Over the course of his lifetime, Henry David Thoreau put millions of words to paper. In October 1837, he began to keep a journal, recording his daily experience, thoughts, observations of nature and of life, and reactions to reading. His journal—which he kept until 1861—provided source material for much of his other writing: essays, poems, and translations in The Dial and other periodicals; the two books published during his lifetime—A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854); essays that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in the months following his death in 1862; posthumously issued volumes edited by his sister Sophia and his friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ellery Channing—Excursions (1863), The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), Letters to Various Persons (1865), and A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (1866); the four seasonally arranged selections from the manuscript journal made by Harrison Gray Otis Blake (Thoreau’s Worcester friend)—Early Spring in Massachusetts (1881), Summer (1884), Winter (1888), and Autumn (1892); Poems of Nature (1895), selected and edited by Henry S. Salt and Frank Sanborn; and the fourteen-volume first publication of most of the journal in the 1906 Manuscript and Walden Editions of the author’s complete works, edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis Allen. Since 1971, volumes of the ongoing The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (the “Princeton Edition”) have appeared at intervals. Informed by rigorous standards of modern textual scholarship, the edition makes Thoreau’s work available in a form as close as possible to the author’s own texts as he generated them, before the practices of his first editors shaped them for publication according to the criteria of another time.
Thoreau died May 6, 1862, having attained only limited recognition in his own time. Despite contemporary indifference to his literary efforts, his younger sister Sophia maintained faith in his work and assumed responsibility for safeguarding his manuscripts. When she moved to Bangor, Maine, in 1873, she entrusted her brother’s manuscripts to Bronson Alcott, who failed to follow her instructions about their care. She consequently deposited them in the Concord Free Public Library in 1874, placing them under Emerson’s supervision. At the same time, she gave the library many books that had belonged to her brother. Sophia died in 1876. By her will, H. G. O. Blake inherited the manuscripts except for the surveys and field notes, which became the library’s, as did the crayon portrait of her brother sketched in 1854 by Samuel Worcester Rowse.
Sophia’s best efforts notwithstanding, between the 1870s and Thoreau’s rise as a cultural icon in the twentieth century, his manuscripts were widely dispersed. On H. G. O. Blake’s death in 1898, E. Harlow Russell of Worcester inherited Thoreau’s manuscripts. Russell managed this legacy shrewdly, selling the literary rights to Houghton Mifflin in Boston for the publication of the journal in the 1906 Manuscript and Walden Editions of Thoreau’s writings, and also negotiating the sale of at least six hundred actual manuscript pages for inclusion in the Manuscript Edition (one original manuscript sheet per twenty-volume set). In 1904, Russell sold the remaining Thoreau manuscripts to dealer George Hellman, who—as dealers often do—broke them up to sell them more profitably than they could be sold as a lot. In the early part of the twentieth century, Stephen H. Wakeman acquired the journal and some other Thoreau manuscript material. Wakeman sold the journal to J. Pierpont Morgan in 1909. In 1924, after Wakeman’s death, his Bryant, Emerson, Hawthorne, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, Poe, Thoreau and Whittier books, ephemera, letters, and manuscripts were auctioned. The riches of the Wakeman auction included Thoreau’s copy of The Dial, several of his notebooks, and a manuscript of the first chapter and page proofs of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
The fragmentation of Thoreau’s manuscripts, papers, and books—so unlike the stewarding of Emerson’s by his descendants—resulted in the development beyond Concord of multiple institutional and private Thoreau collections. Aside from the Concord Free Public Library, major institutional collections of primary Thoreau documentation are found at the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Abernethy Library at Middlebury College, the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, and the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
One result of the sale, resale, and migration into private collections of Thoreau manuscripts is that important individual items occasionally still come up for auction or sale. Combined with the skyrocketing of the author’s reputation, the reappearance of such coveted items encourages pricing beyond the buying power of most research facilities and favors continued private ownership. Sophia Thoreau’s efforts to hand down her brother’s papers responsibly were insufficient to prevent market considerations from affecting their availability for research and publication. The editorial work of the Thoreau Edition staff today is complicated not only by the far-flung dispersion of material in accessible archives, but sometimes also by the inaccessibility of some manuscripts in private hands.
Through the generosity of Sophia Thoreau, the Concord Free Public Library holds the most extensive intact collection of volumes once part of Henry Thoreau’s personal library. Such books are valuable for scholarship because they shed light on influences on Thoreau’s thought and, if annotated, tell something about his engagement with reading. In addition to the titles shown here, the Concord Free Public Library’s Thoreau Books include Thoreau’s copies of the Baron de Gérando’s Self-Education (1830; in translation); the 1839 second edition of John Hayward’s The New England Gazetteer (to which Thoreau refers in A Week); the 1847 edition of Charles Davies’ Elements of Surveying (1847), from which Thoreau taught himself surveying and which contains his annotations in pencil; the Code of Gentoo Laws (1776), from a rich collection of Oriental books sent to Thoreau by his English acquaintance and correspondent Thomas Cholmondeley (see item 47 in the display); and Giraud’s 1844 The Birds of Long Island, with a manuscript note by Thoreau about Cooper’s Hawk tipped in.
As with the Peabody Books, the history of the Thoreau Books in the Concord Free Public Library reflects change in attitude about what constitutes a rare and valuable book. Volumes from Thoreau’s library were not placed under lock and key until well into the twentieth century. Like the Peabody Books, they were subject to deaccession during the period when they were considered important primarily in relation to their content. Thoreau’s copy of Oswald’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, for example, was presented by Sophia in 1874, deaccessioned by the library in 1906, acquired by Stephen H. Wakeman, and later purchased by George Russell Ready, who gave it back to the Concord Free Public Library in 1985, by which time its research and dollar value were recognized. In the lag between acquisition and recognition of enhanced significance, security may pose challenges. Thoreau’s copy of Giraud’s Birds of Long Island was stolen from the library while it sat on open shelves and, fortunately, later returned.
7. Photographic portrait of Sophia Thoreau, [undated].
8. Samuel Worcester Rowse. Henry David Thoreau, .
9. Henry David Thoreau. Draft survey of Edward Damon factory site, [May 6, 7, 13, 14, 1859].
10. Henry David Thoreau. Field-Notes of Surveys Made by Henry D. Thoreau Since November 1849, 1849-1861.
11. Thomas Loraine McKenney. Memoirs, Official and Personal; with Sketches of Travels Among the Northern and Southern Indians . . . Two Volumes in One . . . (New York: Paine and Burgess, 1846).
12. William Macgillivray. Descriptions of the Rapacious Birds of Great Britain (Edinburgh: Maclachlan & Stewart, 1836).