It’s always a good time to revisit Thoreau
November 6, 2007
Started in 1837 and spanning more than 25 years, Thoreau’s journals are considered by some to be his true masterwork. Yet at more than 2 million words, few have the time or perseverance to go through them.In “I to Myself: An annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau,” editor Jeffrey Cramer has done the difficult work; he has chosen good passages and added annotations to provide perspective and background.
The compilation, in an easy-to-digest format with plenty of white space for notes, is a good way to approach the inner thoughts of one of America’s great writers.Thoreau started his journal at age 20, after Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged him to do so. In one of his first entries, Thoreau justified the endeavor with the German saying, “Everything through which you are bettered is true.”It’s just one of many gems throughout the book. In fact, it seems difficult to turn to any given page and not find something of value. “But what does all this scribbling amount to?” wrote Thoreau.It is, perhaps, these self-doubting thoughts balanced with a good many moments of brilliance that gives the reader a chance to approach Thoreau as more of a human.
Even so, the journal is less of a daily account and more a method Thoreau used for processing thoughts and explaining himself. Quotes appear in the journals that later show up in his more polished works; the annotations point out bits and pieces taken from other works as well. In all, it’s a telling exploration into the notebooks of a master. “The least particle of truth colors our whole life,” Thoreau wrote, at the age of 20. “It is never isolated, or simply added as treasures to our stock. When any real progress is made, we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before.”Of course this is not the first compilation of Thoreau, but “I to Myself” is focused on readability and brevity. And though it weighs in at 458 pages of text, it’s certainly approachable.
Cramer hopes it will be an entrance into the full journals. This may not be the case since this compilation is so well-done. If nothing else, the tome is a good to read before, or after, a hike or a ski day.”What is Nature unless there is an eventful human life passing within her?” Asked Thoreau, at the age of 36. “I make it my business to extract from Nature whatever nutriment she can furnish me, though at the risk of endless iteration. I milk the sky and the earth.”And for those stuck behind a computer or working at a bank, Thoreau has some suggestions.”After having some business dealings with men, I am occasionally chagrined, and feel as if I had done some wrong, and it is hard to forget the ugly circumstance,” Thoreau wrote. “I see that such intercourse long continued would make me thoroughly prosaic, hard, and coarse. But the longest intercourse with Nature, though in her rudest moods, does not harden and thus make coarse. A hard insensible man whom we liken to a rock is indeed much harder than a rock. From hard, coarse insensible men with whom I have no sympathy, I go to commune with the rocks, whose hearts are comparatively soft.”