Autobiography in Real-Time: The Journals of Emerson and Thoreau
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson himself who wrote, in “The American Scholar,” that “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” So, to have on hand newly published selections from the journals of both Emerson and his disciple Henry David Thoreau, dating back to the very beginning of when those journals were kept, it’s important to keep in mind that some of the sententious wisdom here collected is but from the pen of meek young men in libraries.
The editor of the Thoreau volume, Damion Searls, would object to its characterization as a selection. In the introduction to The Journal: 1837-1861, he writes that “The present book—the largest one-volume edition [of Thoreau’s journals] yet published—is conceived as an abridgement, not a selection: it aims to preserve the feel of the Journal as a whole.” Searls intended to provide an abridgement that “reflected Thoreau’s changing interests” and provided a sense of “the arc of the Journal as a whole” without sacrificing any of its “texture.”
It should be kept in mind that Thoreau’s journal is “not literally what Thoreau wrote each day,” subject as it was to additions, corrections, and other revisions, but rather “a record of what he and nature did on a given day, and how those doings affected each other.” There’s a lengthy account of the notorious forest fire that Thoreau set, and at the age of 32, as he records his thoughts and feelings here, the future patron saint of American environmentalism is far from contrite. He describes how he came to terms with his actions, and shrugged aside the burden of guilt and embarrassment:
Hitherto I had felt like a guilty person,–nothing but shame and regret. But now I settled the matter with myself shortly. I said to myself: “Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it. These flames are but consuming their natural food.”
This is a natural observation made with wisdom, precisely the kind of thing Thoreau meant when elsewhere he complained of “what a poor, dry compilation is the ‘Annual of Scientific Discovery!’ I trust that observations are made during the year which are not chronicled there,–that some mortal may have caught a glimpse in some corner of the earth during the year 1851. One sentence of perennial poetry would make me forget, would atone for, volumes of mere science. The astronomer is as blind to the significant phenomena, or the significance of phenomena, as the wood-sawyer who wears glasses to defend his eyes from sawdust. The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
Although there are all too many places collected here wherein Thoreau seems to be looking at more than he can make us see—when his observations, in other words, come unequipped with wisdom—this book wasn’t lived and written in a day; and it shouldn’t be read in a day, either. To say that there is natural beauty here to burn is too tempting to not be said, and although Thoreau’s sentences do not always communicate something that seems urgent, there is never anything less than urgency in the attention given to their composition. This book is nothing less than what Thoreau suggested we all maintain: “A meteorological journal of the mind. You shall observe what occurs in your latitude, I in mine.”
The very first entry Thoreau ever made in his meteorological journal of the mind, at the age of twenty, featured Emerson as both its subject and its inspiration. It reads, in its entirety: “Oct. 22 . ‘What are you doing now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.” Emerson, fourteen years Thoreau’s senior, had been keeping his own journal for seventeen years already. The editors of the new Library of America edition of Emerson’s journals have no objection to referring to these selections as the Selected Journals. One volume covers the years 1820-42, and the other volume, 1841-77. Together they number more than 1,700 pages of pure text, and it’s a hardcore Emersonian who would complain that not enough of the original crop has been yielded here.
Many of us have gotten by until now on an Emerson Institute CD-ROM of the journals in their ten-volume entirety, and are grateful to have their essence distilled into these two volumes that are more than two-volumes’ worth, easily handheld and requiring no printing costs. These LoA editions are thoroughly indexed, and what can’t be found here—either because it’s not published here or is not indexed—can always be found, if it’s to be found at all, by means of keyword-searching the CD-ROM.
Emerson used his journal, as Thoreau used his, primarily as a means of facilitating more finished work. It was where he both developed ideas and stored information; it was a place where entire phrases and sentences—sometimes even entire paragraphs—were preserved until the appropriate time for their removal and transfer into essays and lectures. But that’s not to say that there aren’t moments here that are not entirely fresh. Actually, all of it’s fresh. It’s the essays that are borrowed from recyclable material, and there are, of course, plenty of readers who would prefer to receive their Emerson in this form. To call these journals unselfconscious or uninhibited would be to demonstrate a severe misunderstanding of their circumstances; but to call them spontaneous and unimpeded would not be. At their best—at their most mature and august—they are Emerson’s stated alternative to the meek young man in the library—they are “Man Thinking.” The same goes for the journals of Thoreau, too, of course. These are two men of unsurpassed perception and eloquence who made it their life’s mission to look and see, and then to record and share what it was they saw.
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