Book Review: Thoreau’s The Journal

Thoreau The JournalThe Journal: 1837-1861
By Henry David Thoreau
667 pp. New York Review Books. Paper, $22.95.

Like Thoreau, who walked at least four hours every day, I believe “It is a great art to saunter.” Unlike Thoreau, I only manage maybe half an hour of sauntering daily–hardly worthy of my Thoreau Sauntering Society T-shirt.

Nevertheless, I can and do wander woods and meadows on a daily basis by reading from Thoreau’s journal. When Thoreau was twenty years old, Emerson asked him if he kept a journal, thinking it would be a good way to encourage his young neighbor’s writing. Thoreau began in earnest in 1837 and never quit until a few months before his death in 1861.

In his journals you meet Thoreau the naturalist, someone I feel much closer to than Thoreau the philosopher. He not only records the sights and sounds and smells of the forest, he diligently tracks ecological patterns: fluctuations in temperature, the depth of streams, precise blooming dates of wildflowers over a period of years. When did the first migrating finch arrive? Was it earlier or later than last year? All duly noted. Thoreau’s data have been noted as well by scientists at Harvard and Boston University, who are now using his records for ecological research on climate change.

In his journals, you also meet Thoreau the person, someone who delights in recording that “Yesterday I skated after a fox over the ice. Occasionally he sat on his haunches and barked at me like a young wolf” (October 21, 1842). He’s someone who’s cheered by the sight of skunk cabbage spears, “Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? No. ‘Up and at ‘em,’ ‘Excelsior,’ ‘Put it through,’—these are their mottoes” (November 1, 1857).

You’ve got to like someone who thinks of skunk cabbage as having personal mottoes.

Although Thoreau’s journals are no longer available as a complete set, there are other versions. The New York Review of Books has published a paperback one-volume reader’s edition, a comprehensive selection of passages from the original. Sometimes you can find used copies of “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World,” with brief selections and photographs by Eliot Porter–and Dover has published Heart of Thoreau’s Journals, also in paper.

Of course, you could always read the entire set online. I hate to think of that, though. So if you happen to be an indoor saunterer yourself, I’d happily lend you my copies.

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