How I Came Upon the Journal & How I Excerpted It.

Henry David Thoreau started his journal in 1837, soon after his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson had inquired whether the new Harvard graduate was keeping one. In fact the first entry, dated October 22, reads: “‘What are you doing now? he asked. ‘Are you keeping a journal?’ ‘So I make my first entry to-day.’” He continued faithfully making entries for the next twenty-five years.

When Thoreau died in 1862, Emerson delivered the eulogy. He paid high tribute to a man he described as the truest of all Americans. But he appeared to give only faint praise to Thoreau as a writer, suggesting he merely showed a talent for turning an occasional memorable phrase. Shortly after the funeral, Sophia Thoreau showed Emerson her brother’s journal. He was astonished.

I’m certainly no Emerson, but I had the same reaction. In the 1990s, I developed a passion for Thoreau. I’m not sure why this took so long to happen, since I taught for three decades in a high school located only five miles from Walden Pond. In 1997, I began reading the journal in our student-built reproduction of the cabin. In spare and stolen moments, I slowly began making my way through its 7,000 pages, writing down passages in longhand and later sharing them monthly with friends and former students via email. I will probably finish the journal sometime in 2010 or 2011. Did I say journal or journey?

When I first began excerpting the journal, I was just looking for aphoristic lines. As I read more, I became transfixed by Thoreau’s technicolor descriptions of nature. Then I began to fall hard for his philosophical musings. Later I found myself chuckling at his humorous gibes. I was also stirred by his social and political commentary. At some unrecorded moment, I noticed I was nodding my head at his insights into everything from rocks to clouds to the human condition.

There are dozens of available collections of journal entries. Indeed, Thoreau’s Journal has been sliced and diced every which way: by season, by theme, by year. My philosophy of excerpting evolved as I went along, but I believe my digest of journal passages–which I call “Journal Drippings”– shows, in chronological order, the range of Thoreau’s mind, as he expressed it in his characteristic spare, direct, powerful way. Arranged in this manner, the passages also serve as a kind of mental MRI that enables readers to “watch” his mind in operation, as he jumps from one thought to another or returns to themes, ideas, and metaphors that were preoccupying him through a day or week. Here is a fine human mind recording and unreeling, with the rational running into reverie and details dissolving into dreams.  While the thoughts and mind meanderings can morph in an instant like the play of sunlight and shadow, through it all there is that voice that can’t be imitated or mistaken. It belongs to one man and one man only. We hear him and we see the world through his eyes and words. This transcendentalist takes possession of our senses, and the pleasure is all ours

Just a few additional comments on how I excerpted. The journal served as Thoreau’s self-described compost pile, so the reader can also find in it early versions of famous lines and passages that found their way into his better-known essays and books. I tried to avoid these lines because they were readily accessible elsewhere. Lastly, I tried not to make any internal edits in the passages I excerpted and shared. But sometimes, in deference to the busy lives of my readers, I did. My goal was not to produce a scholarly edition of the journal, but to familiarize more people with it. In making these relatively few edits—always indicated by ellipses–I took care not to distort Thoreau’s meaning. Still, I know he would have been extremely unhappy with my taking these very occasional liberties. What writer wouldn’t be? (And him most of all!)

If you love sunrises, sunsets, and rainbows, you will love these radiant passages from Thoreau’s Journal. The main meaning I take from its two million words is simply this: we must take the time to look at–to really see–the miracle around us. After all, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”


Bill Schechter
Brookline, Mass.

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