's Journal before it was made into a book, and the writing was by no means confined to the years he spent on the shore of Walden Pond. The Journal entries date from 1839 to within a few months of the publication of the book on August 9, 1854. Walden, the only other book Thoreau himself published in addition to the Week, paid for itself and still sells well today. It is a biographical narrative which makes the simplest facts of daily life important and vivid and which also rises to imaginative heights. Epigrams, humor, and humanity mingle with his egocentricity. Walden is one of the great modern world classics, but, while it preaches simplicity, Thoreau's style is not always entirely simple. It found admirers all over the world, however, and to us it appears to be more timely than it did to any previous generation, because of today's conflict, change, and confusion.

Thoreau's most famous essay, "Resistance to Civil Government," first appeared in Elizabeth Peabody's Aesthetic Papers, published in 1849, a first edition of which was presented to the library by Mr. Edward G. Miner. Miss Peabody's book also included pieces by Emerson and Hawthorne, all for the price of $1.25! Thoreau's essay preaches simplification of life by a dependence on actual necessities -- food, shelter, clothing, and fuel -- which lends strength, courage, and self-reliance to the individual character, and also benefits the state, to the extent of its practice.

Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, and A Yankee in Canada might be classed as travel books or guidebooks, though they are much more. The library of Professor Chester P. Dewey furnished first editions of all three titles. Thoreau visited Cape Cod on four different occasions from 1849 to 1855, spending a week or more on each trip. The first trip is used as the outline for the book, with incidents from the later trips inserted at appropriate places. Thoreau made three trips to the Maine wilderness between 1846 and 1857, and his book is still a good guide for a north-woods journey. It is full of detailed description, imagination, shrewd and humorous comment, and as Van Doren says, "the spirit of the tall forest." Thoreau exhibited the enthusiasm of the naturalist in his zeal for discoveries in botanical, geological, and ethnological fields on these trips. He also shows in these books and the Excursions a keen interest in his fellow men, for they contain descriptions of many types and individuals, his Indian guide, Joe Polis, being one of the outstanding examples.

The exhibit contained many additional books and mementoes of Thoreau, but space limitations forbid further detailed enumeration here.

Thoreau's works and their influence curiously enough seem to resemble a string of delayed-action bombs, for his beliefs and writings have influenced leaders of thought and action in as far-removed countries as Russia, India, Ireland, and England, not to mention our own land. The Saturday Review of Literature, December 3, 1949, contains an article by Henry Seidel Canby, who published a biography of him in 1939, giving a new estimate of Thoreau. A year ago Joseph Wood Krutch brought out a new biography of the man so neglected in his own day. Perhaps Krutch summarized as well as any the curious anomaly of Thoreau's fame and influence:

"Most literary reputations merely linger; and though there are a few which grow, it is not so very often that a writer who failed in his own time and who was, moreover, dismissed as a mere eccentric after his death recaptures the ear and imagination of a public as Thoreau has done. Nor is the sheer brilliance of his writing even chiefly responsible for the phenomenon. What he had to say is what has really counted and what still arrests and fascinates even those who are less than half convinced by the arguments set forth. He disapproved of the way America was going and he refused point-blank to go along with it ... The dissatisfaction which he expressed with things as they are has come to seem more and more justified and his prophecies have in many respects been fulfilled."

Many people realize that Thoreau has become the inspiration of lovers of nature and solitude but few realize his influence upon the thinking of Gandhi, Tolstoy, William B. Yeats, and the leaders of the British Labor Party. Mahatma Gandhi made the essay "Civil Disobedience" a sort of bible of his passive resistance movement and both he and Tolstoy followed Thoreau's leadership in tracing the evils of the world back to the characters and lives of the men who make it. If the individual man saves himself, then all would be saved. Walden provided a defense against materialism and imperialism for the British Liberals around the beginning of the present century and the British Labor Party used, as a lay guide for its members, pertinent selections from his writings, inexpensively reprinted under the title Life and Friendship. Young revolutionists chafing under the tsars gathered strength and endurance from Thoreau's philosophy. Yeats was inspired to seek his island paradise of Innisfree when his father readWalden to him as a boy. W. H. Hudson calls Walden "the one golden book in any century of best books."

What, then, is this strengthening and ever-new philosophy that Thoreau so insistently taught by both his example and writings? He wished to deal with the essential facts of life, learn from them, and not discover when he was about to die that he had not lived fully. He insisted on simplicity and abhorred waste and hurry. Life should not be frittered away in details of the machine age. "Getting and spending we lay waste our powers" remained true to him no matter how much was gotten or spent.

He did not wish to dictate to others nor would he permit others to force their mode of living upon him. To him the individual and a moral law were superior to statutes and constitutions, for the whole problem became a question of values, and if the government or current materialism obstructed the pursuit of true values, then a man had to decide on the best course for himself, and fight for it.

Thoreau remains the champion of those who oppose tyrannical governments, for he passionately loved the elusive ideal of liberty, struggled for moral independence, and insisted upon the worth of the common man. Canby skillfully summarizes this present-day conflict:

"As between democracy and totalitarianism, it is the question as to whether man is to be told how to live, and made to live as he is told, or whether he shall self-reliantly learn how he can best and most happily and most profitably live, and do it ... The conflict is in every country, in every race, and in every bosom, and a transcending value in Thoreau is that he distilled into his powerful writing not only his personality and this theme, but the experience of many generations of men in a new continent."