SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- Henry David Thoreau didn't start out to be her life's work. In college, she took an American literature course that was as memorable for the handsome professor who taught it as for the books she read. In graduate school in English, she figured Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson would be her muse. Besides, she'd read "Walden." She'd even taught it. She didn't like it and neither did her students.
But that was all before Elizabeth Witherell followed her husband to Princeton University in 1974. She felt like something of a resident alien there -- a lifelong Midwesterner, still a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, a young wife to a promising physicist with a Princeton position. When she went searching for a part-time research job, she stumbled across the Thoreau Edition -- an ambitious venture to collect and publish virtually everything Thoreau ever wrote.
She had worked on this kind of offbeat project before, enjoying the company of eccentric and informal staffers as much as the subject at hand. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan she had worked on a Middle English dictionary. At Wisconsin, she had worked on the Dictionary of American Regional English, happily transcribing tapes of people talking about things completely unfamiliar to her.
"So I get to Princeton and what do you know -- down in the bowels of the library there's another one of these things with its own little collection of strange people," says Witherell, still sounding delighted at her find. "I thought, 'This is for me.' "
She got a 10-hour-a-week, $2.50-an-hour research assistant job. She was 26.
In the 16 years since then, she's read "Walden" another five times -- she found the resonance by the third or fourth reading. She's written a dissertation on Thoreau's poetry. ("It's terrible," she says, laughing. She means the poetry.) And for the last 10 years, she's been editor in chief of the Thoreau Edition, which when completed in another 17 to 25 years will be the definitive scholarly collection of Thoreau's works (including his journal) and will total 27 volumes. The works are being published by Princeton University Press.
"I have not ended up feeling that I can't stand the guy, that I've worked on him for 16 years, I'm done, I'm through, that's it," Witherell says. "I find him fascinating! He's not somebody I would want to know," she adds carefully. "It's not his personality that I find fascinating. It's his work. It's what he tried to do, his ideas. He was a very prickly, difficult man. I don't think he was comfortable with himself."
Since work on what is officially called "The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau" began in 1966, the Edition has traditionally moved to the venue of its editor in chief. The first editor headquartered it at the State University of New York in Geneseo. The second moved it to Princeton.
And most dramatically of all, Elizabeth Witherell moved the work on the entrenched New Englander, Thoreau -- who waxed gloriously about the colors of autumn and skated skillfully on icy ponds -- to this sun-drenched, picturesque coastal town where the trees don't change color and the only ice comes in cubes out of the freezer. The University of California, Santa Barbara -- UCSB as it's known -- could hardly be more different or farther away from Concord, Mass., where Thoreau lived, built his Walden Pond cabin and counted as neighbors Ralph Waldo Emerson (his mentor), Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott, among other writers.
"People in the Thoreau Society couldn't figure out why this was happening," remembers Witherell, who each year makes the trek to the Thoreau devotees' annual meeting in Concord on the Saturday in July closest to Thoreau's birthday, which is the 12th. She moved the Edition to UCSB seven years ago because the school gave her husband, Michael Witherell, a tenured position and also offered to pay her salary as head of the Edition. Besides her Thoreau duties, she also functions as curator of manuscripts for the school library's special collections.
Any benefit to compiling the Thoreau Edition near Concord is more psychological than real, she says. "The first and most essential work is done on photocopies." Later, transcriptions are checked against the originals.
But even in California, the move raised eyebrows. "People say, how can you move it? Well, I did. He's dead," she says with a chuckle. "He can't do anything about it."
Standing in her tiny third-floor office at the campus library, with shuttered windows that overlook bright green lawns and leafy trees, she speculates wryly that the move would have been the least of Thoreau's problems with this scholarly endeavor.
"He probably wouldn't be so red-hot happy that a woman was working on his stuff anyway," she says.
Her research indicates that he was uncomfortable with women, often fixating on unattainable women, including Emerson's wife. He proposed once -- to Ellen Sewall, the daughter of a Unitarian minister, after she rejected a proposal from his brother, John, because she was more in love with Henry. "I have a feeling that that had more to do with being carried away with what his big brother was doing," Witherell concludes. Under family pressure, Sewall ended up declining Henry David Thoreau's proposal as well.
Whatever discomfort Thoreau felt with women hasn't kept Witherell from developing an affinity for his ideas. She shares his interest in natural history. One of her pet projects -- which won't be part of the Edition -- involves examining the reams of data, both cryptic and innocuous, that Thoreau kept on general phenomena in the sky. "I can channel all my cravings to be a scientist into this," she says, pulling out a chart detailing 11 years' worth of data for the month of November. Thoreau kept these for years and entered observations ranging from "rainbow" to "fog in the morning" to "wear gloves for the first time."
"I think this was part of an effort to make a kind of transcendental natural history," she says.
She even suffered through his poetry for her dissertation -- knowing that it would teach her more about the context of his other work and also put her in a position to edit the volume of the Edition that included his poetry. (That volume hasn't been published yet.) "His imagery gets out of hand. He has one poem that starts 'I love a life whose plot is simple, that does not thicken with every pimple.' It's awful. It's not all like that," she says, laughing. "But he didn't have a good ear for poetry."
And she has a sympathetic take on his rejection of the institution of marriage in the 19th century in favor of an unconventional, individualistic lifestyle. "He knew enough about what he wanted to do to know he couldn't take a companion along," Witherell says.
She pronounces his name THOR-oh, which sounds odd after years of hearing and saying it with the accent on the second syllable. But that's the way it's been pronounced in Concord for the last 150 years. However, there's still some uncertainty over how the man himself pronounced it. The Thoreau Society's bulletin last spring took up this issue (along with the rumor that Thoreau invented raisin bread).
Thoreau kept a journal that he wrote in every day from 1837 to 1861. (He died of tuberculosis the next year at 44.) This may be extraordinarily diligent by today's standards but it was not unusual for his time. "He was part of a culture of people who kept diaries," Witherell says. "Emerson has a very long journal."
This month the 10th installment of the Edition will appear: the third volume of his journal, covering the years 1848 to 1851. Since the Edition was started 24 years ago as part of the Modern Languages Association's plan to publish all the works of 15 major American writers, it has functioned on a total of $1 million in funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and another $1 million in donated services. Much of Witherell's time is spent being an administrator, conferring with editors of the volumes, writing grant proposals.
But what she loves most is the almost archaeological aspect of the work.
"Transcribing the manuscripts is still really interesting to me," she says. Although she doesn't get to do it much anymore -- she has students working on that -- she is still facile at deciphering Thoreau's ink scrawls, including the itty-bitty sentences of afterthoughts he squeezed between lines.
"The editor in chief before me said it's like having an uncle who has terrible handwriting who's sending you a letter," she says. "You know what sort of things he's going to write about."
In his lifetime Thoreau published two books -- "Walden" and "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" -- neither of which caused much of a stir. Today, of course, he's one of the most honored and studied exemplars of American literature and intellectual history. His thoughts on civil disobedience -- stemming from his one-night stay in jail for refusing to pay taxes as a protest against the Mexican War -- have been borrowed by the world's great civic and political leaders. Environmentalists have borrowed from "Walden," and his pursuit of a materially unencumbered, solitary life has been praised and emulated.
But he's had his detractors in both centuries -- people who considered him a cultivator of his own legend, a pretentious eccentric whose journey to Walden was something less than an exercise in true solitude. While ensconced in Walden, he saw people every day and -- as the joke went -- could hear the Emersons' dinner bell from Walden Pond and make a dash to their table. And the residents of Concord were slow to forgive him for accidentally setting the Concord woods on fire while frying fish.
"Walden," a dense and difficult book, is sometimes misinterpreted, Witherell contends. "Thoreau never said, 'I went to Walden and I never saw another person.' There is an entire chapter that deals with encounters in town. Walden is more important as a spiritual odyssey than as a physical withdrawal to a totally wild place. And he's real clear about that being the important thing."
For the reader unfamiliar with Thoreau, Witherell recommends such essays on nature and the outdoors as "Walking" and "Autumnal Tints" and his descriptive book "Cape Cod." " 'Cape Cod is the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts,' " she quotes him from that work. "I think that's wonderful! That's just what it is."
Right now Witherell, who figures she reads something by Thoreau every day, worries more about whether funding for the project will continue for the next 17 years than whether her interest will hold out that long. "I'd like to finish it. I don't know if I'll do it forever but I'd like to finish it," she says and laughs. "Somewhere inside me I know that to say I'd like to finish it means I'll probably do it forever."