Henry D. Thoreau Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition
edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer
Yale University Press
Here’s something you might not know about Thoreau: even after he was a published writer he worked in the family pencil business, and contributed several technical innovations to the art of pencil making.
Here’s something else: when Thoreau stayed for a year in the cabin on Walden Pond, there were active railroad tracks skirting one edge of the pond, so every day as he was writing about nature, he heard trains roar by.
These tidbits (gleaned from Robert D. Richardson’s excellent biography, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind) remind us that in the mid-19th century Thoreau shared a lot of recognizably modern life. That includes his experience as a freelance writer, hunting for assignments in New York and wasting time and energy trying to get paid on time, or at all.
As a writer his engagement with the economic, political and technological contexts of his time emerges most directly in essays he wrote for periodicals. To his observations he brought deep scholarship in Western but also Eastern literature and philosophy, and a keen appreciation of Native American cultures. Best known—and best represented in this selection—were his moral and political passions on the subject of slavery, and all it meant to America and mankind. His essay on civil disobedience is not only eloquent but historically important, a model for Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
What distinguishes this volume however is not the selection of essays—they add only one short piece to those in such standard collections as Thoreau: The Major Essays published in 1972. This is the latest in a series of annotated editions of Thoreau’s works by Jeffrey S. Cramer, published by Yale in the same format. On facing pages, the outer columns are annotations and the inner two columns are text.
To my eye this is an uncongenial arrangement, certainly for reading the text but also for the annotations. Either they crowd against the text, or the text is marooned between equal columns of white space. So the attraction must be the annotations themselves, which are indeed helpful as they clarify word meanings and topical and literary references.
But with a couple of exceptions, the essays themselves are to my mind the least interesting of Thoreau’s writings. The books are more artful and entrancing, and the journal entries more striking and immediate. Still, these essays contribute to our understanding of Thoreau and especially of Thoreau in his times. They have their champions who will likely find them enhanced by the annotations.
So precise were Thoreau’s observations of plant cycles and seasons that scientists today use them to measure the effects of climate change. But the essays in particular place him more actively in the public world. (Perhaps most interesting for today is the essay on a book that prophesied wind and solar power.) They help correct the quick stereotype of Thoreau as airily (or earthily) detached from his times.