Thoreau thesis (2) The early journal as evidence


Thoreau’s Journal fills fourteen volumes, yet roughly half his adult years (1837-187) are covered in νolume one. At that, no entries remain for four of these years, (1843, 1844, 1848, and 1849) at all. This is so because the Journals of the early years were in large part discarded by him as not worth recopying, and partly dissected to provide material for various essays, lectures, articles, and two books.

Then, in 1849, his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was still-born– due partly to a lack of preliminary publicity, partly to hostile or indifferent reviews, and partly to the nature of the book itself — difficult as it was for the public to accept.

The lack of response the book encountered led Thoreau to postpone indefinitely the publication of Walden, though that book was substantially complete at the time. It also forced him to re-adjust his goals and expectations: clearly he could not expect to live by his writings; neither could he be confident of an outlet for his thoughts in the market of the day.

Therefore, from 1850, he kept his journal as a literary enterprise — as in itself a work of art, rather than, as hitherto, a sort of halfway house between inspiration and its use elsewhere. This give the thirteen volumes spanning the years 1850- 1861 a form much less elliptical than that of volume one, which in some ways is unique. In the later volumes are (relatively) fewer quotations from his readings and fewer discourses on man’s duty and strivings, and on the possibilities of self perfection. Instead are found more long passages on nature and on the events of his days.

This difference in tone has been explained as due to his recognition of the incompatibility of his ideals and reality. It has been held that he surrendered his faith that they could be reconciled. Such theories will not be specifically refuted here– we are concerned with the early Journal only as evidence of his beliefs between ages twenty and thirty. But clues in the early Journal do indicate that his later years, far from being renunciation of his early hopes and beliefs, were in fact fulfillment and living-out of them.

It may be objected that this attempt to define Thoreau’s early views is without reference to the Week, Walden, or any of the essays and articles written in these years. But a short comparison of his Journal and his other works reveals no glaring inconsistencies, and it would be pointless and tedious to merely display parallel passages to attempt to prove that consistency; while a detailed examination of their relationship to the Journal would be far beyond the scope of this paper.1 The years of the early Journal were consumed in Thoreau’s personal search for truths he could believe in and live by. Through the years 1837-1845 he absorbed ideas and influences — then he withdrew from the world for two years to put his many ideas and beliefs into coherent form. The writing of the Week and of Walden was as much discovery, probably, as it was synthesis, but the elements were drawn from the Journa1.

The two books are his tentative conclusions — the Journal of the preceding ten years are the beginnings and questionings that produced the books. The intermediate stages of the search are lost. The steps from initial inspiration to final statement he destroyed. No other writer ever left two-million-plus words so full of his inner life and so relatively empty of his external.

Why did Thoreau concern himself less with these problems after the 1840’s? Well, why does requited love write few sonnets? He had resolved the problems he had been concerned with and he went on to more fruitful contentions. Or so, at any rate, I believe.


1 At any rate, Bradford Torrey in the 1906 edition of the Journal, and Perry Miller, in Consciousness in Concord The Text of Thoreau’s Hitherto “Lost Journal” (1840-181) Together with Notes and a Commentary (Cambridge The Riverside Press, 1958), demonstrate convincingly that the two books and many articles drew heavily on Journal entries, revised and re-arranged. For that matter, many of the quotations cited here he re-worked and included in the books.


For Thoreau, these were the crucial years, containing the chief influences on his development of opinions and values. A brief chronology of Some of these influences may be of interest.

In 1837 he began the life-long friendship with Emerson which enabled him to exchange ideas with one who understood. This sustaining relationship led to acquaintanceship with persons as diverse as Margaret Fuller and Harrison Blake.

In 1840 he and Bronson Alcott met and quickly developed a strong friendship. The founding of the Dial in that year first gave him public outlet for his writings.

In 1839 he and elder brother John spent two weeks on a boating trip; after John died in early 1842, Henry began to write A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

In 1843 Thoreau failed in an attempt to break into the New York City publishing world, but in living half a year on Staten Island, did meet Horace Greeley, who consistently aided him thereafter in marketing his writings. Following his return from Staten Island, Thoreau never again considered moving from Concord.

From July 1845 to September 1847, of course, he lived in a cabin by Walden Pond, — which inspired Walden. In late July 1846 he spent a night in jail for refusing  to pay tax to a slave-holding government — which inspired “Civil Disobedience.” In the Spring of 1849 the Week was still-born, deferring any hope Thoreau may have had of earning a living by his writings; forcing him to consider once again how best to aspire and respire at the same time.

These were the years in which the man emerged. Throughout this time he was engaged in a long soliloquy. Let us turn to the views he espoused during his ten year apprenticeship to himself.

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