To those unfamiliar with his life, Henry David Thoreau is often regarded as the hermit who lived in a little hut in the woods beside Walden Pond and wrote a book. This Thoreau was anti-social, a scold and a misfit. He could be difficult. He did live by himself at Walden Pond for 26 months. He did spend much of a Thanksgiving Day alone in a swamp.
But the real Thoreau was affirmative as well, humanitarian and far more nuanced. He had friends, lifelong friends with whom he spent countless hours. He was close to his family, and he interacted all his life with the Concord community, albeit in his uncompromising and sometimes off-putting way. Even at Walden he had frequent visitors. “If I have no friend, what is Nature to me?” he once wrote. One prominent Thoreau scholar, Robert D. Richardson Jr., has called him a semi-domesticated recluse. That seems fair.
Walden, the masterpiece that grew from his experience at the pond, is well-known. But Thoreau left a substantial body of other literature as well, including some classic essays. Thoreau scholars in the process of producing the definitive texts of his writings expect them to run to 30 volumes. Among other works already available are Cape Cod, a travel narrative that is a pleasant read even today and perhaps the most accessible of Thoreau’s books, and his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a book newcomers to Thoreau sometimes find less engaging.
Behind all of these works is his Journal, which he kept for 24 years. Thoreau used it extensively in producing his lectures, essays, and books, including Walden, sometimes actually tearing pages from the journal as he worked. The Journal can be considered a rough-draft of his best-known lectures and books, then, but to call it that is nonetheless unfair; it is too good, too polished, and too rich a mine of material to be approached as an unfinished work. The Journal is a magnificent achievement in its own right. To read Thoreau’s Journal is to be drawn intimately into the subtle changes in nature that are the daily manifestations of the ever-changing seasons. Thoreau’s philosophy of a simple life unfettered by possessions flows through the Journal, peppered with his thoughts on subjects as varied as slavery, clothing fashions, politics and the proper diet. It is diary, it is social commentary, it is fundamental natural history. It is where you will find the Henry David Thoreau who took children berry picking, the Thoreau who became the last word in Concord for any natural history question. “For the connoisseur,” wrote Walter R. Harding, a Thoreau biographer and lifelong student of his work, “it is the best of Thoreau.”
Steve edited and wrote the introduction to “Daily Observations: Thoreau on the Days of the Year,” published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2005. It remains in print.