by Kevin MacDonnell
WHO WAS HENRY?
When Ralph Waldo Emerson eulogized Henry David Thoreau his own words betrayed him. Unconsciously, the eloquent “sage of Concord” revealed a startling inability to fully grasp the intellect and personality of his dear friend. But he knew Henry Thoreau well enough to lament that “the country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost.” For all the fame that has gathered to Thoreau’s name, all the books and studies of his life and works, all of Thoreau’s unpublished manuscripts and letters that continue to be discovered and published, and the cult-like followings that his mode of living has often inspired, Emerson’s lament is still largely true today.
Thoreau’s neighbors, including his admirers, were often inclined to think of him as a sort of simple but high-minded rustic whose lack of ambition led him to squander his talent, and that popular image persists. His literary reputation has often been constricted to narrow debates over whether he was a naturalist, a poet, a philosopher, a social commentator, a diarist, or the leading exponent of American Transcendentalism. Thoreau was all of these things, but would have stood steadfastly beyond the glare of any scholarly spotlight trying to search him out. However, a silhouette of Thoreau’s meaning emerges from the shadows when he is back-lit by American Transcendentalism, and his place in the broader literary pantheon sharpens into focus.
Transcendentalism derived from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, expressed in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), where he first used the word itself and described it as a way of intuitively perceiving reality from within (a priori), rather than understanding reality only by objective study. This was contrary to the comforting but often delusional notion, born in the Age of Reason, that reality itself could be known absolutely and quantified precisely. A school of Transcendental thought emerged in England, but the American branch of this radical, sometimes mystical mode of thinking derived from direct study of the German thinkers — especially Goethe — who was read in the original German by Thoreau and others like Frederic Hedge and Margaret Fuller. Unlike the English Transcendentalists, the American school of thought was enhanced by complementary philosophies from Oriental literatures, introduced primarily by Thoreau. And, as American Transcendentalism evolved, there were nearly as many different branches as there were American idealists.
At the same time Transcendentalism was taking hold, American literature was finding its own voice and was no longer imitating English literature. Emerson’s 1837 Phi Beta Kappa oration (addressed to Thoreau’s Harvard graduating class) was a declaration of independence for American literature, and Emerson’s first book, NATURE (1836), which Thoreau read shortly after, was the manifesto for the movement. While his fellow American Transcendentalists raced hither and yon testing their `a priori’ knowledge against selective experiences within highly structured social and economic communities (Brook Farm, the Fruitlands, and other Utopian ventures), Thoreau sought to explore the boundaries of reality as an individual through an intense study of nature that would lead him to spiritual discoveries that he could then test against reality in a constant give and take, which was to him, simply put, the act of living.
His study of nature led him to conclude that the universe and nature were a collective reflection of the sum of its organic parts. Human beings were one of those parts, and moral beings posssed an inner divinity, and that any divinity attributed to a Godhead was actually a collective reflection of those divine individuals. These individuals, being in possession of inner divinity, were in need of no social approval or religious salvation. And any progress or change that took place in society, took place first in the individual. When individuals conformed to society, stagnation was the result and the inner divinity of individuals would dim. The greatest good any individual owed society was to live a life as the best individual he could be, and nothing more. These were not popular ideas in conformist Calvinist New England. Emerson had laid the foundation for Thoreau’s heretical path with his declaration and manifesto, handed his protegé squatter’s rights to Walden Pond, and from that point on he and other Transcendentalists never quite comprehended what Thoreau or his great book represented. WALDEN is virtually the bible, a sort of new testament, for American Transcendentalism, written with splendid wit and irony, brimming with satire, that teaches by example.
Its author was, literally, a man for all seasons, fluent to one degree or another in Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and even a smattering of Sanskrit and American Indian vocabulary. He was widely and deeply read in the Greek, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Oriental classics, world mythologies and religions, western literatures, and contemporary scientific and political works. He was physically fit, displaying his stamina by hard outdoor labor, long walks, and recreational skating and boating. He mastered nearly every trade of his time as a carpenter, school-master, surveyor, mason, farmer, historian, manufacturer, chemist, lecturer, writer, naturalist, and social reformer. He played the flute. And he befriended some of the leading social, political, and literary figures of his day (the abolitionist John Brown, the influential newspaper editor Horace Greeley, the jurist Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, as well as the Alcotts, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, and others). He published two books, several essays, and left behind thousands of pages of unpublished journals and writings, all before the age of forty-four. He embraced the fundamental subjects that still confront us in our daily lives: spirituality, materialism, our environment, society, individualism, and the ethical and practical dilemmas that result in stress as we try to balance the values of these conflicting needs. His cogent and humorous way of writing about these vital concerns makes him one of America’s most quotable authors, next to Mark Twain. Thoreau was a learned and well-connected intellectual who led an active life, strange as it may seem today to think of him this way.
Some of Thoreau’s modern readers imagine that their lives have some semblance to Thoreau’s philosophy of life: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically…. When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.” Yet, Americans worry what their neighbors think of them, a laughable thought to Thoreau. We confront our spiritual life once a week in the confines of a church, and drive by the empty sanctuary the other six days. Those same six days we give over to commerce entirely, getting and spending, and when the strain builds to the breaking point we spend our profits on vacations of quiet desperation. We retreat from experience into the non-reality of television, movies, and the internet. We fret about the environment when we read the same newspaper that we soon consign to a landfill. We jog alone, but watch spectator sports in crowds of thousands. We stare at our navels, and defer our dreams. Thoreau said we move our limbs while our “souls rust in a corner.” In fits and starts, in fragmented charades, we crudely imitate what Thoreau attained most days of his life.
It will become obvious in these articles about his books that Thoreau’s life was one of constant engagement with life, rather than a series of retreats. In his first book he ventures down the river with a trusted companion, and like a Transcendental Huckleberry Finn, sees life lived on water and on shore, but returns home anyway where he knows his aunts are waiting to civilize him. Huck Finn rejected his culture and escaped, but never found his Walden Pond. Thoreau rejected much of his culture too, but stood firm on his own ground cultivating it to his own satisfaction, and never lit out for the territory. Instead, Thoreau traveled extensively in Concord acting in the unthinkable manner Huck Finn might have behaved had he lived there. It is no wonder that offended Concordians later banned Twain’s young hero from their library. But banning adolescent fictional characters is easy; flesh and blood adults are a different matter. The most brutish of Thoreau’s neighbors stood on two legs rather than four, and could only chew over their gossip like cud in his gentle wake. Thoreau shared dinners with the Irish outcasts in their shanties, rang the town bell when the town fathers should have had the courage, played with children that his Victorian neighbors thought should be seen and not heard, assisted and escorted escaped slaves on Concord’s segment of the underground railroad, resigned from the town church, never voted, ignored his taxes, saw nature at perpetual work and play beneath the well-worn boots of his plodding townsmen, and was so misunderstood by his fellow villagers, that one of his aunts who knew him best still felt compelled to ask him on his deathbed if he’d made his peace with God. “I didn’t know that we had ever quarreled” replied the unflappable Henry, who when he came to die, found that he had indeed lived.
“IT TAKES TWO TO SPEAK THE TRUTH…
…one to speak, and another to hear.” So begins one passage in Thoreau’s first book, A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS. Sadly, few seemed to be listening when Thoreau offered his first book to the public, with the result that the book had such poor sales that the publisher had to return to Thoreau more than 700 of the 1,000 copies that were printed. Thoreau’s famous journal entry recording that event reflects his essential character –frankness tempered with ironic humor: “I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”
This lack of listeners would plague Thoreau to the end of his short life, but not enough to discourage him from writing. In fact, when unsold copies of his first book were returned to him he wrote in his journal, “I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer.” But this sounds more like a salve for wounded pride than a declaration of inspired confidence. After all, he once responded to a reader who wrote seeking a photograph “you have the best of me in my books,” and warned his admirer (Calvin Greene) that he might be disappointed by “the stuttering, blundering, clodhopper that I am.” Thoreau was not entirely alone in his amusing self-assessment. Even though his friends listened, they often found his personality difficult. The gentle Sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who admired Thoreau as much as anyone, and loved him as a friend, once confessed to his journal, “As for taking Thoreau’s arm, I should as soon take the arm of an elm tree.” And Thoreau’s conversational habit of phrasing his thoughts in the form of odd paradoxes drove Emerson and others to distraction. Hawthorne, after their very first meeting, thought “Thorow” was a good man and an agreeable companion, but “ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, although courteous manners.” Daniel Ricketson, another friend who listened, was still so amused by Thoreau’s appearance and manners that he drew a cartoonish sketch of what Thoreau looked like when he first appeared on Ricketson’s doorstep. This is not to say Thoreau was without admirers –he once graciously declined a marriage proposal from Sophia Foord (maybe he wanted a Cheevy). But another young lady in Concord was not so charmed and candidly observed that although Thoreau lived at Walden Pond, she was certain that he never bathed in it (she was wrong). Yet, whatever discomfort his physical appearance, social short-comings, paucity of readers, and body-odor may have caused him, Thoreau spent most of his hours content with himself, writing in his journals, preparing manuscripts for publication, giving lectures from time to time, all the while loving “the broad margin to [his] life,” advancing “confidently in the direction of his dreams,” and finding “success unexpected in common hours.” He once wrote, “rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” During his life Thoreau got plenty of truth, but little money or fame.
Speaking of hearing, now might be the time to clear up a common misconception about the pronunciation of Thoreau’s name. Thoreau’s father’s name was misspelled “Thorough” in an 1824 newspaper report on an agricultural fair, by an editor who only heard the name pronounced but never saw it written down. And Hawthorne’s misspelling reflects this same pronunciation with the accent on the first syllable. Finally, Thoreau himself joked about a family lineage descended from the Norse god Thor, which gives a clue to the correct sound of that accented first syllable.
Whatever Thoreau’s relations were to others, he was extremely close to his slightly older brother, John, and admired his character greatly. In 1839 they took a two week excursion together on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in a boat of their own construction. Shortly before their boating adventure, an uncommonly beautiful and vivacious young woman, Ellen Sewall, had visited Concord and was noticed by every eligible bachelor in town. Thoreau thought he was in love with her. So was John, and she was no doubt the subject of some lengthy conversations during the two weeks the brothers spent on the rivers, but Thoreau kept his real feelings to himself while his brother courted her. Miss Sewall declined John’s proposal, after failing to get her father’s blessing, and when Henry himself proposed toward the end of 1840, she turned him down as well. Ellen soon married a minister, but the emotional strain on Thoreau had been profound, and his disappointment deeply felt. It may have been the same for Ellen, who when asked years later by her children about Thoreau’s proposal, could only say that she didn’t know what to do but obey her father. As for Thoreau, he confessed to his sister from his deathbed that he had always loved Miss Sewall. But Thoreau and his brother remained close as ever, perhaps sharing a mutual sense of loss.
During this time Thoreau had begun to make notes about their boating trip in the form of a series of essays on nature themes. Then tragedy struck. In 1842, John cut the fleshy tip of one of his fingers, gangrene developed as the infection spread, and lockjaw set in. He suffered tetanic convulsions and agonizing muscle pain, but remained calm, stoic to the end. Thoreau attended his brother in the last three days of his life, and John died in his arms. After his brother died, the form of the manuscript changed profoundly, taking on the tone and form of an elegy. Writing a book that drew upon events that took place during a period of such emotional upheaval was perhaps a natural way of coming to terms with the sudden loss of his brother. Yet, in some ways, the death of his older brother freed Thoreau to be himself. During the year following his brother’s death, he made some of the earliest journal entries that he would later incorporate into WALDEN. In 1845 he began his stay at Walden Pond and reworked the manuscript for A WEEK through two more drafts. While revising the second draft of A WEEK, he began the first draft of WALDEN, and as soon as he left Walden Pond he sought a publisher for A WEEK. Finding none, he spent another two years revising the texts. As would be expected, the subjects and themes of both books are intertwined.
By 1849, Thoreau was prepared to publish his first book at his own expense, and he contracted with James Munroe & Company to print an edition of 1,000 copies. Munroe had published Emerson’s NATURE, his Phi Beta Kappa oration (`The American Scholar’), his ESSAYS, and several of his public speeches a few years before, and had published the writings of other Transcendentalists. A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS appeared at the very end of May, 1849. Just two weeks later, Thoreau’s sister Helen died of tuberculosis, the same disease that would eventually claim Thoreau. And so his first book, inspired in part by the loss of one sibling, was greeted upon publication by the loss of another. The publisher had 550 copies bound into light brown, dark olive brown, and black cloth. Two cloth types were used; one a fine-ribbed cloth (type T); the other a morocco-grain cloth (type AR). Some copies had a simple triple-rule border stamped on the covers; others were stamped with a five-rule frame that enclosed an elaborate filigree ornament. Copies exist in nearly every possible combination of cloth color, cloth type, and blind-stamping, and surviving copies indicate no priority between them. The other 450 copies remained in sheets, unbound. This practice of binding up roughly half the edition and keeping the other half in sheets was the usual practice of the time. Thoreau later recorded in his journal that 75 copies were given away at the time of publication; this number includes both copies given away by Thoreau himself, as well as the copies sent out for review by the publisher. At least three of those early copies were sent to English magazines for review, judging by reviews that appeared in England in 1849. At least twelve copies would have been sent across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold and thereby meet the minimum requirements for English copyright protection. I have recorded at least sixteen reviews in American magazines and newspapers in 1849, and I have traced nearly thirty copies that Thoreau gave away at the time of publication. By October, 1853, only 207 copies had actually been sold (the few copies actually sold in England contain the label of John Chapman pasted over the American imprint). Munroe shipped Thoreau the 256 bound copies that remained, as well as all 450 sets of unbound sheets. Munroe kept twelve copies for stock. Between 1853 and his death in 1862, Thoreau sold or gave away 109 copies. When WALDEN was published in 1854, he left twelve copies with Ticknor & Fields, who sold just two copies in 1855. But they must have had better luck the following year, because they paid Thoreau $9 in February, 1857 for those twelve copies, and ordered twelve more. At the end of 1858 they paid him for fifteen copies they had sold, and noted that they had seventeen copies still on hand. I have traced more than half of those copies that Thoreau sold or gave away during this period, a list too long for inclusion here, but it includes a neighbor from across the street in Concord, a Harvard student, English magazine editors (which resulted in a favorable review of WALDEN by George Eliot), copies sold to curious strangers from distant states, and even one copy to California. He also spent some time correcting various errors in the texts of some bound copies and many sets of unbound sheets. Some copies contain only one or two corrections, while others show five or more. By his own account, he kept the books in his room at the family home on Main Street in Concord, stacked about three feet high, and wrote, “Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor?” He kept two copies for himself. One was marked with more than 1,000 textual changes; the other was a “memorial” edition which contained a lock of John Thoreau’s hair. Just one month before his death, Thoreau sold the remaining 145 bound copies and 450 copies in sheets to Ticknor & Fields, who then printed 450 cancel title-pages dated 1862 and bound up the copies in sheets into three styles of bindings. One style was stamped with the Ticknor & Fields monogram on the covers; another style had a maltese cross within a four-sided (quatrefoil) cartouche stamped on the covers; and the third style, trimmed a bit shorter than the other two styles, had a simple wreath stamped at the center of the covers. The bound copies were probably sold in their original bindings; there is no known priority between the three new binding styles. By 1868, the supply had been exhausted and when the newly printed edition appeared that year it contained more than 1,000 textual revisions copied from those in one of Thoreau’s own copies. Thoreau did not live to see his first book placed before the public in its final form.
“I WISHED TO LIVE DELIBERATELY…”
If one phrase from WALDEN could be said to sum up the essence of Thoreau’s spirit and the tone of his best-known work, it is this blunt expression of his attitude toward life. When he borrowed an axe from a neighbor (he makes a point of telling us he returned it sharper than he got it) and set about building his cabin at Walden Pond, he was determined to “front only the essentials of life, and see if [he] could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when [he] came to die, discover that [he] had not lived.” Unlike his fellow Transcendentalists, who followed Kant’s reasoning that people could intuit knowledge prior to experience and simply test their intuition against experience, Thoreau put experience first. Emerson once commented that Thoreau could extract more meaning and wisdom from a simple experience or natural observation than any man he knew. WALDEN is Thoreau’s account of his deliberate experiences, a finely framed parable of personal discovery in the guise of a factual narrative of a “life in the woods,” told with sardonic wit, passionate at times, always extracting the multiple layers of meaning from every scrap of experience, teaching us where to look and how to see, showing us where life can be found and how it can be lived, at times in harmony with nature and at other times at odds, at times restrained and learned and at times wild to the verge of savagery, at times in harmony with himself and at times not. WALDEN is also a very American book that celebrates the individual over society at the same time it makes individual responsibility an imperative. It is both a personal testament of faith and a roadmap to self-discovery. As Thoreau announces at the beginning, WALDEN is no “ode to dejection” but a wake up call.
His language is poetic, often flowing in a stream of ecstatic thought, but it is also frequently awkward and disjointed, full of violent imagery and spiked with military jargon that many modern readers would not readily associate with Thoreau. Thoreau once advised a young neighbor to “write with fury and correct with flegm” [sic] and his own writings reflect this method of composition. In the book, he tells us “books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written,” and later comments “how many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” He could have been speaking of his own book. Thoreau claimed in one of his poems that he could “hear beyond the range of sound” and “see beyond the range of sight” and in WALDEN he invites us to do the same. WALDEN is one of those books that draws readers back for repeated readings, and it never disappoints. At the end of his time at Walden Pond (two years, two months, and two days, beginning on July 4, 1845) he “left the woods for as good a reason as [he] went there. Perhaps it seemed to [him] that [he] had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” With these words, Thoreau was “transmorgrifying” a major tenet of Hindu thought, and making it a metaphor for the evolution of his own life in repsonse to new experiences, a series of spiritual recincarnations in a single life-span, and a nearly seamless blending of Hindu and Kantian philosophy into American Transcendentalism.
When compared with A WEEK, WALDEN can be seen in the context of Thoreau’s own writings. It is a fair comparison, one that begs to be made, since these are the only books Thoreau saw published in his lifetime, the second growing directly out of the first. In fact, when he published A WEEK, he made a point of advertising WALDEN as “soon to be published” –although his second book soon took on a life of its own and demanded five years and seven complete revisions before Thoreau thought it was ready. Thoreau’s first book had been an exploration of the distant world, a book whose travel required physical labor, with moments of insight in the presence of a companion, an outward journey followed by a return home, an account of moving –constant motion– past stationary people and events on the banks of the rivers, with the best moments spent on water, a record of the events of two weeks condensed to half that time –a week– for literary effect. In WALDEN, the world close at hand is explored minutely, and the travel requires a spiritual receptivity for the inward journey that leads to a return to society, an account of the considerable physical labors involved in just staying put, the best moments spent with feet firmly planted on terra firma, with moments of insight occurring in solitude, constantly watching a parade of neighbors and travelers moving past his fixed point beside a body of stationary water, a record of the events of two years condensed down to the four seasons of a single symbolic year for literary effect. The books were similar in both structure and in method of composition, but with one important difference. While revising A WEEK, Thoreau inserted bits of writings by others as well as entire essays into the narrative, giving his text a derivative rhetorical tone, and disrupting the flow of the personal narrative. When he faced the task of revising WALDEN he added fewer scraps of others’ words, instead adding more of his own experiences, giving the book an original and authentic tone, whose narrative resonates with his own voice. A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS is a complex book that stands by itself, but as good as it is, it best serves as a prelude for the far better journey of WALDEN.
When seen in the context of the weird mixture of popular and great literature that found its way into print in the 1850s, WALDEN can be seen in a different light. Hawthorne’s SCARLET LETTER, Dickens’s DAVID COPPERFIELD, and Tennyson’s IN MEMORIAM all appeared in 1850, Melville’s MOBY-DICK in 1851, Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN in 1852, and Dickens’ BLEAK HOUSE in 1853. The same year that WALDEN was published saw the publication of Mrs. Otis’ long-forgotten bestseller, THE BARCLAYS OF BOSTON, Timothy Shay Arthur’s TEN NIGHTS IN A BAR-ROOM, and Shillaber’s humorous LIFE AND SAYINGS OF MRS. PARTINGTON. The following year came Longfellow’s SONG OF HIAWATHA, Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS, and Tennyson’s MAUD. From the sublime to the ridiculous, from allegorical tales of good and evil to topical comedy, from social satire to social reform, only Walt Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS shares with WALDEN the theme of a person on a journey of self-exploration leading to a liberation and celebration of the individual. And which two books from this diverse group get read most often today? The reason why certain books endure tells us as much about our own times as Thoreau’s, and reveal the common human bonds that connect us with the past and with each other.
One of the celebrated passages in WALDEN is Thoreau’s parable on one of the fundamental themes of the book: loss, searching, hope, and renewal. This brief passage has created more confusion that any other words in the book. Thoreau was asked what it meant and replied “I suppose we all have our losses” and nothing more. It has also excited more speculation about its meaning than any other part of the book. Thoreau’s enigmatic words are, “I long ago lost a hound –and a turtle dove and a bay horse –and am still on their trail. Many’s the traveller I have spoken concerning them –describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.”
Biographers have speculated that the death of Thoreau’s brother, Ellen Sewall’s refusal of his marriage proposal, and other disappointments can be identified as the turtle dove, horse, or hound. Such speculation misses the point. Thoreau himself made clear the point when asked: we all have our losses. Thoreau could not write a life-affirming book like WALDEN and pretend that life exists without losses, failures, or disappointments. Whatever the losses are, he says, they are shared with others and they are never beyond hope of recovery. WALDEN is a chronicle of dualities: the spiritual and physical, the contrasting seasons (each seemingly the best time of year, in its turn), the dawn and the dark, the cultivated fields and farms set against the wildness of untamed nature, the economic burdens of living that he records with the accuracy of a CPA and the lightness of being he describes when nature confronts him (and vice versa), society and isolation, the land and the pond, the nearby train (whose tracks still pass close to the pond) and the virtues of walking, plumbing and pondering the depths of pond and sky, life and death, decay and renewal. In his journal of October, 1852, Thoreau wrote about the Indian mind, observing that Indians seemed the “very opposite” of the white mind. They measured life by winters rather than summers, and measured time by the moon rather than the sun, leading Thoreau to conclude they had “taken hold of the dark side of nature, the white man, the bright side.” Thoreau could appreciate both sides, but in WALDEN there is little that is really dark, and the contrasts usually serve only to brighten the page. Always returning to the middle for balance, Thoreau found at Walden Pond whatever it was he had lost, and then turned away to live several more lives. Even his bean-field was only “half-cultivated” between total order and the untamed wild, with the result that he harvested not only beans for his efforts, but a good deal more. It is significant that on the day WALDEN was published, Thoreau made an unusually brief entry in his journal: “To Boston. WALDEN published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing.” WALDEN was behind him, elder-berries were now of equal concern on that day. He busied himself that winter delivering more lectures than at any other time in his life, traveling from city to city as far south as Philadelphia, and the lecture he most often gave was `Life Without Principle,’ extending the themes of WALDEN to the conflict inherent in preserving one’s inner life while at the same time going about the practical matter of “getting a living” –as he originally titled this lecture. The message of this lecture –really a sermon– was that getting a living was only a means to living a life –and more often than not was at odds with living a life. This became a central theme in the several lives he would lead.
The first of the nearly two-hundred editions of WALDEN that have been printed was officially published on August 9, 1854 in an edition of 2,000 copies. The publication price was one dollar. There was only one printing, and although the publication date was August 9th, just over 400 copies had been sold by that date, including shipments of 25 copies each to six different Boston area booksellers, a shipment to the New York bookseller, O. A. Roorbach, who bought 104 copies (the largest single order placed) and a single copy to the Unitarian minister W. R. Alger of Boston, who strolled into the Old Corner bookstore on August 1st and bought the first copy sold. Alger was an acquaintance of Bronson Alcott, and twice mentioned Thoreau’s writings favorably in magazine articles that he wrote, once quoting from WALDEN, and he even attended Thoreau’s funeral. But sad to say, when Alger published his own book, SOLITUDES OF NATURE AND OF MAN (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1867) he included an lengthy rebuke of Thoreau. WALDEN’s first reader was ultimately not a convert. Still another reader told Emerson that he thought the book was a “capital satire and joke” and that the map of the pond was a grand caricature of a Coast Survey map. Of those 2,000 copies, 200 were excluded from royalty payments, indicating that they were the copies sent out for review (usually 75-150 copies for an edition this size) and copies given to the author (usually 25-50 copies). To secure English copyright, the law required that at least twelve copies had to be shipped to England and sold. James T. Fields, the publisher, happened to be making a trip over to England, and took copies with him for that purpose, but he became ill during the voyage and was unable to complete the journey, so whatever copies went to England were shipped by ocean steamer, but the number sent is unknown. It was certainly no more than one hundred, and probably fewer.
One year later, by August of 1855, less than 800 copies of WALDEN had been sold. It was the custom of Ticknor & Fields and other American publishers at mid-century to bind up just half the edition of any book, and then bind up the balance in small batches as orders arrived. By 1859 orders had slowed to a trickle and the book finally went out of print. Ticknor & Fields did not see fit to reprint the work until 1862, the same year they remaindered A WEEK, and even then they wisely printed just 280 more copies. Two-thirds of the copies sold were purchased by New Englanders, but the largest single order went to New York, and quite a few went to booksellers in the south (New Orleans, Savannah, Richmond) where Transcendentalists were not thought to have had many sympathetic readers. Of those 800 copies sold that first year, fewer than 25 were sold directly to individual buyers from Ticknor & Fields’ retail outlet in downtown Boston, the Old Corner Bookstore (which still stands today, on Washington Street). Among those individual buyers were the poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a friend of Emerson and Hawthorne named Horatio Woodman, Thoreau’s friends Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Elizabeth Dwight (later the wife of Thoreau’s friend and Emerson biographer James Elliot Cabot), and several friends of Emerson (who may have been under strict orders to buy young Henry’s book). Amusingly, James Munroe & Company, the publisher of Thoreau’s first book who had returned the unsold copies to him the year before, ordered only two copies. Then they ordered one more. Then two more. Then another two, and another two, and yet another single copy. By the end of the year they had bought thirty copies, never buying more than three at a time. Can you blame them for their lack of confidence? Of course, by now, some collectors and booksellers are fantasizing that had they been alive in 1854 they could have waltzed into the Old Corner Bookstore and bought an arm-load of WALDENs in spanking brand new condition for just a buck a book –a book that fetches more than $10,000 in that condition these days. That’s the good news. The bad news is that all of those who did exactly that have been dead now for nearly one hundred years. Modern collectors can console themselves by blaming inflation, competition from other collectors, or simply look at the price of a splendid copy as a reflection of a modest storage fee ($1.50 a week for 145 years).
The fact that this book was produced in a single printing of 2,000 copies simplifies the bibliography, a fact that would be admired by Thoreau himself (“simplify, simplify!”). Although 2,000 copies of the map of Walden Pond were printed, it is clear that some copies of the book were issued without the map inserted at page 306. The map occurs in two states, one with the imprint perfect; the other with the imprint very faint or partly obliterated. In September, 1856, another 500 copies of the map were reprinted, probably due to spoilage or a snafu that resulted in 500 sets of sheets not getting their maps inserted at the time they were folded and collated. Which state is earliest is unknown. When the second printing of 280 copies was done in 1862, 300 maps were printed for those copies. Ticknor & Fields was not taking chances. The imprint in those maps is perfect, but since that was a new printing, it does not serve as decisive evidence on the first two printings of the map. Besides, the damage to the imprint could have taken place during the first printing of the map and been corrected at that time. Or, the plate could have been damaged before printing, and corrected at some point during the first printing when it was discovered. In any case, it is an insert, printed separately from the sheets of the book.
WALDEN, like nearly all of Ticknor & Fields’ publications, contained inserted advertisements, sewn in between the rear end papers. The ads found in WALDEN are dated April, May, June, September, and October, 1854, and September, 1855. Like the map, these ads were an insert, printed entirely separate from the sheets of the book. To fully understand the significance, or rather, the insignificance of these inserted ads, one must turn to the costbooks of the publisher. Fortunately, the costbooks of Ticknor & Fields survive, and the volumes covering the period from 1832-1858 have been published. Like most larger publishers, Ticknor & Fields, kept a set of costbooks (a kind of general ledger) that recorded the costs associated with each of their separate publications. They also kept separate stockbooks, binding records, shipping records, daybooks, and other bookkeeping ledgers. The primary purpose of the costbooks was to record the production costs of each printing and reprinting of every publication. These records were not kept in order to make life easy for future bibliographers and historians. The individual entries in the costbooks were not made on a daily or even weekly basis. Each entry was compiled by a clerk who gathered up all the receipts pertaining to a particular printing of a title, sometimes weeks or even months after the printing took place. Before making the entry, the clerk calculated the sums, and then entered only the essential information in the ledger. Many printings were never entered in the costbooks, errors are common, some entries are extremely detailed while others are incomplete, and when it comes to records of their monthly inserted catalogues, it is clear that even less effort was made to record their printings. A new catalogue was not printed every month, and catalogues for some months were reprinted several times when a bestseller caught Ticknor & Fields off guard and used up their available stock of catalogues. Their catalogues were generally printed in runs of 2,000 to 5,000 copies, and were seldom, if ever, printed in a number matching the print run of any book being printed at the same time. Some entries for the printing of catalogues don’t even identify the month of the catalogue being recorded, but from the record that does exist, it is clear that catalogues were generally printed two to four weeks ahead of time, sometimes even six to eight weeks ahead of time, so that a book published in August (like WALDEN) could easily contain catalogues dated September –or even October. A notation and cost for “alterations” is often found indicating that a catalogue was being reprinted or updated, but it should be noted that from month to month, the content and prices usually did not change very much. Ticknor & Fields was constantly publishing new titles, but they were in the habit of keeping old sets of sheets in storage for decades, and the rate of nineteenth century inflation rarely necessitated price changes. They typically printed four-page catalogues that would be inserted at the front of their books, or else eight or twelve page catalogues that included more of their older titles, for insertion at the rear of their books. In at least one case they printed a remarkable sixty page catalogue.
The costbooks provide good evidence of the relation of their catalogues printings to their book printings, but the costbooks do not record the printings for the various catalogues used in WALDEN. However, the record for Longfellow’s THE SONG OF HIAWATHA, published exactly one year after WALDEN, can be used to illustrate that relationship. The paper for Longfellow’s book was delivered on September 26, 1855, and 5,250 copies were printed on October 2, and bound copies were ready by the first week of November. Copies of this first printing are found with one of two different inserted catalogues, dated October and November, 1855. The vast majority have the November catalogue, and a study of early ownership inscriptions in surviving copies reveals that November catalogues were present in the very earliest copies sold. The costbooks record that the September catalogue was printed, perhaps as late as mid-August, in a print run of 5700 copies (at a cost of $15.54). This September catalogue was reprinted the first week of September in an unknown quantity (probably 5,000 copies) for $12.09. A few of these September, 1855 catalogues found their way into copies of WALDEN, which was then being bound up in small batches as sales trickled in. None found their way into copies of HIAWATHA. There is no record at all for an October catalogue, but there is a record for a catalogue whose month was not recorded, being printed on October 13 for a cost of $25.75. But the timing and cost of this printing corresponds to a large printing of the November catalogue, and the cost would indicate a printing of roughly 5,000 copies. HIAWATHA became a runaway bestseller and required a second printing of 3,000 copies in November. That same month 20,500 copies of the November catalogue were reprinted; it contains slight alterations that distinguish it from the earlier printing of this catalogue. And it should be pointed out that Ticknor & Fields were printing thousands of copies of other books during those months, including reprints of old titles, as well first printings of new books, and catalogues were being inserted into those other books as well. In December, a third printing of 3,000 copies of HIAWATHA followed; and later the same month another 2,000; and the same number for a fifth printing in January. By February, 1857, at least 40,000 copies of HIAWATHA were in print. Some of those later 1856 printings are found with the first printing of the November, 1855 catalogue even though several new catalogues had been printed during 1856. And we have found one copy of a third printing HIAWATHA in a binding carrying the imprint of Houghton, Osgood at the foot of spine (Ticknor & Fields went through several changes in partnership that evolved into the firm of Houghton, Osgood in 1878, which finally became Houghton, Mifflin in 1880). From the evidence in the costbooks and the evidence of surviving copies, two things become clear: 1.) copies of the earliest state of the November catalogue were still laying around unused nearly a year later even though several new catalogues had been printed and used in the meantime, and 2.) unbound sets of sheets of an 1855 printing were still laying around unused in 1878, even though more than 100,000 copies were in print by that time. Speculation about inserted catalogues has included the notion that the earliest catalogues were always used up first, and a contrary notion that the publisher made sure his most current catalogues were used first in their newest publications. While it is entirely possible that either of these practices may have been attempted at one time or another, in reality, the insertion of catalogues was a more or less random activity. It seems obvious from the costbook records that the uneven numbers of catalogue print runs and book print runs resulted in constant accumulations of odd lots of left-over catalogues. It is clear from books like WALDEN that several different batches of left-over catalogues, some months old, could be paired with the sheets of a single printing of a book. It is clear from surviving copies of early sheets bound up at later dates, that despite any effort to the contrary, left-over sheets were sometimes overlooked or ended up at the bottom of a stack on the stock shelf. It is also clear from the surviving catalogues that the content and prices of catalogues changed slowly over time, and that the need to get a current catalogue into circulation was only slight, and perhaps no greater than the need to use up left-over lots of older catalogues. And it is clear that the publisher did not consider books with different catalogues to be different “issues” of a book; indeed, the publisher was barely –if at all– aware of which copies of a book had a particular catalogue. Given this state of affairs, it is easy to understand why no priority can be assigned or argued for the various copies of WALDEN with different 1854 catalogues. It is clear that the handful of copies recorded with the September, 1855 catalogue are from a much later binding lot, but they are still the sheets of the first printing. And, because catalogues were inserted at the time of collating and sheets could sit unbound for years, copies with 1854 catalogues could have been left unbound as late as 1858 or 1859 when the stock was finally running low. In fact, given the fact that the last half of the edition was sold between the end of 1855 and 1859, and that no copies are recorded with catalogues dated 1856 to 1859, it is certain that copies with 1854 catalogues were being bound up and sold during this period.
The binding is found in two distinct shades of brown cloth. Like many nineteenth century publishing firms, Ticknor & Fields, developed their own “house” [ie., publishing “house”] style binding that soon became recognized as their standard binding, and a symbol of literary quality. WALDEN was bound in this standard “Ticknor T-cloth,” a dark brown fine-ribbed muslin with a large stylized acanthus design within a triple-rule border embossed at the center of the front and back covers, with the titling lettered in gilt in unadorned Roman type on the spine. Some copies are in a chocolate brown cloth; others are in a grey-brown cloth. It may be difficult for somebody unfamiliar with Ticknor & Fields’ bindings to easily distinguish between them without having an example of each for comparison, but ’tis no matter –such differences only reflect the normal variations that occur when books are bound in small batches over a period of time. Ticknor & Fields farmed out their binding work to several different binderies, so not all copies may have been bound at the same bindery, also accounting for small variations for copies that may have been bound at the same time by different binders.
Two states of the imprint at the foot of spine have been noted. One has a period at the end of TICKNOR & CO; the other has an inverted comma. This simply reflects different binding lots, and is not a point of priority. The very first batch bound could have had the erroneous comma; or a batch bound up in 1859 could have had the mistake. Or any batch between.
Finally, the acanthus design used on the cover exists in two states, the result of a recutting of the brass from which this design was stamped. The actual differences defy verbal description, but the change occurred in 1859 shortly before WALDEN finally sold out. It is possible a very few of the last copies bound might contain this later state of the design, but none have been recorded.
A HISTORY OF THOREAU COLLECTING
Many casual readers have been content with a quick splash at the shallow edge of Thoreau’s great pool of writings, and are left with the impression that he was a sort of proto-hippy slacker-hermit who concerned himself with the environment while exploring ways to avoid physical labor and responsibility. On the other hand, scholars have sometimes dived in deep over their heads, descending the murky waters of Thoreau’s supposed homosexuality, or his conjectured affair with Emerson’s wife — or both (the correct answer is neither). While common readers barely dip their toes and some scholars refuse to come up for air, collectors of Thoreau have generally viewed Thoreau the same way as the late great Thoreau scholar, Walter Harding, who pointed out that Thoreau was a complex and disciplined individual with a broad variety of intellectual interests and passionate concerns, who spent several hours writing most mornings, and several more hours in the afternoons reading, sauntering, or observing nature and people, all the while “getting a living” by hard physical labor as a surveyor, painter, carpenter, schoolmaster, gardener, and pencil-maker, and travelling as much, or more, than most of his neighbors, both on excursions and as a lecturer, and throughout his entire busy life maintaining a network of loyal friends from a broad cross-section of society.
Thoreau did have a few disciples during his lifetime, including a handful of imitators who lived alone in the woods in personal experiments to see what they might discover about themselves, but he had no collectors to contend with. The closest thing to a collector was an admirer from Michigan, Calvin Greene, who wrote Thoreau in 1856 to say how much he enjoyed WALDEN, and asking for more of his writings. Thoreau sold him a copy of A WEEK, and later sent a photograph, and Greene bought copies of Thoreau’s books for his friends, corresponded with Thoreau a few times, and visited Concord shortly after his death. Now and then, Thoreau would copy out a verse of his poetry, or a quote from his works for a friend or neighbor, but with just two books published, and known only in certain literary and lecture circles, he was never really plagued by impositions from strangers, autograph collectors, or “seekers.”
In the years after his death, as his letters and unpublished writings found their way into print, a following grew. Biographies followed, and coteries of admirers formed in both America and England. By 1885, the rare book catalogue of Leon & Brothers of New York (the first rare book catalogue devoted to American authors) contained all nine of the books by Thoreau published up to that date, including a copy of A WEEK for $6.00, and a WALDEN for $4.25. The price for A WEEK was one of the most expensive books in the catalogue, four times the price of any of the Melville first editions listed, and twice the price of the most expensive Mark Twain. By 1895 a bibliography of Thoreau’s works was published for the Rowfant Club (a book-collecting club in Cleveland, Ohio), compiled by Samuel Arthur Jones, an early bibliophile and collector of Thoreau who in 1901 edited a collection of papers on Thoreau, PERTAINING TO THOREAU. The bibliography was printed in an edition of just 90 copies (55 for club members). That same year, the library of New York banker and early American book collector Charles B. Foote was sold, and included twelve Thoreau first editions. All but the last two (SELECTIONS, 1890, and AUTUMN, 1892) were rebound in half morocco, the fashion of the day. The group was sold Dutch auction style, and sold as a group for $5.50 per volume. At the time, Thoreau’s first two books were fetching as much as $10 at auction by themselves. In 1901 the collection of bookseller William Harris Arnold was sold and included thirteen Thoreau first editions, all in original cloth and in excellent condition. A WEEK fetched $52.50, WALDEN $30, and after the sale Arnold resumed his collecting, eventually writing a book about his collecting exploits, VENTURES IN BOOK-COLLECTING. When his second collection was sold at auction in 1924, it included an impressive run of Thoreau books and manuscripts including a presentation copy of A WEEK, James Russell Lowell’s copy of WALDEN, four books from Thoreau’s library, more than seventy-five pages of manuscript, and twenty-eight important autograph letters. Meanwhile, in 1908, Francis Allen had published his fine bibliography of Thoreau. Houghton Mifflin, the publishers of Thoreau’s works, published an edition of 530 copies, the same number they printed for similar bibliographies of Hawthorne and other more widely read authors. The following year, the collection of Jacob Chester Chamberlain was sold. Chamberlain had worked in the Edison Laboratories until he was forty, and collected for just five years, forming a major collection and compiling some excellent bibliographic catalogues in this brief time before his death at the age of forty-five. His Thoreau collection consisted of twenty-two books, reflecting the steady parade of limited editions of Thoreau’s works that had appeared since the Arnold sale in 1901. The same year Arnold’s final sale took place, one of the greatest collections of American literature ever formed went on the block. Stephen H. Wakeman, who retired from his family produce business after twenty years, had collected books with intelligence and an ample purse, and his Thoreau collection consisted of just under one-hundred lots, including the only remaining unpublished manuscript journals (1840-41 and 1846 –this second volume during his stay at Walden Pond), numerous letters, hundreds of pages of other manuscripts, one manuscript chapter of A WEEK, the page proofs of A WEEK with Thoreau’s corrections, four presentation copies of A WEEK (including one to Hawthorne), two presentation copies of WALDEN, twenty-one books from Thoreau’s library (including Thoreau’s copy of the first edition of LEAVES OF GRASS), and a wooden bookshelf made and used by Thoreau. One incredible Thoreau manuscript in Wakeman’s collection did not appear in the 1924 auction. In 1909, he had been persuaded to sell the 39 volumes of Thoreau’s journals he then owned to J. Pierpont Morgan. In more recent times, Carroll A. Wilson, a Boston lawyer and influential collector whose library catalogue was published three years after his death in 1947, owned the WALDEN inscribed by Thoreau to his mother, a long autograph letter to Emerson, and a smattering of first editions. The collection of Parkman Dexter Howe, a Harvard alum, is now at University of Florida, and is the latest great Thoreau collection for which a catalogue has been published. It contains more than one-hundred books and objects, including the manuscript of the essay Thoreau read at his Harvard commencement exercise in 1837, the only known broadside advertising the Thoreau family’s pencil-making business, presentation copies of A WEEK and WALDEN, and an impressive collection of primary books and magazine first printings. Needless to say, none of these larger collections could be equalled today, regardless of pocket-book.
PRIMARY FIRST EDITIONS
While it might not be realistic to aspire to a collection rivaling Arnold, Wakeman, or Howe, it is still possible to gather together a collection of Thoreau first editions in reasonably good condition, but the window of opportunity is steadily closing. All of the books pose challenges.
His first two books are usually found in worn condition, or repaired. His five posthumous books of the 1860s don’t survive in much better condition. The cloth of that period tends to become brittle and crack or flake, especially at the spine, and the brown-coated end papers are often cracked. Issued in various shades of green and purple cloth, the purple copies, like most nineteenth century books bound in this popular color, tend to survive badly faded from decades of exposure to indirect sunlight. The heavily sized green cloth used on the four volumes of journals edited by H. G. O. Blake in the 1880s tend to attract silverfish and roaches, and are nearly always found with at least some of the sizing nibbled away in places. And the dark blue-coated end papers used in those volumes tends to crack easily. The books published in the 1890s and into the 1930s tended to be issued in small limited editions, and seldom survive with their dust jackets or boxes intact. It seems odd that in order to form a reasonably complete collection of an author who published only two books just five years apart, you must hunt down books and pamphlets spanning from the 1830s to the 1950s. Given that span of time and the variety of materials used in the production of these books, truly fine copies of some of the books are virtually never seen. For many nineteenth century books, fine is a term used with less precision than when applied to a novel published in the 1990s. Sadly, many nineteenth century books have been the victims of ill-advised repairs and amateur “restorations” that have permanently harmed their value. At the turn of the century it was the fashion to rebind first editions in original cloth bindings into heavily gilt morocco bindings, and many books, especially those in fragile or plain bindings did not survive this fad. Presentation copies of Thoreau’s first two books have become extremely rare in the market place, but association copies do turn up, as well as association copies of the posthumous volumes. Typically these are copies from other famous authors’ libraries, copies that belonged to friends of Thoreau, copies inscribed by editors or publishers, and review copies. It is impossible to provide any kind of guidance to the value of such copies since the association value of such books is unique to each copy.
The cloth colors and types used on Thoreau’s books published in the 1860s have caused some confusion among collectors of nineteenth century publications. During and immediately after the Civil War, cloth was often in short supply and shipments were often delayed forcing publishers to use what they could find, accounting for the variety of different cloth types used on many books of this period. The use of different colors reflects several different factors. The greens, purples, maroons, and browns used on many books from the 1850s until the 1890s reflected some of the most popular Victorian home decorating colors. In the days before color dust jackets and colorful publishers’ advertising posters, different colored books were often arranged in elaborate windows displays with the intention of attracting the attention of potential buyers. Between the 1870s and 1910, dust jackets evolved from simple protective wrappers for use only during storage and shipment, to art forms that reflected the contents of a book. During this period, advertising posters, once mere typographic handbills printed in black ink on color paper, evolved by the 1890s into colorful eye-catching pictorial works of art. As these cheaper and more effective ways of advertising evolved, the practice of binding books in several different cloth colors rapidly declined. But, in the 1860s, when Thoreau’s posthumous works first appeared, such bindings were the norm.
The primary first editions described here are the major first editions of Thoreau’s writings, but the listing is selective. Many first printings of his works are also listed in the section on varia. Described here are a good number of significant bibliographical variants overlooked by both BAL and Borst, although we have not called special attention to their omissions in each entry. To get an idea of the full scope of the publication of Thoreau’s works, one should consult volume 8 of BAL (THE BIBLIOGRAPHY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE) and Ray Borst’s excellent bibliography.
A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS. Boston and Cambridge: James Munroe and Company… 1849. BAL 20104. Borst A1.1.a.1.
The publication history of the author’s first book has been discussed in detail and needs no repeating here. The book is usually found rebound or repaired, and such copies fetch less than $2,500. In very good condition, regardless of cloth color or binding style, copies fetch $3,500 to $5,000. Copies in fresh, near fine condition fetch more. Munroe stamped his imprint in gilt at the foot of the spine exactly where the cloth bends past the sheet bulk, and even the best copies tend to have some or most of the gilt flaked off at this location. Copies are frequently found with pencil corrections by Thoreau at one or more places in the text and these copies fetch a premium.
A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862. BAL 20104. Borst A1.1.a.2.
These copies, although a “second issue” of the first printing sheets, have the added interest of having been lugged up two flights of stairs and stacked by the author, who then lived in the same room with them for the rest of his life. Owning one of the 1862 copies is possessing one of the books from Thoreau’s library that he wrote himself. Values tend to trail slightly those of the 1849 issue. Copies of this issue are also found with pencil corrections by Thoreau, and they fetch a premium.
This re-issue of the book consisted of just 450 copies, and they are found trimmed both tall (7 5/8 inches) and short (7 1/8 inches), with no priority. There were three binding styles, each with a different design at the center of the covers: one with a maltese cross within a quatrefoil enclosure; another with the Ticknor & Fields monogram; and the third with a simple wreath. They were bound in purple (BAL says “plum”), green, olive green, slate, brown, and maroon cloth, using five types (HT, P, Z, TR, TZ, and BD) of cloth. This variety of binding styles, trimmings, cloth types, and colors is remarkable for such a small “edition” and indicates a number of small binding lots that reflect both the publisher’s lack of faith in sales –recall that they also had 145 copies in the original cloth binding to dispose of– and cloth shortages brought on by the Civil War.
A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1868. BAL 20118. Borst A1.2.a.
This is properly described as the second edition since the 1862 copies were simply a re-issue of the 1849 sheets. This edition prints the revised text, based on Thoreau’s own corrected copy. The edition was just 1,330 copies, and they were bound in blue, green, purple, and black cloth in three styles of bindings.
Average copies bring less than $300; fine or nearly fine copies are hard to come by, and fetch $450 and up.
WALDEN; OR, LIFE IN THE WOODS. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854. BAL 20106. Borst A2.1.a.
The publication details have been discussed in detail. Regardless of binding imprint state, shade of brown, state of the inserted map, or date of the inserted catalogue, rebound or repaired copies can be had for less than $2,500. Very good copies fetch $3,500 to $6,500, and fine or nearly fine copies $10,000 to $15,000. Collectors of Thoreau should keep in mind that when buying a WALDEN they are competing with “high spot” collectors who will pay well for a landmark work of this kind, but probably not buy any other works of Thoreau. As a direct result of this kind of market the value of first edition WALDENs has risen sharply in recent years, and may continue.
WALDEN. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862. Borst A2.1.b.
The second edition was printed in an edition of just 280 copies, and the subtitle was dropped from the title-page at Thoreau’s request. It was bound in the same style as the first edition. This printing is an affordable substitute for the expensive first edition, but it is extremely difficult to find, especially in decent condition. Depending on condition, this book can fetch $250 to $600, but with the first edition moving up in price, this edition will probably follow.
WALDEN. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1884. Borst A2.1.v.
The first English edition actually consisted of American sheets of the twenty-second printing, and probably consisted of just a few hundred copies. Issued in green cloth with a paper label, and I have seen one copy in publisher’s smooth green cloth, covers plain, spine lettered in gilt with publisher’s imprint at foot, edges trimmed (probably a later state binding). Copies in nice condition are hard to find and fetch $600 and up.
WALDEN. London: Walter Scott, 1886. BAL 20184. Borst A2.2.a.
The first English edition that was actually printed in England. It was edited with an introduction by Will H. Dirks, and bound in blue cloth with a paper label. Most collectors who cannot afford the first American edition content themselves with this printing instead. This edition is much easier to find than the Edinburgh edition, although fine copies are uncommon and fetch $500.
WALDEN. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1897. BAL 20193. Borst A2.3.e.
The first illustrated edition, with an introduction by Bradford Torrey. Issued in two attractive volumes in green cloth, heavily gilt. Usually found a little faded, and copies fetch $150 and up. Two sets are recorded in the original dust jackets.
WALDEN. Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1909. BAL 20147. Borst A2.11.
A significant edition, edited by Thoreau’s friend, Frank Sanborn, who relied on a collection of manuscripts then in the possession of St. Louis collector, W. K. Bixby. Sanborn was not a reliable editor, nor did he realize that Thoreau had gone through seven drafts for this book. While this edition contains more than 12,000 words not previously included in earlier editions, it is badly arranged and not authoritative, but it is beautifully printed. There were 461 copies on paper, and nine copies on Japanese vellum. It was issued as a boxed set. Paper copies fetch $600, and vellum copies will bring double that.
THE ANNOTATED WALDEN. New York: Clarkson  BAL 20297. Borst A2.1.x.
A scholarly edition, and full of good background notes, illustrations, and explications of the text. Easily found for less than $60.
WALDEN. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971. Borst A2.67.a.
The MLA (Modern Language Association) text edition, the standard scholarly edition of the text, issued as part of the ongoing MLA edition of THE WRITINGS. This and the other volumes published in this series are essential for the scholar. Easily found for less than $60.
EXCURSIONS. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863. BAL 20111. Borst A3.1.a.
This collection of nine travel and nature writings was edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson and contains his famous (to some, infamous) memoir of Thoreau, and is the first book to contain Thoreau’s portrait. Among the essays here first printed in book form are two of his best: `Walking’ and `Autumnal Tints.’
The edition was just 1,558 copies, all bound in green cloth, using at least four (BD, HC, TR, and Z) cloth types.
Unlike the other Thoreau books of the 1860s no copies were issued in purple cloth, and the green cloth rarely shows fading. Poor copies bring less than $250; very good copies bring up to $500; and fine copies bring $600 to $800.
THE MAINE WOODS. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864. BAL 20113. Borst A4.1.a.
A collection of Thoreau’s three writings based on his three trips to Maine in 1846, 1853, and 1857. During those trips he climbed Mt. Katahdin (“Ktaadn”), canoed in a bateau on the rivers, and spent a good deal of his time learning what he could from a local Indian guide, Joe Polis. Edited by Ellery Channing and Sophia Thoreau.
The edition was only 1,650 copies (Borst says just 1,450), bound in green, purple, brown, and black cloth, using at least eight (L, TR, Z, BD, EC, PD, LP, and P) different cloth types, of no priority. Collectors should be on guard for copies of the second printing that have been altered to pass for a first edition. Copies of the second printing were imprinted `Second Edition’ on the copyright page. This `Second Edition’ slug has been erased in many copies. However, in the first printing the books listed in the ads facing the title-page were priced; in the second printing they were unpriced. In years past, copies with the front ad leaf unpriced were thought to be a different issue; they were simply faked copies. Copies are found with an April or June catalogue inserted at the rear, or without a catalogue. The book was published in mid to late May and there is no priority between such copies.
Purple copies are usually faded and bring less, but good copies generally bring $300 to $400, very good copies $400 to $600, and fine copies $800 to $1,000.
CAPE COD. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1865. BAL 20115. Borst A5.1.a.1.
Thoreau made four trips to Cape Cod, twice with his friend and later biographer Ellery Channing in 1849 and 1855, and twice by himself in 1850 and 1857. He spent much of his time sauntering about on foot, and although he begins his account with a grim account of the aftermath of a shipwreck, his accounts of Cape Cod and its people display some of his brightest humor. This collection includes `The Wellfleet Oysterman,’ `Provincetown,’ and eight other essays. Edited by Ellery Channing and Sophia Thoreau.
The edition was 2,040 copies, printed in December, 1864, and bound in green, purple, and brown cloth, using at least five (Z, P, BD, EC, and TR) different cloth types. Some copies have an inserted catalogue dated December, 1864, but that is of no bibliographical significance. Curiously, the gilt cartouche on the spine contains a reference to Thoreau as “Author of Walden…” and on other copies “Author of Excursions…” The brass does not seem to have been recut or altered; two separate brasses were probably made, and they were again used in 1865 for LETTERS. Copies are also found with or without a wreath stamped at the center of the covers. There is no priority between these various binding states.
Faded purple copies bring less, but copies in various conditions generally bring just a little less than THE MAINE WOODS. Unfortunately, an unusually large percentage of surviving copies of CAPE COD are in purple cloth.
LETTERS TO VARIOUS PERSONS. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1865. BAL 20116. Borst A6.1.a.
This was the first collected edition of Thoreau’s letters, as well as some poems. From a scholarly point of view, the texts of the letters are unreliable, but this book did much to add a personal dimension to Thoreau’s public persona. It includes his letters to H. G. O. Blake, which contain some of the most direct statements of his views that he ever wrote. At this point in time, his journals were known only to handful of people (mostly though readings by Sanborn and others at Bronson Alcott’s Concord School of Philosophy), and the public knew him only through his previous books, published lectures, and posthumous essays. Edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The edition was 2,130 copies, and copies were bound in green, blackish-green, purple, maroon, black, and brown cloth, using at least eight (P, TR, T, C, HC, Z, BD, and CM) different cloth types. Like CAPE COD, the spine cartouche exists in two different states, with no priority. The spine imprint is found in two different forms: one is printed in serif type; the other in sans serif type. There is no proven priority.
This book is a little more common than the others of the 1860s. Prices closely track those of THE MAINE WOODS, and inexpensive copies in poor condition are fairly easy to find.
A YANKEE IN CANADA, WITH ANTI-SLAVERY AND REFORM PAPERS. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866. BAL 20117. Borst A7.1.a.
Although this work contains fifteen essays, including several based on his single trip to Canada in 1850 (“What I got by going to Canada was a cold”), it is remembered (and collected) chiefly for its inclusion of `Civil Disobedience.’ The well-known and profound effect of this essay on Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and their subsequent influences on history, render this Thoreau’s most influential essay. The fame and influence of this essay has also perhaps unduly enhanced Thoreau’s popular image as a pacifist rebel; those who view him solely in that light might read `Slavery in Massachusetts,’ in which Thoreau comes within a hairsbreadth of advocating the violent overthrow of government. This collection also contains his far greater essay and philosophical coda to WALDEN, `Life Without Principle,’ where Thoreau warns what to avoid in order to attain the spiritual liberation and dreams he encouraged in WALDEN. Edited by Ellery Channing and Sophia Thoreau.
The edition was 1,546 copies, bound in green, blackish-green, purple, and brown, using at least five (Z, HC, CM, C, and TR) cloth types. Copies are found with and without a wreath stamped on the covers. The publisher’s imprint at the foot of the spine is found in three states: serif type with a period at end, serif type without a period, and sans serif type. There are no priorities.
Like WALDEN, this book attracts “high spot” collectors, and even faded purple copies bring $600 to $800. Very good copies bring more, and fine copies can push past $2,000.
EARLY SPRING IN MASSACHUSETTS. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1881. BAL 20123. Borst A8.1.a.
This was the first of four volumes of extracts from Thoreau’s journals, edited by his friend, Harrison Gray Otis (“Harry”) Blake. Arranged by seasons and containing a highly subjective personal selection by a close friend, the texts are of little scholarly value, but through these four volumes, Thoreau became known and widely admired by an entirely new group of readers.
The edition was a mere 1,018 copies, all bound in green cloth, gilt, in a house-style similar to what Houghton, Mifflin was then using on their Riverside Editions of various authors, and the individual works of several of their better-known literary authors.
Copies are surprisingly difficult to find in fine condition. Average copies fetch $100 to $200, and fine copies bring $300 to $500.
SUMMER. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1884. BAL 20127. Borst A9.1.a.1.
The second of the journal extracts edited by Blake, and published in an edition of just 1,260 copies, bound in green cloth, gilt, uniform with the first volume.
Like the first volume, fine copies are elusive quarry. The values are similar to those of the first volume.
WINTER. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1888. BAL 20129. Borst A10.1.a.
The third of the journal extracts, edited by Blake, and published in an edition of 1,550 copies, bound in green cloth, gilt, uniform with the previous volumes.
The value tracks those of the first two volumes.
AUTUMN. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892. BAL 20130. Borst A11.1.a.
The fourth of the journal extracts, edited by Blake, and published in an edition of 1,020 copies, bound in green cloth, gilt, uniform with the previous three volumes.
The value of this last volume trails the others by roughly twenty percent for no logical reason.
THE WRITINGS… Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894. BAL 20132. Borst B1.
The first collected edition of Thoreau’s writings, published as `The Riverside Edition” of his works. Houghton, Mifflin published `Riverside Editions’ of other collected writings of Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Holmes, etc. The first nine volumes were reprints of earlier books, but the tenth and final volume contained five previously unpublished pieces and seven previously uncollected writings.
The trade edition was printed between September and December, 1893 in an edition of 500 copies (the precise print runs of individual volumes varied slightly). A large paper edition of 150 copies (actually 158 sets) was printed a month to six weeks later (the printing dates and print runs for individual volumes varied).
The trade edition fetches $400 to $600 in very good to fine condition. The large paper edition brings $600 to $1,000. A few sets have surfaced from time to time in dust jackets.
FAMILIAR LETTERS… Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894. BAL 20133. Borst A13.1.a.
An expanded collection of letters from Thoreau, edited by his friend, Frank Sanborn. Sanborn was well-meaning but his editorial skills were lacking. This volume was published as the “eleventh” volume in the Riverside Edition, but not printed until six months later, and was sold separately.
The trade edition was 1,008 copies, and the large paper edition was 158 copies.
Either edition brings $250 or more in fine condition.
POEMS OF NATURE. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1895. BAL 20134. Borst A14.1.
The first separately published collected edition of his poetry, preceded by the poems that appeared in A WEEK, and those collected in LETTERS TO VARIOUS PERSONS, and the Riverside Edition. Edited by Frank Sanborn and Henry Salt, who also wrote the first reliable biography of Thoreau (1890, revised 1896).
The edition consisted of 750 copies, of which 250 were sent to America for sale. The American copies had the imprint on the title-page reversed. All were bound in pale green cloth, gilt, uncut, and a few copies are found in the dark green black-lettered binding of the Times Book Club (unrecorded by BAL and Borst). The spine imprint is found in two states on the English bindings, and the title-page is found with the designer’s initials (P.W.) present or absent. There is no priority for any of these characteristics.
This book is uncommon, and invariably found in faded condition. Average copies bring $400 to $500. Fine copies bring more.
SOME UNPUBLISHED LETTERS… Jamaica, Queensborough, New York: The Marion Press, 1899. BAL 20136. Borst A15.1.
A collection of letters of Thoreau and his only surviving sibling, his sister Sophia. Four of the Thoreau letters are first printed here, his correspondence with Calvin Greene, his Michigan admirer. Edited by Samuel Arthur Jones.
The edition was a mere whisper of 150 copies, bound in sugar blue paper-covered boards, lettered in gilt. The book is so badly bound and fragile that copies with the spine intact and uncracked are almost impossible to find.
Rebacked or spineless copies fetch $150. Any copy with a spine intact can bring three times as much, and a fine copy…?
THE SERVICE. Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed, 1902. BAL 20138. Borst A16.1.
The first part of this early essay on heroism and bravery had appeared in the tenth volume of the 1894 Riverside Edition. Edited by Frank Sanborn, with all the usual problems associated with his work. The publisher was the founder of the venerable firm of Goodspeed’s Bookshop, for nearly a century a fixture in the Boston antiquarian bookselling scene.
The edition was 500 copies, plus 25 copies on Japan vellum. It was issued in a dust jacket which seldom survives.
Paper copies fetch $100 to $200 depending on condition; Japan vellum copies bring twice as much.
THE FIRST AND LAST JOURNEYS OF THOREAU. Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1905. BAL 20143. Borst A18.1.
A hodge-podge of journal extracts, letters, poems, and manuscripts edited by Frank Sanborn, with some attractive facsimiles, and the first printed account of his journey to Minnesota in 1861, the furthest west Thoreau ever ventured.
Issued in two handsome three-quarter calf bindings, boxed, and limited to 489 copies. Copies were advertised as being for sale as a set with SIR WALTER RALEIGH. Copies are found in purple-brown alligator grain boxes uniform with a style of box found on SIR WALTER RALEIGH and also found in heavy green cloth slipcase with paper labels, a style of box less often seen on SIR WALTER RALEIGH. There is no priority, and copies in the green slipcase may have been sold separately.
Scuffed copies without boxes are seen most often and bring $200 or less. Nicer copies bring a bit more, and copies in either box fetch $300 to $350.
SIR WALTER RALEIGH. Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1905. BAL 20142. Borst A19.1.
An essay assembled from Thoreau’s journals and edited by Sanborn. Thoreau admired Raleigh both as a soldier and as a writer.
Issued in identical format as THE FIRST AND LAST JOURNEYS, and besides the green slipcase, this book is also found in two different boxes. One box matches the purple-brown alligator grain box of THE FIRST AND LAST JOURNEYS. The other box is a bright orange alligator grain box, and was probably used on copies sold separately. There is no priority between them.
Values track those of THE FIRST AND LAST JOURNEYS.
THE WRITINGS… Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906. BAL 20145. Borst A20.1.a.
For nearly seventy years this twenty-volume set was the standard edition of Thoreau’s writings, now superseded by the superb scholarly collected edition being published by Princeton University. Fortunately, it was edited by Francis Allen and Bradford Torrey instead of Frank Sanborn. This was the first attempt to print Thoreau’s journals in full, and it was at least 75% successful. Like the earlier volumes of extracts by Blake, this edition greatly expanded Thoreau’s readership and his place in American letters. The trade edition was designated the `Walden Edition.’ There was also a `Manuscript Edition,’ available in several formats.
The `Walden Edition’ consisted of 1,020 sets, bound in blue cloth, and dated 1906 on each title-page. Many sets found today are reprints or mixed sets. The `Manuscript Edition’ was limited to 600 numbered sets, although 650 were actually printed, if not actually published. Two-thirds of those sets were issued in green cloth with paper labels, with a leaf of manuscript bound in at the front of the first volume. Those sold for $5 per volume. The other two hundred were issued mostly in three-quarter green morocco, or in various full leather custom bindings by the Monastery Hill Bindery, and sold for $12.50 in three-quarter morocco, and $25 to $75 per volume in full leather, an enormous sum for a book at the turn of the century ($500 to $1,500 per set). In addition to the manuscript leaf, those leather sets also had an extra set of frontispieces, and delicately colored photogravures of places associated with Thoreau.
The value of these sets varies widely. The cloth sets are usually found with faded spines, but with “average” leaves of manuscript, they fetch $3,500 to $7,000. Copies in three-quarter morocco with an “average” leaf of manuscript fetch $6,000 to $12,000. Copies in full leather will fetch a bit more. Copies with exceptional manuscript leaves can bring exceptional prices. Once in a blue moon a manuscript leaf from WALDEN turns up in a set, the Holy Grail for Thoreau collectors.
UNPUBLISHED POEMS BY BRYANT AND THOREAU. Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1907. BAL 20146. Borst A21.1.
Contains `Godfrey of Boulogne’ [sic] with a facsimile manuscript.
The edition was 470 copies, bound in paper-covered boards, gilt, with loosely inserted tissue guards, and boxed. We have seen a plain box as well as a slightly heavier box with paper label, of unknown priority.
Copies without boxes, showing some aging bring $150; copies in the box fetch $250. Watch out for competition from legions of Bryant collectors who can crush you to earth like a bug, from which you will not rise again.
TWO THOREAU LETTERS [Mesa, Arizona: Edwin Bliss Hill, 1916] BAL 20149. Borst A22.1.
This little twelve page leaflet is listed here as the first of many such leaflets printed by Hill, an ardent Thoreau admirer who later moved to Ysleta, Texas and continued his printing. His printings are unassuming but attractive, designed with elegant restraint, and collectible.
The edition is unstated, but was 250 copies. During this period a number of severely limited editions of individual Thoreau letters and poems were published by various private printers. See BAL and Borst for a complete account.
Very rare, this leaflet can bring $200 or more; Hill’s later Thoreau leaflets bring less even though their limitations were generally much smaller.
THE MOON. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1927. BAL 20153. Borst A26.1.
Published from a previously unpublished manuscript. After the publication of WALDEN Thoreau worked on a series of abortive manuscripts on the moon, moonlight, and the coolness of night, writings that were antithetical to the sun, light, and warmth described in WALDEN.
Printed in an edition of 500 copies, and issued in a lavender box with paper label.
Copies are found in the box, but finding an entirely unfaded box is a hopeless quest. It fetches about $150.
THE TRANSMIGRATION OF THE SEVEN BRAHMANS. New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1931. BAL 20155. Borst A27.1.a.
This translation (from a French text) displays both Thoreau’s scholarship and his avid interest in Eastern religions. Edited by Arthur Christy.
The numbered edition was dated 1931 and limited to 200 copies, bound in quarter morocco, gilt, and issued in a blue paper-covered box that is frequently missing. The trade edition was dated 1932 and limited to 1,000 copies in quarter cloth, with a dust jacket that is frequently badly chipped, when present at all.
The limited edition fetches $200 and up; the trade edition brings $150 if the dust jacket is present in reasonable condition.
COLLECTED POEMS. Chicago: Packard and Company, 1943. BAL 20159. Borst A30.1.a.
The first scholarly collected edition of Thoreau’s poems, edited by Carl Bode. A slightly expanded edition was published in 1964. This book was issued in two formats. One was a popular edition, and the other was a “critical edition” that included a section of footnotes and scholarly notes appended. There is no priority between the two.
The size of the editions was small, and many were sold to libraries. Both are uncommon, especially in dust jackets.
Copies without jackets fetch $75, and copies in acceptable jackets bring twice as much.
CONSCIOUSNESS IN CONCORD. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1958. BAL 20163. Borst A32.1.
An important text that contains the “lost text” of the 1840-41 journals (see the Wakeman sale, 1924, to understand how this journal was separated from the others). Edited by Perry Miller.
The size of the regular edition is unknown, but was not large. Three hundred and seventy-five copies were prepared for distribution to the Fellows of the Pierpont Morgan Library (where the journals are now housed) with a special leaf inserted.
Both the regular edition and the special edition fetch about $75 in a nice jacket.
THE CORRESPONDENCE… Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 1958. BAL 20164. Borst A33.1.a.
This is the standard scholarly collected edition of Thoreau’s letters, and is still the standard edition since relatively few new letters have surfaced since 1958. Like his other writings, Thoreau’s letters invite rereading. H. G. O. Blake declared “I reread his letters from time to time, which I never tire of doing. I am apt to find new significance in them, am still warned and instructed by them, with more force occasionally than ever before; so that in a sense they are still in the mail, have not altogether reached me yet, and will not probably before I die. They may well be regarded as addressed to those who can read them best.” Edited by Walter Harding and Carl Bode.
The edition was 2,000 copies, bound in green cloth, in a dust jacket.
Copies in acceptable jackets are uncommon. Most copies were sold to libraries or scholars who wore them out. In a fine jacket, this volume can fetch $150 or more.
Cameron, Walter Kenneth. COMPANION TO THOREAU’S CORRESPONDENCE WITH ANNOTATIONS, NEW LETTERS AND AN INDEX OF PRINCIPAL WORDS, PHRASES, AND TOPICS. Hartford: Transcendental Books 
Issued in cloth and wrappers, one of many extremely useful works published by Cameron, the author of more than one hundred articles and books on Thoreau and Transcendentalism.
FAITH IN A SEED. Washington, D.C.: Island Books, 1993.
This text prints Thoreau’s `The Dispersion of Seeds,’ a major chapter in a series of natural history manuscripts that remained unpublished at the time of his death, that also included three shorter pieces, as well as his published work, `The Succession of Forest Trees.’ It shows his keen powers of observation and his scientific appreciation of Darwin’s new (and much debated) theories on natural selection. It also shows Thoreau’s explicit rejection of the “creation” theories of Harvard’s great scientist, Louis Agassiz, for whom Thoreau had collected specimens. Edited by Bradley Dean.
Besides the trade edition, there were 600 numbered and boxed copies.
COLLECTING TO A DIFFERENT DRUMMER
Thoreau left behind more tangible proof of his existence than his two books, and this affords the astute collector an opportunity to do some collateral collecting while he waits for the day when he has a full shelf of Thoreau first editions in original pristine condition. Thoreau may have said, “That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest” but of course he wasn’t trying to put together a collection of his first editions. He sounded a good deal more like a collector when he wrote, “I am a parcel of vain strivings.” As compelling a cadence as first editions command, other paths beckon. Unfortunately, when collectors stray from the path of primary first editions, things don’t get much cheaper, but they do get interesting.
Thoreau attended Harvard and participated in his graduation ceremony, worked in his family’s pencil factory, made a few dollars when he could working as a surveyor, contributed many shorter writings to various magazines, assembled a good library, preserved his own manuscripts carefully, and was noticed in print by others from time to time (for better or worse). All of this is documented by books, magazines, maps, pencils and papers that the collector is likely to find with a little looking.
The list that follows is necessarily selective and meant only to be suggestive of the alternative rhythms to the deafening drumbeat of first editions.
Harvard University. TRIENNIAL CATALOGUES OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY. Cambridge: Hillard & Metcalf, 1839, 1842, and 1845.
These catalogues are found separately or bound together for various periods, and include Thoreau in the lists of students. Thoreau began his college career in 1833 and his name is found in the Harvard student catalogues for 1834-36.
Harvard University. ILLUSTRISSIMO EDWARDO EVERETT. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1837.
This simple folded commencement program lists David Henry Thoreau among the students taking part in a “conference” on `The Commercial Spirit of the Times, Considered in its Influence on the Political, Moral, and Literary Character of a Nation.’ Thoreau soon after reversed his first and middle names.
D’Israeli, Isaac. CURIOSITIES OF LITERATURE. New York: William Pearson, 1835. 3 vols. bound in one.
This book is a good example of a book from Thoreau’s library. This collection of 250 essays is bound with THE LITERARY CHARACTER, ILLUSTRATED BY THE HISTORY OF MEN OF GENIUS (1835), all from Thoreau’s library with his slightly later ink signature (post-Harvard) on the front end paper and a later inscription from his sister Sophia to the governess of the Emerson children, Elizabeth Jordan Weir, who had been a close friend of Thoreau. Among the subjects of the essays are many of interest to Thoreau: Sir Walter Raleigh, the poverty of learned men, literary follies, diary-keeping, solitude, literary friendships, country versus city living, “discoveries of secluded men,” meditations of genius, the philosophy of proverbs, etc. His journal entry to the contrary, Thoreau actually owned a library of at least 600 volumes, none of which he wrote himself.
THE DIAL; A MAGAZINE FOR LITERATURE, PHILOSOPHY, AND RELIGION. Boston: Jordan & Co., 1840-44.
This major voice for the Transcendental movement lasted only sixteen issues; Thoreau contributed to eleven of them. The first eight were edited by Margaret Fuller, who was reluctant to include many of Thoreau offerings and resisted Emerson’s urgings. Thoreau was seen in print only four times during her tenure, with a total of only five contributions. Emerson edited the last eight issues, and Thoreau appeared in seven of them, with a total of more than twenty contributions. However, six of those contributions appeared in the April, 1843 issue alone, the predictable result of Emerson leaving the editing of that particular issue in Thoreau’s capable hands. The circulation is said to have never reached more than 300 subscribers.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. AN ADDRESS DELIVERED IN THE COURT-HOUSE IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS, ON 1ST AUGUST, 1844, ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE EMANCIPATION OF THE NEGROES IN THE BRITISH WEST INDIES. Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1844.
This speech marked Emerson’s first (and long overdue, many thought at the time) joining of his voice with those in the anti-slavery movement. It was issued in brown printed wrappers in October, after Thoreau negotiated with Munroe on Emerson’s behalf. But Thoreau’s connection with this work began earlier. When it rained on the morning Emerson was to give his speech, the local churches refused their rooms, and the crowd moved to the Concord courthouse. But the town fathers would not allow the assembly bell to be wrung, prompting Thoreau to take hold of the rope himself and ring in his neighbors. This was not the last time Thoreau would ring that bell himself. In 1859, when he delivered his own speech on John Brown, the town fathers again refused to alert residents by ringing the bell, and Thoreau again took hold of the rope.
MANUSCRIPT LEAF FROM WALDEN. circa, August 23, 1845, or later.
This leaf is shown as a typical example of Thoreau flowing handwriting, unlike nearly any other in the annals of American literature. The words flow from the pen, and connect to each other, like the thoughts they express. In tiny pencil, Thoreau revised his text, often adding entire sentences or crossing out entire paragraphs. Just six weeks after moving to Walden Pond, he made this entry in his journal. This particular manuscript is from an early draft (with later revisions) of the chapter on Baker Farm and includes his friend Ellery Channing’s poem on Baker Farm. It also includes an amusing account of fishing with the Irishman John Field. Field and Thoreau sat in a boat, Thoreau filling his string while Field caught only “a couple of fins” because he’d used the wrong bait, all the while blaming his bad luck. So they changed seats, but as Thoreau wryly comments, “luck changed seats too.” From this seemingly minor incident, he then proceeds to fashion the concluding lines of this chapter of the book. Earlier in this manuscript, Thoreau whiffles this Wordsworthian injunction toward the reader: “… Seek in thy own fashion without toil thy daily food, they sustenance. Is it sport? Make it not like the merchant a game of checquers. Let it not be thy trade but a game of character. Enjoy the land, but own it not. Through want of enterprise and confidence in the gods, men are where they are, buying and selling, owning land, following trades, and spending their time ignobly like serfs.” Thoreau’s encounters with local farmers, tradesmen, and laborers as they went about their daily ritual of materialistic pursuits, nearly always prompted a journal entry about the self-inflicted tortures that always lead to a spiritually deprived life of quiet desperation.
While Thoreau manuscript leaves are obtainable, autograph letters are scarce, as are surveys, receipts, and other forms of his autograph. All are expensive and require a pursuit of quiet, and sometimes noisy, desperation.
PENCIL MANUFACTURED BY J. THOREAU & CO. [Concord: J. Thoreau & Co., circa 1845-52]
The Thoreau pencils were famous for their quality, and were manufactured in several different sizes in the building just behind the Thoreau home on Main Street. Thoreau’s father established the business in 1823. Thoreau himself researched several formulas, obtained the special clay and other required chemicals and they were soon making the blackest, finest pencils in America. By 1852 the making of pencils was no longer profitable –a single Thoreau pencil of superior quality lead cost as much as a half-dozen cheap pencils. At about that time, the family began selling graphite from their uncle’s mine in New Hampshire to electrotyping firms (makers of printing plates). When Thoreau’s father died in 1859, Henry took over the graphite business; exposure to extremely fine graphite dust could not have been good for somebody already afflicted with tuberculosis. Once, when Thoreau was trying to figure out how to pay off his debts from the publication of A WEEK, he seriously investigated the Boston and New York cranberry markets with a notion of speculating, but came to his ten senses, and sold pencils instead. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody might have been an over-eager customer. When her attic was cleaned out in 1935 (she died in 1894) bundles of Thoreau & Co. pencils were found with the wrappers intact. Peabody was Hawthorne’s sister-in-law, owner of a Boston bookstore, publisher of AESTHETIC PAPERS (see below), and an ardent social reformer who was later lampooned by Henry James. For a time she worked at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School, and later lectured at his School of Philosophy. But collectors will cherish her memory for not selling off her entire stock of Thoreau & Co. pencils. Local residents report that pencils could still be found in the lot behind the old “factory” building on Cocnord’s Main Street at the turn of the century.
Lowell, James Russell. A FABLE FOR CRITICS. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1848.
Lowell’s satirical verse took stabs at virtually every American author of the day, and considering that Thoreau had yet to publish a book, he might have been flattered to have been included, but probably wasn’t. Lowell accused Thoreau of treading in Emerson’s tracks, picking his pockets for ideas, and foraging fruits from Emerson’s literary orchard for inspiration. This libel has only a tiny grain of truth, but the perception of Thoreau as an imitator of Emerson has never quite faded. The next year Lowell wrote a genial but condescending review of A WEEK (he mistakenly accused Thoreau of egotism, but rightly complained of the choppy flow of the narrative), and still later he offended Thoreau by silently editing one of his essays that appeared in `The Atlantic Monthly,’ where Lowell was then editor.
The edition was 1,000 copies, bound in paper-covered boards and in several cloth styles. BAL describes four states, based on mispagination of the text.
AESTHETIC PAPERS. Boston: The Editor, New York: G. P. Putnam, 1849.
This landmark magazine was published in May, 1849, and contained Thoreau’s essay on `civil disobedience’ under its original title: `Resistance to Civil Government.’ It also includes contributions by Emerson and Hawthorne. Only fifty subscribers could be found, and the copies sent to bookstores sold poorly, and no further issues were ever published. Edited by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (a prominent pencil saleswoman). Copies are found in printed wrappers and in unbound quires (from that fabled attic, stacked next to the pencils). It is one of the black tulips of American literature.
SARTAIN’S UNION MAGAZINE. Philadelphia: John Sartain, July and August, 1852.
Usually found bound in six or twelve month runs, but sometimes found in wrappers, this popular magazine contained the first appearances in print of any part of WALDEN (`The Iron Horse’ and `A Poet Buying a Farm’). The May issue of the same year had contained Jules Verne’s first American appearance. The magazine soon folded, or there might have been more of WALDEN published in advance of the book.
Walling, H. F. MAP OF THE TOWN OF CONCORD. [Boston: H. F. Walling, 1852]
This large wall map was mounted on two wooden rollers and intended for use in school-houses, although it could hardly be expected to be of much interest to anybody outside the town of Concord itself. Thoreau contributed the plans of Walden Pond and White’s Pond, and is duly credited in the lower left corner of the map for his service, where he is described as a “civil engineer.” Besides showing the relation of Walden Pond to the village, it also contained an insert that shows the town center in detail with each house labeled with the name of its owner: Thoreau, Hawthorne, Alcott, Emerson, Sanborn, and one John S. Keyes. Keyes lived next door to the Thoreaus at one point, and unsuccessfully courted Ellen Sewall at the same time as the Thoreau brothers. The roar of raging hormones must have been deafening that summer in placid pastoral Concord. Thoreau frequently earned his living as a surveyor, and was known for the accuracy of his work, although he complained that when he informed his customers that there were several ways of doing a survey, they almost always wanted to know which method would yield them the most land, rather than which method was most accurate. His surveying chains and drafting instruments are on display in Concord today.
HOMES OF AMERICAN AUTHORS. New York & London: G. P. Putnam, 1853.
Edited by C. F. Briggs, although the individual author profiles were written by eleven different authors. It is not clear who wrote each section –some are still the subject of scholarly debate. This wonderful illustrated guide to the homes, habits and towns of well-known American authors, includes a good account of Thoreau at Walden Pond, the first such report of his experiment, one year before WALDEN was published. This account was written by George William Curtis, who helped Thoreau raise his cabin at Walden Pond, along with Alcott, Channing, Hosmer, Emerson, and three others. Curtis proudly mentions his role in this account. The following year, a companion volume was issued, HOMES OF AMERICAN STATESMEN, which included as its frontispiece an original “sun picture” of the Hancock House in Boston, the first use of an actual photograph to illustrate an American book.
Some copies are found with the color plates printed on India proof paper and tipped in; other copies are found with the color plates printed directly on the page; BAL gives priority to those with tipped in plates. Copies are also found with the New York imprint alone; there is no priority. Page 337 is found in three states; that page concludes the biographical sketch of Daniel Webster who died while the book was in press, and the publisher added a last minute notice to that effect. In one state the entire leaf is a cancel; in another the leaf is overprinted; and in another the printed notice has been pasted onto the page. BAL identifies one leather binding and three cloth bindings; we have identified five different leather bindings and four different cloth bindings, and we suspect there are others.
THALATTA: A BOOK FOR THE SEA-SIDE. Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1853.
This anthology of poems for the sea-shore, edited by Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Samuel Longfellow (brother of the poet), includes two poems by Thoreau reprinted in revised form from their first appearance in A WEEK. These are Thoreau’s first anthology appearance. The edition was just 1,500 copies. Copies were issued in a gift binding of blue cloth with extra gilt stamping, and the usual brown “Ticknor T-cloth” binding. Judging from the variety of variant bindings found for the brown T-cloth copies (with later ads, spine imprints, and end papers) it may have sold slowly.
Redpath, James. ECHOES OF HARPER’S FERRY. Boston: Thayer & Eldridge, 1860.
This memorial volume for the martyr/murderer/abolitionist who was hanged the previous year contains Thoreau’s `A Plea for Capt. John Brown.’ Thoreau was a passionate abolitionist (although not a joiner in such reform movements since he thought all reform had to begin with the individual rather than society), and like other New Englanders who embraced Brown, may not have known the full extent of Brown’s murders in Kansas, or detected Brown’s mental instability. He knew Brown had killed slave-holders, but he may not have known that the people were attacked without any other provocation, hacked to death, and their bodies mutilated after death. The volume also contains two speeches by Emerson, two letters from Victor Hugo, a letter and poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, a poem by Louisa May Alcott (only her third book appearance), and a poem by William Dean Howells (only his second book appearance). When Redpath published his biography of John Brown the same year, he dedicated it to Emerson, Wendell Phillips, and Henry David Thoreau.
REPORTS OF THE SELECTMEN, AND OTHER OFFICERS, OF THE TOWN OF CONCORD. Concord: Benjamin Tolman, 1861.
Bronson Alcott, then serving as superintendent of the Concord schools, suggests in this report that Thoreau’s works be included in a `Book of Concord,’ an anthology that he proposed be published. He also called for an `Atlas of Concord’ to be compiled, suggesting that Thoreau, “a sort of resident Surveyor-General of the town, farms, farmers, and animals, and everything else it contains” put his “ten senses” to work on it. This atypical town report also contains a poem by Louisa May Alcott, her fourth book appearance.
The Concord town report for 1863 records Thoreau’s death at “44 y. 9 m. 24 d.” and describes his occupation as “natural historian.” He was one of five Concordians to die of tuberculosis that year, but one of only two residents between the ages of 40 and 50 to die. Six deaths were for people over 70; nine were children under age 5. Concordians who survived their childhoods generally lived long lives.
The Concord town report for 1877 records that “Miss Sophia Thoreau left to the library in her will a box of plans, maps, etc., which formerly belonged to Mr. Henry D. Thoreau.”
Some town reports from the 1850s listed payments to Thoreau for surveying that he did for the village, and the 1862 town report records that he was paid $3 to inspect a stone bridge, the last work he did for his home-town before his death.
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, June, 1862.
This issue contains the first printing of Thoreau’s essay, `Walking.’ Other `Atlantic Monthlies’ of this period first printed a number of his other most important essays: `Autumnal Tints,’ `Wild Apples,’ `Life Without Principle,’ and `Night and Moonlight.’
AUTOGRAPH LEAVES OF OUR COUNTRY’S AUTHORS. Baltimore: Cushing & Bailey, 1864.
This anthology was produced to raise money for the Sanitary Fair during the Civil War, and is unusual in that every contribution is reproduced in lithographic facsimile of the original autograph. The range and number of authors is astonishing, including many authors who never appeared together in print before or since: Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Abraham Lincoln (The Gettysburg Address), Key (The Star-Spangled Banner), Hawthorne, Audubon, Stowe, Fuller, Emerson, Holmes, Longfellow, Whittier, Simms, Cooper, Irving, and many others. It first prints Thoreau’s poem, `Life.’
O’Connor, William Douglas. THE GOOD GRAY POET. New York: Bunce & Huntington, 1866.
Issued in buff printed wrappers, and highly collectible as a Whitman first edition since it is thought that Whitman may have written portions of the text himself. It contains Thoreau’s opinion of Whitman: “He is democracy.”
Alcott, Amos Bronson. CONCORD DAYS. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1872.
This volume may contain the earliest book publication of any passages directly from Thoreau’s journals.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. SHORT STUDIES OF AMERICAN AUTHORS. New York: Dillingham, 1880.
This volume contains an extract from Thoreau’s journals, the first printing of his famous passage about getting back the unsold copies of A WEEK. The first copies bound are lettered in gilt; later copies are lettered in the same color as the decorative stamping.
Alcott, Amos Bronson. THE CONCORD SUMMER SCHOOL OF PHILOSOPHY. Concord, July, 1882.
This broadside announcement for Alcott’s famous school includes on the schedule of events readings from Thoreau’s journals by Frank Sanborn.
Hosmer, Alfred W. CHRONOLOGY OF THE LIFE OF HENRY D. THOREAU. Concord: Alfred W. Hosmer, 1895.
Alfred Winslow Hosmer was a young relative of Edmund Hosmer, the “farmer poet” who helped Thoreau build his cabin at Walden Pond. The younger Hosmer clerked at a Concord dry goods store and made it his life’s work to photograph historical places in and around Concord. His aim was more historical that artistic, like the photographs produced later by Herbert Gleason. Hosmer produced a series of such photos which he sold from the dry goods store he finally bought just before his death. He also collected Thoreau materials, which are now preserved at the Concord Antiquarian Society.
Thoreau posed for a photographer named Maxham in 1856 and three photographs were made from that sitting. Hosmer reproduces in this booklet a sharp mirror image of the Maxham portrait that was later owned by Thoreau’s friend and editor, H. G. O. Blake.
Jones, Samuel Arthur, comp. PERTAINING TO THOREAU. Detroit: Edwin B. Hill, 1901.
A collection of ten previously uncollected reviews of Thoreau’s books, and essays about him. The printer, Edwin Bliss Hill, remarked once that this rare book (the edition was announced as 225 copies) was “printed one page at a time on a handlever press on nights and holidays” and that “the binder ruined it.”
OF FRIENDSHIP. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1901.
This was the first separate edition of Thoreau’s essay, limited to 500 (actually 502) copies. It was one of Bruce Rogers’ earliest book designs, and was issued in a box that is usually missing. It was oversubscribed upon publication.
NOTES ON NEW ENGLAND BIRDS. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1910.
This collection of extracts from Thoreau’s journals on birds is quite scarce. While the edition was 1,587 copies, only 651 were actually bound and issued. In 1925 the 881 remaining sheets were reissued with a new title-page, THOREAU’S BIRD-LORE. Fifty-five copies remain unaccounted for, and probably flew the coop.
WALKING. [Cambridge] The Riverside Press, 1914.
This essay was originally delivered as two lectures, one on sauntering and the other on “the wild” which Thoreau later combined into one essay, first published in `The Atlantic Monthly’ and first collected in book form in EXCURSIONS. Walking, both a spiritual and physical experience, was a way to discover the natural state (wildness) within, a restorative process that prepares a person for reconnection with the best part of their self.
This was the first separate edition, limited to 550 (actually 561) copies. It was issued in a box that is usually missing.
REFERENCE MATERIALS AND RESOURCES
This obviously selective list of reference materials is divided into general references, biographies, and bibliographies, and arranged chronologically. The intention is to present a blend of essential scholarly sources and entertaining reading, together with a sampling of the wide variety of materials that exist.
Books are wonderful and societies are dandy, but the most enjoyable way to study Thoreau is to visit Concord. Much of the town of Concord of Thoreau’s lifetime is preserved: Hawthorne’s homes, the Wayside and the Old Manse; Emerson’s home (with much of his library still shelved as it was in his lifetime, and even some of his clothes hanging in the closet); Alcott’s home, Orchard House, and the Concord School of Philosophy (a small building in the side yard); Thoreau’s last home, on Main Street (now a private residence; please resist the temptation to knock on the door); and numerous buildings and sites in the town center. At the Concord Antiquarian Society you can view Thoreau’s personal belongings and the furniture from his cabin at Walden Pond. At the Concord Free Library, you can see the copy of WALDEN that Thoreau gave Emerson (the public library sits on the site of an earlier Thoreau family home, where Thoreau was living when he courted Ellen Sewall). At Walden Pond you can hike the Indian trail all the way around the pond past the Fitchburg Railroad that still runs by the edge of the far side of the pond. You can stop in the cove and add a stone to the memorial cairn (begun by Bronson Alcott) next to the site of Thoreau’s cabin, and if you hike behind the cabin site just a short distance you can still see some of the rows of pine tree stumps –some of the four hundred trees planted by Thoreau himself on a two acre plot. You can stand in the bean field –but the beans are long gone, so you won’t get to know beans like Henry knew beans. And if you get the urge to strangle a woodchuck (Thoreau didn’t slaughter and eat them all), you must remember that you are now in a state park. The old Willow Pond roadhouse has finally closed for good, but there is still good food to be had in Concord, comfortable accommodations, and most of the historic homes are open for tours much of the year. Visit more than once during different seasons. Allow at least two days for each visit, and walk everywhere you can. Travel a good deal in Concord; then go live several more lives.
GENERAL REFERENCE WORKS
Van Doren, Mark. HENRY DAVID THOREAU, A CRITICAL STUDY. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1916.
The first critical study of Thoreau (not a critical biography) and the first of Van Doren’s many books. Van Doren saw Thoreau as a isolated failure who took himself too seriously, but also thought the popular view of Thoreau as a naturalist was too narrow, and that he was an “American classic.”
Gleason, Herbert W. THROUGH THE YEAR WITH THOREAU. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1917.
A selection of Thoreau’s writings arranged by seasons and illustrated with Gleason’s photographs, among the most beautiful and familiar images of the places associated with Thoreau’s works.
Shepard, Odell, ed. THE HEART OF THOREAU’S JOURNALS. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1927.
The best anthology of Thoreau’s journals, edited by a prominent scholar. Besides the trade edition, there was a limited edition of 300 copies.
Robbins, Roland Wells. DISCOVERY AT WALDEN. [Stoneham: George B. Barnstead, 1947]
Robbins, an amateur archaeologist who discovered and preserved more major New England historic sites than most professionals, located and excavated the site of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, and documented it in this nicely illustrated book.
Stowell, Robert F. A THOREAU GAZETTEER. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.
An extremely useful and well-illustrated guide to Thoreau’s various travels. Preceded by a privately printed prototype in 1948, and issued in both cloth and wrappers.
Harding, Walter. THOREAU’S LIBRARY. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1957.
Thoreau made a catalogue of his own library in 1840 and Sanborn compiled a list after Thoreau’s death. Using these and other sources, Harding identified the books that Thoreau owned at one time or another.
Shanley, J. L. THE MAKING OF WALDEN. [Chicago:] University of Chicago Press 
A careful study of the creative process in writing WALDEN, documenting the construction and confluence of the seven different drafts.
Howarth, William L., comp. THE LITERARY MANUSCRIPTS OF HENRY DAVID THOREAU. [Columbus:] Ohio State University Press 
A union list of Thoreau manuscripts in libraries and private collections.
Oehlschaeger, Fritz, and George Hendrick, ed. TOWARD THE MAKING OF THOREAU’S MODERN REPUTATION. Urbana: University of Illinois Press 
A fascinating study of how Thoreau’s literary reputation evolved, as reflected in (and influence by) the correspondence of Henry Salt, Samuel Arthur Jones, Alfred Hosmer, Daniel Ricketson, and Harrison Blake.
Blanding, Thomas, and Walter Harding, comps. A THOREAU ICONOGRAPHY. Geneseo: The Thoreau Society, 1980.
An excellent survey of every known contemporary image of Thoreau, both photographs and drawings. This was the thirtieth booklet issued in the Thoreau Society’s series, and typical of their very useful publications.
Harding, Walter. A THOREAU HANDBOOK. New York and London: New York University Press, 1980.
The basic handbook to Thoreau resources and scholarship, first published in 1959.
Bridgeman, Richard. DARK THOREAU. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press 
Thoreau has been widely viewed as a high-spirited, somewhat rebellious but benign “cosmic Yankee” or “poet-naturalist” or “bachelor of nature” who lived in harmony with a nurturing Mother Nature. This book balances that slanted view by presenting the violent, savage, aggressive sides of his personality as reflected in his writings.
Johnson, Link C. THOREAU’S COMPLEX WEAVE, THE WRITING OF A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS… Charlottesville: Bibliographical Society 
An account of the writing of Thoreau’s first book, demonstrating the artful literary construction of this work.
Sattelmeyer, Robert. THOREAU’S READING. Princeton: Princeton University Press 
An expansion of THOREAU’S LIBRARY to include documentation of not only the books Thoreau owned, but what books and magazines and authors he is known to have read, as reflected in his writings, with major insights into the genesis of many of his ideas and themes.
Myerson, Joel, ed. THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO HENRY DAVID THOREAU. [Cambridge & New York:] Cambridge University Press 
A collection of thirteen essays by a variety of Thoreau scholars designed to introduce a reader to the major themes of Thoreau’s works.
Channing, William Ellery. THOREAU: THE POET-NATURALIST. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1873.
Written by Thoreau’s close friend, this first full-length biography is not well organized, emphasizes the poetic and nature-loving aspects of his personality to the exclusion of other traits, and suffers from Channing’s famously eccentric writing style and vagueness, but the two “walks and talks” chapters are valuable as an eye-witness account. It also contains some previously unpublished extracts from the journals. The first edition was 1,500 copies; a new edition appeared in 1902 in three formats: a trade edition; 250 on handmade paper; and, 25 copies on Japan vellum.
[Japp, Alexander Hay] THOREAU: HIS LIFE AND AIMS. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1877.
Written under the pseudonym H. A. Page. Japp attempted to flesh out Thoreau’s personality beyond his popular image as a flinty hermit who held society in contempt. Not especially useful, but included here as an early and scarce biography.
Sanborn, Frank. HENRY D. THOREAU. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1882.
Written by a close friend who had access to original documents and every one of Thoreau acquaintances, but not always reliable. It too contains some previously unpublished journal extracts, along with much of Thoreau’s correspondence with Horace Greeley, who was probably Thoreau’s most enthusiastic and sympathetic editor. Sanborn later wrote THE PERSONALITY OF THOREAU (1901), his own memoirs (1909), and an enlarged biography of Thoreau in 1917.
Salt, Henry S. THE LIFE OF HENRY DAVID THOREAU. London: Richard Bentley, 1890.
A very good biography, more general in scope than the previous attempts, and the work that laid the groundwork for Thoreau’s modern reputation. It was the reading of this biography that first introduced Gandhi to Thoreau’s works.
The 1890 edition consisted of just 750 copies, and 400 were still unsold in 1895, the year before Salt published a revised edition (the preferred text). A modern scholarly edition has been published, using Salt’s original manuscript for a projected revised third edition.
Emerson, Edward Waldo. HENRY THOREAU AS REMEMBERED BY A YOUNG FRIEND. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1917.
This memoir of Thoreau by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son gives a good profile of Thoreau as seen through the eyes of one of the many children of Concord who were his students during his very brief tenure as a teacher, or who knew him from various huckleberry parties. Thoreau had a natural rapport with children, and was known for his patience and understanding. He opposed corporal punishment, and when ordered to flog a student by a member of the Concord school committee, he instead whipped six students and resigned, a rather uncivil disobedience. A short time later when he wrote a letter seeking another teaching position he mentioned at the outset that he thought cowhide taught a “lesson in physics” but “not in morals.”
Canby, Henry S. THOREAU. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1939.
The first scholarly biography of Thoreau, carefully researched, balanced and informative. Canby reached some conclusions that have been refuted by recent scholarship. It was preceded by two good but not broad-scoped biographies in the 1920s by J. Brooks Atkinson and Leon Bazalgette. Besides the trade edition, there was a limited edition of 265 signed copies.
Harding, Walter, and Milton Meltzer. A THOREAU PROFILE. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell 
A strictly factual biography, based on Thoreau’s own words, writings about him by contemporaries, and heavily illustrated.
Harding, Walter. THE DAYS OF HENRY THOREAU. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.
A much needed improvement over Canby’s work by the late great dean of Thoreau scholarship, and still the standard biography.
Richardson, Robert D. HENRY DAVID THOREAU, A LIFE OF THE MIND. Berkeley: University of California Press 
The most enjoyable biography written to date, a utterly convincing study of Thoreau’s inner life, achieved by careful documentation of the chronological evolution of his intellectual and spiritual views, as reflected by his readings, writings, and activities.
Borst, Raymond R. THE THOREAU LOG, A DOCUMENTARY LIFE OF HENRY DAVID THOREAU. New York: G. K. Hall 
An essential reference, this nearly day by day factual record of Thoreau’s entire life is clearly sourced and well-indexed, the culmination of Ray Borst’s life-long study of Thoreau.
Jones, Samuel Arthur. BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THOREAU. Cleveland: The Rowfant Club, 1895.
The first bibliography of Thoreau’s writings. The edition was limited to just 90 copies. Jones had published a preliminary version of this bibliography as an appendix to a selection of Thoreau’s writings published in 1890.
Allen, Francis. A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THOREAU. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1908.
The first full-length bibliography of Thoreau’s writings. Until the Borst bibliography, it was the best guide to Thoreau’s magazine appearances. The edition was limited to 530 copies, an indication of Thoreau’s greater popularity since the publication of his first bibliography.
Boswell, Jeanetta, and Sarah Crouch, comps. HENRY DAVID THOREAU AND THE CRITICS, A CHECKLIST OF CRITICISM, 1900-1978. Metuchen, N. J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1981.
An excellent bibliography of critical works about Thoreau. Despite the date span in the title, it includes works printed during Thoreau’s lifetime.
Borst, Raymond R. HENRY DAVID THOREAU, A DESCRIPTIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1982.
The standard bibliography of Thoreau’s works. Besides the primary first editions, this work includes complete information on his magazine and book appearances.
Winship, Michael, ed. BIBLIOGRAPHY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE. Volume 8. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990.
The penultimate volume in the most important bibliographical guide to nineteenth century authors ever compiled. This volume contains the section on Thoreau, and provides some information not in the earlier Borst bibliography, as well as some corrections.
**This article first appeared in September 1999 in Firsts: The Book Collectors Magazine. It has been reprinted here, without illustrations, with the permission of that publication and the author. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without their express written permission. To obtain a copy of the print version, please go to Firsts.