A new take on Thoreau’s deep cut

I’m excited to announce the latest addition to Digital Thoreau: an electronic version of William Rossi’s essay “Making Walden and Its Sandbank,” which first appeared in print in the Concord Saunterer Vol. 30 n.s. (2022), 10–58. Rossi is co-editor of two volumes of Thoreau’s Journal in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, published by Princeton University Press, and (with John Lysaker) of Emerson and Thoreau: Figures of Friendship (Indiana UP, 2009). He also edited the Norton Critical Edition of Walden, Civil Disobedience and Other Writings (3rd edition, 2008).

Making Walden and Its Sandbank revisits one of the most famous passages of Walden—Thoreau’s description, beginning in paragraph 6 of “Spring,” of the “forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village”—in light of what the Walden manuscript reveals about just when and how Thoreau first drafted, and subsequently revised, the passage. The essay represents an important new contribution to our understanding of both Walden’s and Thoreau’s development. As explained in the abstract to the Saunterer version of the essay:

Close and contextual analysis of Thoreau’s early expansion of Walden’s famous sandbank passage provides considerable insight into his shift toward greater literary and scientific naturalism. Together with its subsequent revisions, this passage, drafted in the spring 1848 Journal six or seven months after he left the Pond, already comprises the core of the narrative’s universally celebrated climactic epiphany. Although scholars have long known of its existence, when its revisions are dated and examined in the contexts of the Walden manuscript’s development, Thoreau’s practice of using the Journal to compose Walden material, the contemporary evolution debate, and his engagement in what historians call “public science,” this remarkable event can be seen both to illuminate and to complicate Thoreau’s career-defining “turn to science” in the early 1850s.

After Rossi generously agreed to republish his essay here, Digital Thoreau editor (and Writings Editor-In-Chief) Elizabeth Witherell and I worked with him to develop a web presentation of his content designed to improve the readability of his manuscript transcriptions and allow readers to compare those transcriptions directly to the corresponding manuscript images in the Huntington Library’s digital collection. To embed the Huntington’s IIIF-compliant images in the essay, we used the community-developed, open source Universal Viewer.

Our collaboration with Rossi led to additional refinements of the essay, as the three of us took a deep dive into the manuscript’s interlineations, cancellations, marginal notations, and “overwritten” stretches (where Thoreau replaced words or letters by writing new ones directly on top of them) and gained additional insight into some of Thoreau’s changes. Preparing the essay for web publication also provided an opportunity to tighten the terminology used to describe the various stages of composition represented on the manuscript.

It’s worth comparing Rossi’s detailed analysis of the sandbank passage’s evolution with the revision model presented in Digital Thoreau’s fluid-text edition as a measure of how much there is still to learn about the timing and content of Thoreau’s revisions, and about the relationship between Walden and Thoreau’s other writings, especially the Journal. “Making Walden and Its Sandbank” will undoubtedly provoke new conversations about Walden’s development, Thoreau’s revision process, and the meaning of a passage central to any understanding of both the book and Thoreau’s thought. It should also bring renewed appreciation for the Huntington’s decision to digitize and freely share one of its most precious holdings and an invaluable resource for both scholars and the general reading public.

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