The Correspondence – Volume 1: 1834-1848:
The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau
Princeton University Press – £69.95
As the American author, poet, philosopher, tax resister, historian and leading transcandentalist, Henry D. Thoreau once wrote in Walden: ”A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more initmate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from human lips; – not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”
Wonderfully said. Wonderfully written. And it just happens to be one piece of writing (among many) that prompted me into reading The Correspondence Volume 1: 1834-1848 – The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau.
Apart from being the free-spirit that he was – and the sort of sage-like soul the ghastly likes of Simon Cowell et al would give anything on earth to undoubtadly be – he was a writer and visionary of such exquisite clarity, it’s almost impossible to ponder upon how he might have survived amid today’s horribly suffocating world of consumption, consumption and yet more consumption.
It is indeed, just as Basil Willey wrote in my edition of Walden: ”Thoreau had no worldy ambitions at all; he never contemplated marriage; he had no taste for the commonest luxuries. The only commodity he cared to earn was leisure: leisure not to be idle, though the world might say so, but to be busy in his own way.”
Reading through this first full-scale, scholarly edition of Thoreau’s correspondence in over fifty years, said commodity ”to be busy in his own way” really does come through. Whether or not this is because at the time of writing, he was a Harvard sophomore, is hard to quantify; but there’s no denying his immersion with the written word that so evidently comes across throughout this collection. The mere fact that it contains 163 letters – ninety-six by Thoreau himself and sixty-seven addressed to him; twenty-five collected here for the first time, fourteen of which have never been published before – goes some way in clarifying said immersion.
At the begiinning of the Volume, many of the letters provide an in insight into Thoreau’s life as a college student, while towards the end, they shed light on him having already become a published author with some of his poems and essays published amid a number of periodicals. This is further enhanced by the fact that he was already working on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers as well as the aforementioned Walden.
As is written in the General Introduction (which oddly enough, begins on page 402): ”Thoreau’s activities as a latter-writer spans almost three decades, from an 1834 request to have his Harvard dormitory room ”painted and whitewashed” to an April 2, 1862 letter to his publisher, Ticknor and Fields, dictated to his sister Sophia and sent with the manuscript of ‘Wild Apples.’ The first letters that he received, in 1836 and 1837, came from Harvard classmates; the last from Ticknor and Fields, and from readers and friends who knew he was dying.”
Suffice to say, every letter contained herein, will no doubt hit each individual reader in a far different, and dare I say it, semi-solipsistic manner. One that most certainly reached out to me was a letter written in Staten Island to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1843, in which he wrote: ”[...] It is a little unfortunate that the Ethnical scripture should hold out so well, though it does really hold out. The Bible ought not to be very large. It is not singular that while the religious world is gradually picking to pieces its old testaments, here are some coming slowly after on the sea-shore picking up the durable relics of perhaps older books and putting them together again? [...].
I like the poetry, especially the Autumn verses. They ring true. Though I am quite weather beaten with poetry having weathered so many epics of late [...].But I have a good deal of fault to find in your ode to Beauty. The tune is altogether unworthy of the thoughts. You slope too quickly to the rhyme, as if that trick had better be performed as soon as possible – or as if you stood over the line with a hatchet and chopped off the verse as they came out-some short and some long. But give us a long reel and we’ll cut it up to suit ourselves. It sounds like parody.”
The consideration for his friend’s work, and the honesty conveyed here, is just one of the many facets that continues to set Thoreau apart from an assortment of peers – both then and now. As for the line ”The Bible ought not to be very large;” well there are surely a hundred different ways of reading and perhaps embracing this.
Either way, such literary pearls are scattered throughout these 459 pages (excluding Textual Introduction, Library Symbols, Short Titles, Bibliography and Index); which accounts for The Correspondence Volume 1: 1834-1848 – The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau making for one of the most magisterial and magically well-informed, as well as reflective-reads this side of (recently updated/published works by the likes of) Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Oscar Wilde.