Thoreau's Works Are Being Thoroughly Compiled


For 24 years, scholars have scoured the nation for notes, essays, poems, journals and books written by Henry David Thoreau.

This literary detective work is directed from a wing on the third floor of the UC Santa Barbara library, the Textual Center of the Thoreau Edition.

UCSB is roughly 3,000 miles from Walden Pond at Concord, Mass., where Thoreau spent two years in a shack writing "Walden." But it is at UCSB that Thoreau's unpublished writings are being assembled for publication.

In his own lifetime Thoreau, among the most influential 19th-Century writers, was not considered a successful writer. Only a handful of his essays and two books, "Walden" and "A Week on Concord and Merrimac Rivers," were published.

Yet his words influenced such reformers as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. His pioneering theories of natural history paved the way for present-day environmental activists. His impact on the civil rights movement and the preservation of natural resources continues to this day, 128 years after his death.

In his famous essay on civil disobedience written in 1846, after he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay poll taxes, he said he could not support a government that endorsed slavery and waged an imperial war against Mexico.

"There is a higher law than the civil one, and the higher law must be followed even if a penalty ensues. So does its consequences. Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison," Thoreau wrote.

He led a simple life, writing in longhand his observations on nature and his reflections on important events. Every day for 21 years he expressed his thoughts on paper, from age 23 until he died of tuberculosis at age 44 in 1862.

"We believe we have 90% of everything Thoreau wrote. We're still looking for anything we may have missed," said Elizabeth Witherell, 42, editor-in-chief of the Thoreau Edition for 10 of her 16 years on the project. "Our plan is eventually to publish Thoreau's complete works in 27 volumes. His day-to-day journals alone will account for 13 volumes," she said.

Since the project started in 1966, nine hardbacks in the series have been published, with the 10th, "Journal 3: 1848-1851," due in December. All are published by Princeton University Press. The Thoreau Edition was headquartered at Princeton until 1983, when it moved to UCSB.

Witherell expects that it will take another 17 to 25 years before the complete works of Thoreau will be in print.

It was the 105-year-old Modern Language Assn., whose 30,000 members are college language and literature teachers, that decided to publish everything written by 15 of the leading 18th- and 19th-Century American writers. In addition to Thoreau, the writers include Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman.

Thirty literary scholars at universities nationwide have collected, sorted and processed the Thoreau material. Nine editors are working on future volumes.

To date, the Thoreau Edition has cost about $2 million. Half of the funding has come from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the other half from various institutions that provide space, utilities and salaries for researchers and editors.

Gathering the Thoreau material has involved a great deal of detective work. First, the researchers obtained photocopies of writings from the major Thoreau collections: the Concord Public Library, the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, the New York Public Library, the Harvard University Library and the J. Pierpont Morgan Library.

Then, letters were sent to libraries and to book sections of newspapers nationwide, asking for Thoreau material.

"We get a little bit here, a little bit there," Witherell said.

The writings are checked against the author's original manuscripts. "He was a miserable scribbler. We use magnifying glasses. The scribbling is photocopied and enlarged at times to help in the deciphering," Witherell said.

Of the volumes published so far, 60,000 copies have been sold, primarily to libraries and Thoreau buffs. Royalties are reinvested in the Thoreau Edition.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World