Revisiting Walden to cast out all the myths

Henry David Thoreau may have pulled off a great stunt, but the writing was real


August 15, 2004|By Julia Keller | Julia Keller,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

It was, you might say, a reality TV show before there was reality TV -- before there was TV, period.

When Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) toddled off to the woods outside Concord, Mass., to craft his little shack and "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life," it wasn't an earnest, humble, guileless journey -- even though myth would have it so, myth that has flourished in the 150 years since Walden was published Aug. 9, 1854.

It was a stunt, pure and simple. A situation dreamed up to see just what would happen if you took a city slicker with a fancy education and stuck him in a hut in the middle of nowhere with only a fishing pole, a stack of books and a spirit of adventure.

Think Survivor without the tribal-council schtick.

"The widespread view that he was a hermit who went to Walden for the rest of his life -- that's just not right," says Elizabeth Hall Witherell, adjunct English professor at Northern Illinois University and editor of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, a project shepherding definitive editions of Thoreau's work to publication by Princeton University Press.

The author's strategic sojourn "was to give him a point of view, a perspective," Witherell adds. "He was actually in and out of town all the time. He was visited by friends."

Thoreau's bright idea was to live in the woods for a couple of years and, while there, record his ideas and impressions. He wasn't moving away from the world as much as he was moving toward a place of thoughtful reflection, toward insights later pressed into the pages of Walden like colorful leaves.

More cited than read

And contrary to popular notion, Thoreau never claimed the book was an unvarnished record of exactly what transpired there.

"People overlook the fact that Walden is not an autobiography," says Jeffrey S. Cramer, curator of collections at The Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods. "He's telling a story in a particular way. He's a writer, first and foremost."

Cramer is the editor of a freshly annotated edition of Walden (Yale University Press), one of at least three new versions designed to commemorate the book's original publication a century and a half ago. Along with Cramer's, which not only cleans up errors that have crept into previous texts but also adds biographical and historical context to Thoreau's life, there is a new Walden from Princeton, featuring an introduction by John Updike, who calls the book "a head-clearing spice"; and one from Houghton Mifflin, which includes photographs of Walden Pond by Scot Miller.

While universally hailed as a classic, Walden has suffered the fate of many a famous book: It's more read about than read, with more copies purchased than perused. "I've always said that Walden and [physicist] Stephen Hawking's work are probably the most cited -- and least read -- works in the 20th century," says Witherell.

Actually, physics figures into the twist of fate by which the Thoreau project ended up at NIU's Founders Memorial Library. Undertaken in 1966 to provide authoritative versions of all of Thoreau's work, including his 47-volume journal, the project commonly follows its editor. When her husband, a particle physicist, took a job at Fermilab, the Illinois physics facility, in 1999, Witherell -- an English professor who had ascended to the editorship in 1980 -- brought the Thoreau project to NIU from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The Thoreau project (online at is more daunting than it might seem. While the author published only two books in his lifetime (Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merimack Rivers, the latter being the work upon which he toiled while living in that legendary lean-to), Thoreau was a ferociously inspired scribbler. He left towering piles of manuscripts, from letters and drafts to those prodigious journals, all written in a script so tangled and tortured and minuscule that it surely makes readers wish there had been a laptop with Wi-Fi at Walden Pond.

The journals alone will require 16 volumes, of which seven have been published, says Witherell, who typically works from photocopies rather than fragile original manuscripts. Finishing the journals will entail at least another two decades.

Is it worth it?

"A lot of scholars see Thoreau's journal as the most important work of his career," says Witherell, because the journal serves as a sort of perpetual rough draft. "They were the place where he could experiment with putting down life without the constraints of having to polish and fix it."

Yet everywhere else he was a notorious polisher and fixer, overhauling Walden eight times over 10 years to make it just the way he wanted it. Most of the drafts are at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., while the last, which Thoreau sent to his publisher, has never been found.

Reading deliberately

"I don't know of any writer who spent such care over each word," says Cramer. "He knew full well that most readers wouldn't get everything he was putting into it -- but he did it anyway."

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