More on Thoreau (OT)

1999-9-7 16:32:00


You and some others may be interested in this article from today's paper. Interesting timing.

Thoreau Manuscript Being Published

By Hillel Italie
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 1999; 2:03 a.m. EDT
NEW YORK (AP) -- In the summer of 1850, Henry David Thoreau was sharing a house with his parents and wondering what to do. He had completed his second book, the now-classic ``Walden,'' but had no idea how to follow it. ``I feel ripe for something, yet do nothing,'' he wrote in his journal. Having started a surveying business, he chose to ponder the ``rich and fertile mystery'' of the wildlife around Concord, Mass. He spent the last decade of his life compiling data, apparently for a comprehensive natural history of Concord.

Now a section of that unfinished project, ``Wild Fruits,'' will soon be available for the first time, nearly 140 years after the author's death. The book is being published this fall by W.W. Norton.

``Prior to 1851, Thoreau was writing about himself in nature,'' said the book's editor, Bradley Dean. ``With `Wild Fruits,' he seems to be getting out of the way. He writes about nature itself.'' Dean also edited another portion of Thoreau's project, ``Faith in a Seed,'' which was published a few years ago.

Because Thoreau has long been celebrated as one of the greatest American thinkers and prose stylists, it seems unthinkable that even fragments of Thoreau's work took so long to be published. At its best, the writing in ``Wild Fruits'' is clearly comparable to his more famous books. And Thoreau remains highly influential among writers and environmentalists. ``Thoreau is the most compelling among classic American writers in spelling out man's relation to the environment,'' said Dean, who has taught at several universities and now works at the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, Mass., less than a mile from Walden Pond.

Thoreau was just 44 when he died of tuberculosis in 1862, passing away in the front parlor of his family home. Shortly before his death, he had wrapped the manuscript for ``Wild Fruits'' in heavy paper, tied string around it and placed it in a wooden chest, where he kept thousands of pages from other projects.

But it took decades for his works to be stored safely, in the New York Public Library. By then, the wooden box had vanished and the pages were scattered. And even in mint condition, Thoreau's handwriting was virtually illegible.

``I started reading his manuscripts back in the late 1970s,'' Dean said. ``I was reading manuscripts of works that had been published. I would come across a word I didn't know and compare it to the published text. You do that a thousand times and after a while you become an expert.'' In gathering material for ``Wild Fruits'' and other later books, Thoreau explored the nearby woods and swamps. He would walk miles just to watch the changes in a plant. ``We are surrounded by a rich and fertile mystery,'' he noted. ``May we not probe it, pry into it, employ ourselves about it -- a little?''

Much of ``Wild Fruits'' is a catalogue of Thoreau's observations. Each plant or fruit has its own entry. He offered poetic descriptions of the elm tree (``we owe to it the first deepening of the shadows in our streets''), the dandelion (``that little seedy spherical system'') and the strawberry (``better call it by the Indian name of heart-berry, for it is indeed a crimson heart'').

A famous believer in Transcendentalism, which worshipped nature as divine, Thoreau attacked commercialism and status-seeking and other forms of materialism. In ``Wild Fruits,'' he cited the difference between buying fruit and gathering it yourself.

``It is a grand fact that you cannot make the fairer fruits or parts of fruits matter of commerce,'' he wrote. ``You cannot buy the pleasure which it yields to him who truly plucks it.''

Dean said additional papers remain to be transcribed, including ``Moonlight,'' a volume inspired by Thoreau's nighttime walks. Influenced by the then-recent publication of Charles Darwin's writings, Thoreau apparently was trying to apply the theory of natural selection to his own work.

``He wanted to get his mind around the entire phenomenon of Concord,'' Dean said. ``He wanted to know it scientifically, historically, aesthetically. He was trying to compile the natural history of Concord, which nobody had tried anything like before.''

Copyright 1999 The Associated Press