A literary workshop that became the center of his imaginative life

English professor William L. Howarth spent 42 years on the Princeton faculty before transferring to emeritus status in 2008. An authority on Henry David Thoreau, he wrote this essay for PAW’s Sept. 8, 1980, issue. We’re reproducing it here in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth on July 12.

The work of publishing Thoreau’s surviving manuscripts continues today; Elizabeth Witherell of the University of California, Santa Barbara, serves as editor-in-chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, a position Howarth held from 1973-80.

For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward. — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

From October 22, 1837, to November 3, 1861, a span of 24 years and 12 days, Henry Thoreau reported to his Journal, gradually writing over 2 million words into its 47 manuscript volumes. In these pages he confided thoughts, notes on reading, and portraits of friends or neighbors. He wrote about travels, dreams, and childhood; he also recorded the natural history of his native township, Concord, Massachusetts. The subjects ranged from momentous to banal, his style from poetic rapture to bare lists of scientific data.

During Thoreau’s lifetime the Journal never circulated widely, for he edited only a few publications from its massive contents. After his death a text slowly emerged, as editors printed four volumes of seasonal excerpts (1881-92) and then a 14-volume edition (1906). Twice reprinted (1949 and 1962), this version of the Journal played a major role in the shaping of Thoreau’s modern reputation. Unfortunately, the text omitted large portions of manuscript and its editorial standards were inconsistent. The edition now being prepared at Princeton will publish all surviving manuscripts for the first time, in a text that presents Thoreau’s Journal as he originally wrote it.

Thoreau always referred to “my Journal” as a single book, even though its contents were prodigiously varied. It also had a shifting purpose and character. It began as a literary workshop and later became the center of Thoreau’s imaginative life. Some of its changes were self-induced, others prompted by fellow writers. Whenever Thoreau described his Journal, he measured his expectations against the weight of literary tradition.

As a sophomore at Harvard in 1835, he saw the purpose of journal-writing in mercantile terms, as a means of computing “daily gains” and “settling accounts.” He was speaking for family custom — the Thoreaus kept day books of their business transactions — and for the New England habit of writing journals as moral exercise, each entry calculating the author’s inner accounts. Yet when Thoreau actually began the Journal in October 1837, his motives were utilitarian: he wanted to be a writer, and every writer he knew — Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Ralph Waldo Emerson — kept a journal for professional reasons.

Emerson was a dominant influence in these early years. He apparently urged Thoreau to begin the Journal, and his writing habits were an instructive model to the younger man. Emerson called his own journal a “Savings Bank”; he used it as a depository of ideas and phrases for later investment in publications. Thoreau’s early Journal had the same function; many pages are missing because he built draft compositions by clipping and gathering passages from it.

Unlike Emerson, Thoreau feared that this method of writing contradicted the Transcendental principle of artistic spontaneity. Despite its practical merits, the Savings Bank sacrificed an original sequence of thoughts and experiences for the later artificial order of a publication. An entry written on February 8, 1841, expresses Thoreau’s concern: as he stored these “gleanings from the field” for future use, he feared that his Journal pages, “Like the sere leaves in yonder vase,” would dry and wither when later cut for public display.

This reservation deepened with time, as Thoreau tried unsuccessfully to build a literary career by gleaning poems, lectures, and essays from the Journal. The finished writings, he wrote in an 1845 entry, “stand ... like statues on their pedestals — but the statues rarely take hold of hands —.” And readers rarely took hold of the works, even when compiled in anthology form as A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). A Week sold only a fraction of its copies, and Thoreau had to absorb the entire cost of publication. This long-term debt also forced him to postpone publishing Walden.

Thoreau’s early failure strongly affected the Journal in the early 1850s, when his friendship with Emerson cooled. As a surveyor Thoreau used his working hours to add a broad margin of leisure to his life — walking in the Concord fields and woods, boating on its rivers, and — as Emerson later wrote — “disappointing the natural expectations of his family and friends.” (“I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition,” Emerson said elsewhere. “... instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”) But in fact Thoreau was writing copiously in the Journal about these excursions, sometimes up to 10,000 words a day. His work led him to imagine Concord as a world of perfect concord, where Nature’s facts and his ideas corresponded exactly.

Uplifted by this vision, he also began to see an intrinsic harmony in his Journal. On January 27, 1852, he wrote: “I do not know but thoughts written down thus in a journal might be printed in the same form to greater advantage — than if the related ones were brought together into separate essays. They are now allied to life — & are seen by the reader not to be far-fetched — It is more simple — less artful — I feel that in the other case I should have no proper frame for my sketches.” Although he was still gleaning the Journal for publication, its pages now represented a more authentic model for composition, the temporal sequence of living and writing. The form of Walden (1854) expresses this new aesthetic, for its seasonal structure recreates the process of human growth that Thoreau recognized in his daily Journal entries.

The Journal was also influenced in the 1850s by other travellers, whose books — often edited or adapted from journals — became Thoreau’s principal reading. He consumed expeditionary narratives by Cartier, Champlain, Kane, Lewis and Clark, and the French Jesuits; read Beverly, Catlin, Olmstead, Schoolcraft, and de Tocqueville; consulted the natural history writings of Bartram, Audubon, Agassiz, and Darwin. The documentary style and chronological format of these works affected Thoreau’s own Journal, which became an intensive log of his trips in Concord, Canada, and New England; these entries in turn became the basis for travel narratives: “An Excursion to Canada,” Cape Cod, The Maine Woods. But Thoreau no longer excised Journal pages to write these stories; now he preserved its integrity by transcribing separate drafts, in the order dictated by original events.

Some of his later books were unfinished when Thoreau died because he either quarrelled with publishers or deferred his work for other projects — on natural history and Indians — that he also left unfinished. These habits were not disadvantages in the Journal, where he could write for his own tastes, privately and seemingly without end. On January 24, 1856, he wrote: “A journal is a record of experiences and growth — not a preserve of things well done or said. … [Its charm] must consist in a certain greenness — though freshness — and not in maturity.” Thoreau never disavowed his use of the Journal as a professional tool, but now he also saw that it had acquired organic properties. The daily entries fertilized his mind and style; they kept him growing as a writer and postponed the necessity for a final harvest.

Emerson grieved that Thoreau did not complete more books; yet without the ongoing Journal he might have started none. In his last years he filled the manuscript volumes with long entries describing the ecology of Concord, especially the geographical and seasonal patterns affecting wild life habitats. This work resembled that of Gilbert White, the English naturalist who focused on a local environment and told its story through a series of letters addressed to the same reader. At once more scientific and poetic than White, Thoreau persistently viewed nature as “a mystic — a transcendentalist — & a natural philosopher to boot —.” Believing that the world is a visible symbol of the human spirit, he presumed that he and Concord were synonymous subjects. An entry written on March 18, 1861, describes his role as the Journal’s author: “You are simply a witness on the stand to tell what you know about your neighbors & neighborhood —.”

Everything Thoreau wrote in the Journal, whether tedious or rhapsodic, measured the waterline of his life. When his health began to fail in 1861, so did the Journal. A final trip to Minnesota yielded extensive notes for the Journal, but he lacked the strength to write them up. His last entry in 1861, about some marks left by rain on the railroad causeway, concludes: “All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye — & yet could easily pass unnoticed by most. — Thus each wind is self-registering.” He had written the epilogue to his own self-register. After several months of work on late books and essays, he died on May 6, 1862. The Journal begun in 1837 had changed considerably during its long tenure, and its purpose was not always clear to Thoreau’s family or friends. But later readers have sensed that the Journal is one of his great achievements. More than Thoreau’s other writings, it resolved the conflict he first described in an entry for August 28, 1841:

“My life hath been the poem I would have writ,

But I could not both live and live to utter it.”