From October 22, 1837, when he was twenty years old, until November 3, 1861, when he was suffering his fatal illness, Thoreau kept a journal. Biographer Walter Harding considers it “his major literary accomplishment,” though its length of nearly two million words, fourteen volumes, and more than seven thousand printed pages makes it less accessible to the reader than Walden and the other shorter works that Thoreau polished for publication. A lost fifteenth volume was discovered and published in 1958. Leon Edel, who values the journal less than Harding does, calls it “discursive, sprawling, discontinuous” and complains that it is “aloof” and impersonal, with too much matter-of-factness and too little humor and feeling.
Much of the journal consists of Thoreau’s reflections on nature during his daily walks and comments on his reading. In it, Thoreau often considers the problem of writing and revision as well as his observations of nature and of his neighbors in and around Concord. In his published writings, Thoreau often seems more solitary than he really was, and it is the journal that comments on his friends, his activities in Concord, and the considerable variety of people he encountered and talked with on his daily walks or who visited him at Walden.
From the journal, Thoreau mined much of the material for his lectures and the writings published during his lifetime. To it he confided many of his most intimate thoughts. As he put it:From all the points of the compass, from the earth beneath and the heavens above, have come these inspirations and been entered duly in the order of their arrival in the journal. Thereafter, when the time arrived, they were winnowed into lectures, and again, in due time, from lectures into essays.
Some of his excursions never made it into essays and are recounted only in the journal, which is invaluable as autobiography and as a supplement to the works that he prepared for publication. Readers reluctant to plow through all fifteen volumes might instead look at The Heart of Thoreau’s Journal, edited by Odell Shepard in 1927, or at Men of Concord, edited from the journal by F. H. Allen in 1936 and illustrated by N. C. Wyeth.