HENRY D. THOREAU ESSAYS: A FULLY ANNOTATED EDITION by Jeffrey S. Cramer, Reviewed by Rochelle L. Johnson

By Jeffrey S. Cramer
(Yale, 2013) xlix + 426 pp.
Reviewed by Rochelle L. Johnson on 2014-02-08.

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I admit to a weakness for Jeffrey Cramer's Yale University Press editions of Thoreau's works, which, with the addition of this most recent anthology, number four volumes. The previous three include Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition (2004; paper 2006), The Maine Woods: A Fully Annotated Edition (2009), and I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau (2012). Cramer has also produced volumes of Thoreau's works with other presses: Thoreau on Freedom (Fulcrum, 2003), The Quotable Thoreau (Princeton, 2011), reviewed on this site by me), and The Portable Thoreau (Penguin, 2012). The Yale volumes, however, stand out for their beauty. They feature stunning dust jackets, remarkably wide margins in this era of cost-saving publication design, and helpful annotations that are easily accessible, appearing in margins spacious enough to leave room for note-taking. Maintaining these appealing features, the latest volume has already won second place in the Compilations/Anthologies Category at the 2013 New England Book Festival and will likely attract notice on bookstore shelves.

Since Thoreau frequently re-used material from his journal, letters, and lectures in his published works, the cross-references that Cramer includes among his annotations are particularly valuable. Through them, readers learn just which journal passages informed published versions of Thoreau's writings, where similar passages occur in other works by Thoreau, and which sections of his letters appear later in print. In "Autumnal Tints," for instance, when Thoreau observes that the colors of specific plant leaves typically show "by the twentieth of August," Cramer explains that he is likely mining his own journal entry of 23 August 1858 (283). Similarly, when Thoreau reports in "Slavery in Massachusetts" that he "scented a white water-lily," he draws from his journal entry of 16 June 1854 (188). Other annotations show him using unusual terms or phrases more than once: he uses "fane" in both "Thomas Carlyle and His Works" (76) and "Life Without Principle" (363); he mentions natural history "cabinets" in both "A Winter Walk" (41) and "The Succession of Forest Trees" (225); and he refers to "the purple sea" not only in "Autumnal Tints" but also in Cape Cod (288). For anyone who wants to trace Thoreau's references to phenomena or the evolution of his ideas, these sorts of annotations are not only invaluable but relatively difficult to find in Thoreau studies. All readers of Thoreau are thus well served by Cramer, who is Curator of Collections at The Thoreau Institute's Henley Library, which is owned and managed by the Walden Woods Project.

Featuring fifteen essays published during and shortly after Thoreau's lifetime, this volume--unlike most other collections of Thoreau's essays--includes lesser-known pieces like "Paradise (To Be) Regained," "Wendell Philips Before Concord Lyceum," and "Thomas Carlyle and His Works" alongside such widely celebrated works as "Resistance to Civil Government," "Walking," and "Life Without Principle." The essays exhibit Thoreau as a naturalist ("Natural History of Massachusetts," "An Address on the Succession of Forest Trees," "Autumnal Tints," and "Wild Apples"), an abolitionist ("Slavery in Massachusetts," "A Plea for Captain John Brown," and "The Last Days of John Brown"), and a perceptive perambulator ("A Winter Walk" and "A Walk to Wachusett"). Though two of the essays are slightly out of chronological order --"A Walk to Wachusett" (January 1883) follows "A Winter Walk (October 1883) -- the other essays all appear in order of publication date. This collection, then, offers general readers a guide to Thoreau's varied professional and personal interests.

Yet readers expecting certain kinds of scholarly documentation may be disappointed. For example, Cramer does not cite sources for some of the material in his annotations and for the textual references made in his Introduction. Also, while the Introduction celebrates Thoreau as a writer, it fails to explain why the editor chose this particular set of essays and why he excluded the many other pieces of Thoreau's prose.

Subtitled "Thoreau and the Periodic Press," the Introduction takes a peculiar form. Opening with a few paragraphs on Thoreau's reputation as a writer and his thoughts about writing, it features sub-sections on each of the essays that follow. Before turning to these, however, Cramer briefly considers the Dial, the periodical that published the first two essays collected here: "Natural History of Massachusetts" and "A Winter Walk." Though Cramer's account of the Dial chiefly consists of an unsourced quotation from Emerson, it serves to explain the place of the magazine in the life of the New England Transcendentalists. But no such service extends to The Atlantic, even though it published the last four essays collected here. If the Dial, which published only two of these essays, warrants a separate discussion, why not devote one to The Atlantic, which--as Cramer's own selections begin to suggest--became a major outlet for Thoreau's works in the years following his death and undoubtedly contributed much more than the Dial to his lasting reputation and popular reception?

Beyond this minor inconsistency lie major ones. The brief introductions to the essays, which appear as separate entries within the Introduction to the volume, are noticeably uneven in both length and theme. For instance, while the entry on "Natural History of Massachusetts" consists of only one paragraph (and most of that is a quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne, who read the essay upon its publication), the entry on the two essays about John Brown spans over six pages and discusses the national controversy provoked by Brown's violent actions. Also, though some entries explain the origin of an essay (such as the lecture that led to "Autumnal Tints"), others highlight responses to a published piece, such as Emerson's criticisms of "A Winter Walk" (xvi-xviii). General readers may welcome the variety of approaches taken here, but readers seeking a more consistent perspective on the essays may question the shifts in Cramer's emphases.

Readers will also find inconsistency in the rest of the volume's textual apparatus, including the otherwise helpful annotations. In the pages of "Natural History of Massachusetts," for example, why annotate the Latin name for "Saint-John's-wort" and "Bobolink" (2), but not for "poke-weed" or "Junco" (3, 7)? Similarly, why annotate Thoreau's reference to "Phoebus" as "Apollo, in Greek mythology, god of music and poetry" (6) and to Titan as "Helios, in Greek mythology, the sun deity" (7) but fail to explain an allusion to Bacchus (8) as the Greek Dionysus, god of wine? And when noting that the "clicking sound" made by a certain type of beetle "was regarded [in Thoreau's era] as a portent of death"(6), why not offer a source for this information? Many other bits of information in this volume prompt the same question.

One might also ask how useful this anthology may be--aside from its helpful annotations-- to scholars and teachers of Thoreau. Of the fifteen essays collected here, six appeared in Carl Bode's The Portable Thoreau (1947), which remained a standard text until 2012, when Penguin issued a new edition under Cramer's editorship, as noted above; though this new edition adds some new material, it keeps all six of the essays gathered in the old one. Further, all but two of the essays in Cramer's volume appear in Richard Dillman's Major Essays of Henry David Thoreau (2001), and except for "Wendell Phillips Before Concord Lyceum," all of the "political" essays in Cramer's volume appear in Nancy L. Rosenblum's Thoreau: Political Writings (1996), which also includes an additional essay on John Brown as well as the more politically oriented sections of Walden (""Economy," "Higher Laws," and "Conclusion"). Likewise, Thoreau's essays on natural history and excursions have been long available in Robert Sattelmayer's The Natural History Essays (1980) and William Rossi's edition of Wild Apples and Other Natural History Essays (2002), which contains the same seven essays on natural history and excursions that Cramer includes, plus "Huckleberries." Arguably, then, Cramer's anthology covers ground already well-trod.

Furthermore, serious scholars of Thoreau will no doubt want to rely on the most authoritative editions of these works, which appear in several places but not in Cramer's anthology. (An appendix to Cramer's volume explains that he has "newly established" texts for this collection, based on "editorial principles established by" himself [383]). All the essays in Cramer's volume appear in The Library of America's Henry David Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems (2001)--a volume that also includes twelve additional essays (some unpublished in Thoreau's lifetime) and 203 of Thoreau's poems. Besides being more inclusive, the Library of America volume relies whenever possible on the texts published in the preferred standard edition of Thoreau's works, The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (Princeton 1980-), for which Elizabeth Hall Witherell presently serves as editor-in-chief. The texts of this Princeton Edition, as it is affectionately called, meet the strict standards established by the MLA's Center for Editions of American Authors, which also grants its formal approval to each volume.

Besides the historical and editorial introductions that it typically includes, each volume of the Princeton Edition also contains elaborate and thorough appendices explaining source texts, editorial methods, and emendations. Presently standing at seventeen volumes, this ongoing series devotes one recent volume to Thoreau's correspondence (through 1848), eight volumes to his Journal (through 1854), four volumes to his four major works (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, The Maine Woods, and Cape Cod), and-- most relevant to this review-- four volumes to his translations, miscellanies, and essays (literary, political, and natural-historical). The fifteen essays in Cramer's volume appear in three of these four volumes: seven in Reform Papers, ed. Wendell Glick (1973); one ("Thomas Carlyle and His Works") in Early Essays and Miscellanies, ed. Joseph Moldenhauer and Edwin Moser, with Alexander Kern (1975); and seven in Excursions, ed. Joseph Moldenhauer (2007). With additional volumes underway, and with some volumes available in paperback for classroom use, the Princeton Edition remains the ideal source for all texts Thoreauvian.

Clearly, however, Cramer's anthology does not target scholars of nineteenth-century literature. Its glossy dust jacket gives this away, particularly through its claim that the volume "re-creates the experience of Thoreau's readers as they followed his ideas over time." Yet besides a handful of neighbors and like-minded philosophers in Concord, Boston, and perhaps New York, few of Thoreau's contemporaries likely "followed" his ideas as expressed chronologically in print; those who closely observed the growth of his mind would probably have known him also through his lectures, his expeditions, and his attentive nature study, as well as through the many other works he published during the course of the twenty years represented by the essays Cramer collects. Though Cramer's volume aims to "trace Thoreau's projectile as a writer for the outlets of his day" (383), it includes--as the Princeton Edition shows--only a fraction of his lifetime writings. What of his student essays at Harvard, or the extracts from other texts that he copied and found significant enough to prepare for publishers willing to share them with readers? What of his several published pieces that after his death were edited to form The Maine Woods and Cape Cod? And what of the early versions of sections of Walden that he published as stand-alone pieces? Anyone truly interested in learning how Thoreau's closest followers tracked the unfolding of his ideas should consult Thoreau in His Own Time, edited by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis (2012). This book features not only a comprehensive chronology of his activities, publications, and lectures but also the most complete collection to date of his contemporaries' reflections--both private and public--on the man and his work.

For all its shortcomings, however, Cramer's volume deserves credit for crossing the categorical boundaries typically drawn between one set of Thoreau's essays and another. Instead of segregating the political thinker from the naturalist, Cramer presents Thoreau as an integrative thinker deeply engaged in subjects at once political, natural-historical, literary, and personal. Indeed, as recent scholarship suggests, Thoreau considered his work in terms that we would now call "multidisciplinary." It was all part of his project to chart the complex relation between the self and the rest of the universe--or, in the words of Laura Dassow Walls, " to read and tell a history of man and nature together, as and in one single, interconnected act" (Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science [1995] 4). By including essays devoted to many topics, Cramer helps advance this more integrated view of Thoreau's life work. For this reason--in addition to its informative annotations and visual appeal--this anthology may be well worth owning.

Rochelle L. Johnson is Professor of English and Environmental Studies at The College of Idaho, Caldwell, Idaho.

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