Book review of 'The Journal' by Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, January 3, 2010

THE JOURNAL 1837 -- 1861

By Henry David Thoreau

Edited by Damion Searls

New York Review. 667 pp. Paperback, $22.95

"He is the richest," Henry David Thoreau wrote, "who has most use for nature as raw material of tropes and symbols with which to describe his life." Clearly, Thoreau was the wealthiest man in Concord. And we are richer now that Damion Searls has unearthed new Thoreauvian treasures for the rest of us -- a 10th of the two-million-word journal, far more than ever before available in a single volume.

Here, in some of the most vigorous and original prose in English, we find the origins of "Walden" and the other books, but we also find that the journal was a work of art in itself. Thoreau measured snowstorms and tamed flying squirrels with brilliant attention to the moment. We see his pioneer interest in Native Americans, his furious opposition to slavery, his loneliness, his disgust with men who spoke vulgarly of women, his religious devotion to his task.

At one point Thoreau defines this mission: "A journal, a book that shall contain a record of all your joy, your ecstasy." He earned a modest living as a surveyor and maker of pencils, but the journal was his career. What could the businessmen of Concord have offered him? He already had the whole world.

-- Michael Sims

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