Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

About Thoreau’s Journal no single statement is more appropriate than Walt Whitman’s words about his own LEAVES OF GRASS: “This no book,/Who touches this touches a man.” Thoreau began his journal on October 22, 1837, soon after he had been graduated from Harvard, apparently at the suggestion of Emerson. On the first leaf, Thoreau wrote: “’What are you doing now?’ he asked. ’Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.” Practically every day thereafter, almost to the time of his death, he entered his thoughts, sometimes long, sometimes brief, but all the essence of the man. In 1857, Thoreau entered the thought: “Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.” Thoreau’s actual hero recorded in his journal “all his joy, his ecstasy.” But he tried to keep his perspective and not misdirect his effort. In February 8, 1841, when he was twenty-three years old, he recorded: “My Journal is that of me which would else spill over and run to waste, gleanings from the field which in action I reap. I must not live for it, but in it for the gods.”

Because the Journal was so completely the full life of the man, when he came to write his other works he naturally mined his daily recordings for ideas and recollections, which he then amplified and modified to fit his more immediate purpose. Apparently Thoreau never intended to publish his journal as such, for it was a secret and private depository of his thoughts: “’Says I to myself’ should be the motto of my journal,” he recorded in 1851. Thoreau’s family after his death also felt that the Journal was too private to be of public interest. Finally, however, the work was issued in 1906 in fourteen volumes. Though called complete, this version was in fact far short of the total work, which in Thoreau’s private recording had reached nearly two million words. At least two other volumes of his early journal were omitted. One has subsequently been published, as CONSCIOUSNESS IN CONCORD, edited by Perry Miller. And another volume of Thoreau’s early journal, consisting of some 42,000 words, is now in the keeping of the New York Public Library.

Because his journal was a private depository of Thoreau’s observations and reactions daily replenished, it ranges through the full breadth and depth of its author’s experience. During the earlier years it quite naturally was filled with Thoreau’s naive reactions to life, to the books he was reading, and to his exuberant reactions to the philosophy of Transcendentalism espoused by his mentor Emerson and adopted by himself. Thus we find such entries as the following: “All this worldly wisdom was once the unamiable heresy of some wise man” (July 6, 1840). “We should strengthen, and beautify, and industriously mould our bodies to be fit companions of the soul,—assist them to grow up like trees, and be agreeable and wholesome objects in nature. I think if I had had the disposal of this soul of man, I should have bestowed it sooner on some antelope of the plains than upon this sickly and sluggish body” (January 25, 1841).

Occasionally, the plain good sense and restraint of the young man is overwhelmed by his uncontrolled poetic impulses and he...

(The entire section is 1379 words.)