Key Collecting Areas:



A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers—Thoreau’s first book—appeared in 1849.  It was not badly reviewed, but neither was it widely reviewed.  Thoreau had assumed the cost of its publication.  Publisher James Munroe of Boston failed to promote it vigorously, and the book sold poorly.  In his journal entry for October 28, 1853, Thoreau wrote with some humor of his lackluster literary success: “For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of ‘A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers’ still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here . . . 706 copies out of an edition of 1000  . . . Of the remaining two hundred and ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold.  I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”   

Today, Thoreau might enjoy a posthumous last laugh about the considerable collecting interest in and market value of manuscripts in his hand, first editions of his writings, association items, ephemera, and source material relating to his life and work.  Ironically, not only are all first editions of A Week now rare and pricey, but some of the copies returned to Thoreau are even more desirable because the author corrected them by hand.

In the 1870s, Sophia Thoreau donated many volumes from her brother’s personal library to the Concord Free Public Library and deposited all of his manuscripts here, as well.  When she died in 1876, she unwittingly set in motion what Thoreau scholar Joseph J. Moldenhauer has termed “the grand diaspora of Thoreau’s manuscript remains.”  She left the surveys and field notes to this library and the rest to Harrison Gray Otis Blake.  At his death in 1898, Blake, in turn, bequeathed them to Elias Harlow Russell.  Although legally challenged by Thoreau’s relatives and by Blake’s executor, Russell prevailed in selling Houghton Mifflin both rights to publish the journal and at least six hundred actual manuscript pages to include in the limited 1906 Manuscript Edition of the Thoreau’s writings.  From a twenty-first century vantage point, this marketing tactic seems a desecration, a callous appeal to the acquisitiveness of the autograph collector.  To be fair, however, at the turn of the twentieth century—well before the principles of modern textual scholarship had been established— awareness of the imperative of maintaining manuscript integrity had not yet been raised.

The Concord Free Public Library and other repositories—the Huntington, Pierpont Morgan, New York Public, Houghton, and Abernethy libraries—each offer  internally coherent pieces of the jig-saw puzzle of Thoreau’s manuscripts, the early scattering of which also provided inventory for private collectors.  Some personal collectors have been visible (Stephen H. Wakeman, for example), while others have preferred to keep a low profile.  As private collections are dispersed, valuable items surface on the market and are snatched up by personal or institutional buyers for incorporation into other collections. 

There are also a number of strong print collections of Thoreau, notable among them that of successful businessman, collector, “non-academic scholar,” and bibliographer Raymond R. Borst.  In 1982, as part of its Pittsburgh Series in Bibliography, the University of Pittsburgh Press published Borst’s definitive bibliography of Thoreau’s writings (see item 75 in the display), which drew heavily on the compiler’s extensive personal collection.  In 1996, the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, acquired the Raymond R. Borst Collection of Henry David Thoreau. 

In addition, by virtue of its location and the foresight of founding benefactor William Munroe, the Concord Free Public Library documents Thoreau’s world in great depth, through a variety of primary and secondary materials—manuscript, print, and visual—in a way no other library or archive can.

The body of authorial manuscripts available to migrate into and out of collections was defined at Thoreau’s death.  Nevertheless, as a collectible author, Thoreau has soared in recent decades, in direct relation to the trajectory of his reputation.  His enhanced status among readers of many types and the burgeoning business of Thoreau-related publishing has encouraged collectors to expand the definition of what is worth collecting. 

Thoreau’s rise in the twentieth century was inspired by the support he lent to various modern currents.  It was fueled in part by his advocacy of nonviolent resistance in “Civil Disobedience,” which influenced Mohandas Gandhi in the struggle for independence in India and Dr. Martin Luther King in his leadership of the American civil rights movement.  Thoreau’s popularity grew during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when economic hardship made the philosophy of simplicity attractive; during the rebellion of the nonconformist “beat generation” of the 1950s; during the social turmoil and Vietnam War protest of the late 1960s and early 1970s; and with the awakening of environmental consciousness over the past several decades.

In the late 1920s, Thoreau began to occupy space on the bookshelf of the general reader.  Houghton Mifflin published Odell Shepard’s accessible selection The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals in 1927.  In 1936, the same firm issued Men of Concord, consisting of journal entries chosen by Francis Allen—an editor who had prepared the 1906 edition of Thoreau’s journal with Bradford Torrey—with plates from paintings by artist and illustrator N. C. Wyeth.  Wyeth deliberately depicted a human Thoreau to counteract the common image of misanthropic hermit or tunnel-visioned naturalist.  (Five of the original Men of Concord paintings now hang in the Concord Free Public Library’s Thoreau Room.) 

In this period, Thoreau also gained an academic following.  The work of Raymond Adams from the 1930s and Walter Harding from the 1940s did much to secure his place in the academy.  In 1941, Harding played a key role in establishing the Thoreau Society, which from the beginning has represented a mix of both scholars and enthusiastic devotees.

Harding, Adams, and other founding members of the Thoreau Society actively engaged in the collecting of documentation relating to Thoreau and enthusiastically shared what they had gathered.  The collections of both Harding and Adams are now owned by the Thoreau Society and archived by lease agreement at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods.  Harding’s extensive collection consists largely of twentieth-century materials reflecting Thoreau’s evolving influence.  It is wide-ranging, encompassing the quirky and highly ephemeral (cartoons and advertisements) as well as the solidly documentary (scholarly articles).  These days, while Emerson seems to appeal foremost to scholars, Thoreau speaks to many people for many reasons.   

Thoreau reveled in the physical world.  His readers and collectors are consequently drawn to the landscapes he knew as if to places of pilgrimage, and also to visual representations—particularly photographs—of these places.  The visual records created by Thoreauvian photographers Herbert Wendell Gleason early in the twentieth century, for example, and mid-century by Esther Howe Wheeler Anderson are valued as worthy complements to Thoreau’s texts.  The research, exhibition, and interpretive usefulness of Gleason’s and Anderson’s work motivated the Concord Free Public Library to devote resources to buying the near-complete body of Thoreau-related images by each.  Material culture, too, has its place.  Thoreau-related artifacts are valued for both for the information they provide and almost as “pieces of the true cross.”  The Concord Museum’s collection of the furniture Thoreau used at Walden Pond is a must-see for visitors, as is Thoreau’s surveying equipment in the Special Collections reading room at the Concord Free Public Library.  And, of course, collectors eagerly scramble after Thoreau pencils (purported and real) and fragments of his Walden cabin when they appear.

43.  I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least;” . . . The Thoreau Quarterly: A Journal of Literary and Philosophical Studies (Minneapolis: The Thoreau Quarterly, [1982], ©1981).

44.  Photographic portrait of Henry David Thoreau, from the 1861 E. S. Dunshee ambrotype.

45.  Island Press/Shearwater Books.  Henry D. Thoreau: Faith in a Seed: The First Publication of Thoreau’s Last Manuscript (Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, [1993?]).

46.  Henry David Thoreau.  Manuscript for the essay “Walking,” readied for publication in the Atlantic Monthly, [1862].

47.  A Code of Gentoo Laws, or, Ordinations of the Pundits, from a Persian Translation, Made from the Original, Written in the Shanscrit Language (London: [no publisher], 1776).

48.  Margaret Fuller.  Woman in the Nineteenth Century, and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Condition and Duties, of Woman, ed. Arthur B. Fuller.  “Third Thousand” (Boston, John P. Jewett; Cleveland, Ohio; Jewett Proctor & Worthington; New York, Sheldon, Lamport, 1855).

49.  [John Thoreau & Co.]  Strip of three printed labels for pencil leads, [undated].

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