Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition

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How to Cite

  • Works Cited: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition. Digital Thoreau. https://digitalthoreau.org/fluid-text-toc. Accessed 2016-11-27. [Access date recommended since the fluid text is subject to correction.]
  • Sample in-text citation, chapter name supplied in context: (Version F, para. 2a). [Paragraphs are numbered separately in each chapter.]

Data and Visualizations

Visit our Data and Visualizations page to access our TEI source files and view tables and charts that draw on our encoding, including a table of editorial interventions.


Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition is essentially a TEI-encoded version of Ronald E. Clapper’s 1967 PhD dissertation, The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text. “Essentially” for four reasons. First, the encoding is primarily based on a revised, electronic version of the dissertation supplied by Clapper to Digital Thoreau in 2011. Second, as Clapper himself expected, the Digital Thoreau editorial team has found it necessary to correct his transcription of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden manuscript in a number of instances—and continues to do so, tracking these interventions as it makes them. Third, by re-deploying the underlying information in Clapper’s dissertation as XML/TEI and transforming it into HTML for the web, the fluid-text edition makes possible a dramatically different view of the information—or, to be precise, dramatically different views, since the web interface gives readers the ability to reconfigure the information in multiple ways. Fourth, the creation of this interface, undertaken in collaboration with Clapper, required new editorial decisions. The result is in effect a new edition of Walden, with a text that we have chosen to label “fluid” rather than “genetic” for reasons explained in the editorial introduction below.

What is not new, save for the small but growing number of corrections just referenced, is the transcription itself or the fundamental editorial aim it accomplishes: the ability to understand Thoreau’s substantive revisions to Walden between 1846—when, living at Walden Pond, he began assembling past and current observations from his Journal, together with fresh material, into a coherent text intended for lecturing and ultimately for publication as a book—and 1854, when that book was finally published by Ticknor and Fields as Walden; or, Life in the Woods. For the most part, the fluid-text edition leaves unchanged Clapper’s determinations regarding which revisions to include as substantive and which to bypass silently as “accidental,” as well as his decisions (not always consistently applied, it should be noted) regarding how to render the vagaries of Thoreau’s spelling, abbreviations, and punctuation (for example, whether to render Thoreau’s “&c” as “&c” or “etc.”). Following Clapper, the fluid-text edition focuses on what changed in the wording and organization of Walden as it evolved, at a level of granularity intended more to facilitate understanding than to replicate the appearance of the manuscript. Neither edition is a substitute for consulting the manuscript itself, especially for anyone interested in the how of Thoreau’s revision process, his methods for working with a collection of leaves that numbered a little over 100 in 1847 but eventually grew to more than 600.

Since 1918, most of these leaves have resided at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where the collection is identified as HM 924. In 2019, with grant funding obtained by Digital Thoreau from the State University of New York, the Huntington digitized HM 924, adding the collection to its Digital Library. (At the same time, it digitized HM 925, the publisher’s proof sheets of Walden.) Using Digital Thoreau’s manuscript search tool, readers can locate and inspect the manuscript pages corresponding to much of the transcribed content in the fluid-text edition. Moving back and forth between the fluid text and the manuscript is the best way to understand the growth and development of Walden.

Detailed information about the manuscript and its transmission history will be found in the editorial introduction below and on the landing page of our Walden Manuscript Project. Here, however, a quick word is essential regarding what it means to say, as both the genetic and fluid-text editions do, that the leaves comprised by the Walden manuscript represent seven “drafts” or “versions” of Thoreau’s book.

The manuscript does not contain seven discrete attempts by Thoreau to compose the text of Walden. Rather, it consists of a more or less integral first draft (likely completed by the time Thoreau left Walden Pond in 1847) and six additional groupings of leaves. These groupings were composed at identifiable time periods between 1846 and spring 1854 as Thoreau revised and expanded parts of his manuscript, periodically re-ordering the leaves in each grouping with respect to the first draft and one another until he sent the last batch of fair copy to his publisher, probably in late April or May of 1854. The manuscript exhibits copious evidence of this re-ordering in the form of slashes, pinholes, and wax (where, respectively, ribbons, pins, and sealing wax were used to hold leaves together temporarily) and Thoreau’s interlineated cross-references and catchwords designed to connect text drafted on disparate leaves at various points in the composition process. There is no reason to suppose that Thoreau himself ever thought of this process as constituting “seven versions,” and every reason to believe that on the whole he saw it as a relatively continuous effort to organize his words and thoughts into what eventually became Walden—albeit one containing a few points of fresh departure, as reflected in his occasionally making a fair copy of previously drafted content. This is not to say that “seven versions” is inaccurate or unhelpful as a construct for making sense of Thoreau’s revisions. First introduced in the 1950s by Thoreau scholar J. Lyndon Shanley, who sorted the leaves into their present groupings and reasonably speculated that a final, complete manuscript draft of Walden must have existed at one time, in the form of fair copy supplied to the printer in batches sent from late February or early March until April or May 1854, the “seven versions” construct is founded on solid material evidence that different groups of manuscript leaves belong to different points on the timeline between 1846 and 1854, as well as textual evidence (such as Thoreau’s eventual introduction of chapter divisions) that along this timeline Thoreau occasionally took a new view of how the work’s growing parts formed a whole. The construct has proven its utility in Shanley’s and others’ scholarship on Thoreau’s revisions, in Clapper’s genetic text, and, we believe, in the fluid-text edition.

The main benefit of the fluid-text edition is its ability to display up to seven separate “witnesses” to the text of any chapter of Walden, each in its own panel, for comparison to one another and a “base” text, the published Walden as edited by Shanley for the Princeton Edition of Thoreau’s writings. Each panel offers a rough understanding of the state of the whole text, in Thoreau’s conception of it, at that stage in the composition process. But recalling that the very notion of “stages” (or “drafts” or “versions”) is a construct, we must bear in mind that each of these witnesses, in turn, is a construct. If we go searching for manuscript content in the seventh grouping of leaves in HM 924 corresponding to text in the edition’s seventh witness to “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors,” for example, we will find only two, those related to paragraphs 21 and 22. This should not surprise us: out of the more than 600 leaves that make up the whole of HM 924, those that Shanley placed in his seventh grouping number only 46: the final extant draft of Walden consists of these leaves plus the leaves from previous drafts with which Thoreau combined them. To help readers understand how Thoreau’s conception of Walden evolved, the seventh witness to any chapter of Walden does not display only material from the 46 leaves in the seventh grouping; rather, it provides a continuous text consisting of (1) content identical to the base, (2) content introduced for the first time in this grouping, (3) inked or pencilled insertions and cancellations on leaves belonging to this grouping, and (4) content assumed to have been retained from a previous version either because no new variation from the base is recorded or because the content was retained in the published text, indicating, in either case, that the content was likely retained in Thoreau’s conception of the text at this point in the composition process. The fluid-text edition signals that the existence of content in this last category is hypothetical, not based on documentary evidence, by highlighting it with a gray background.

If readers bear in mind that each of the seven witnesses in Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition provides a model, not of the physical manuscript, but of the text that manuscript embodied at different times during Thoreau’s work on it, and if the above suggestion to consult the manuscript frequently is heeded, we believe the edition can offer invaluable perspective on both Thoreau’s creative process and the meaning of his most famous work.

Editorial Introduction

by Paul Schacht

“The true poem is not that which the public read. There is always a poem not printed on paper, coincident with the production of this, stereotyped in the poet’s life. It is what he has become through his work. Not how is the idea expressed in stone, or on canvas or paper, is the question, but how far it has obtained form and expression in the life of the artist. His true work will not stand in any prince’s gallery.

My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.”

(Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 343)

“Are we not revising ourselves, always, to find the flow of ourselves, and then too the mixing and revisions of our culture?”
(John Bryant, The Fluid Text, 177)

It has been known for many years that Thoreau’s Walden is “not that which the public read.” This is so for reasons far more mundane than — though just as important as — the Heisenberg-like proposition about literature offered in A Week. Granted, nothing that the writer writes can adequately represent a life revised moment to moment by, among other things, the act of writing, and thus no writer may leave behind a verbal text of the “true poem,” the life itself. But some writers do leave behind manuscripts, and often a manuscript bears evidence of the feedback loop through which writer and text influenced one another’s growth. In that case, one would say that the “true” work, insofar as that adjective makes sense at all, must comprise the full record of this mutual influence, for such glimpses of personal evolution as the record affords will inevitably affect how we understand the published words that resulted from it. Since the 1950s, scholars have recognized that the manuscript of Walden left behind by Thoreau, held at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, contains no fewer than seven draft versions. In the 1960s, Ronald E. Clapper, then a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California Los Angeles, set out to provide a complete account of Thoreau’s revisions to the manuscript across these drafts. His dissertation, “The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text” (1967), was an attempt to offer readers something like a “true” Walden.

But Clapper’s dissertation never found its way into print. In the most literal sense, it has not been that which the public — or, for that matter, the majority of scholars — read.

That it has served a significant minority of scholars as an invaluable aid to understanding Thoreau’s most famous text only underscores the misfortune of its relative invisibility. Teachers, students, and general readers have lacked easy access to the evidence they need to judge, engage with, and build on scholars’ use of it. “No serious student of Walden can afford to ignore it,” writes Thoreau biographer Walter Harding, and Joseph J. Moldenhauer, Robert D. Richardson, Laurence Buell, William Rossi, Gordon V. Boudreau, Alfred Tauber, and H. Daniel Peck, are among those who do not (Harding, 50; Moldenhauer, 287-88; Richardson, 429-30; Buell, 472; Rossi, 97; Boudreau, 104; Tauber, 232; Peck, 182). Robert Milder draws on it extensively in his Reimagining Thoreau to “disconstruct” Walden and find in it “two stories . . . the narrated story of discovery and renewal that Thoreau bids us attend to (and nearly all of his commentators have attended to) and the enacted story of the writer’s efforts to adapt himself to the world that shows itself in his changing commitments of theme and authorial stance and in shifting centers of textual gravity” (54). Milder’s disconstruction follows two earlier efforts to provide a comprehensive view of Walden‘s evolution: Robert Sattelmeyer’s essay “The Remaking of Walden,” which uses Clapper’s genetic text to argue that across seven drafts Thoreau “became increasingly concerned with his own awakening and less obsessed with waking up his neighbors” (68); and a book-length study by Stephen Adams and Donald Ross, Jr., Revising Mythologies: The Composition of Thoreau’s Major Works, which relies heavily on Clapper’s dissertation to propose that Walden “changed radically over the seven years of its development,” with the second half of the narrative growing “from an appendix to ‘Economy’ [the opening chapter] into a quest for unity in the world” (177).

Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition makes Clapper’s scholarship available, for the first time, to anyone with an internet connection and a web browser. It also recasts that scholarship in a more accessible form. “A better way of arranging the text might be to print the various versions in parallel columns if it were not for the great length of the manuscript,” Clapper wrote in 1967 (4). In the present edition, a user can open from one to seven draft versions of the transcribed manuscript in independently scrollable columns and compare any of these to the published Walden as edited by J. Lyndon Shanley for The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. The insertions, cancellations, and explanatory materials originally detailed by Clapper in footnotes are rendered inline by the software chosen for display, the open-source Versioning Machine. The underlying TEI files may be downloaded for analysis or for transformation by alternative versioning software, such as Juxta. A data dictionary is provided to help users understand the methods used to encode Thoreau’s revisions.

Whereas Clapper chose to describe his edition of Walden as a “genetic” text, invoking the European editorial tradition based on the (appropriately Thoreauvian) principle that a text’s being is to be found in its becoming, we have chosen to call our edition a “fluid text” in order to reference the particular affordances for representing and narrativizing a text’s development outlined by John Bryant in The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen, as well as to underscore the connection between Bryant’s adjective and a central metaphor of Walden.1 Although our edition lacks several important features of fluid-text editing as Bryant envisions it, we plan to incorporate at least some of these features in the future.

What follows is a detailed description of the fluid-text Walden‘s methodology and interface. Let us begin with a brief account of the manuscript itself.

The Walden manuscript

Of the three trunks of carefully preserved and organized manuscripts that Thoreau left to his younger sister Sophia, two were willed by her to Thoreau’s friend Harrison Blake, on whose death they passed to the principal of the Worcester State National School, E.H. Russell, who sold them to New York dealer George S. Hellman, who in turn sold the portion of the manuscripts containing the bulk of Walden to St. Louis manufacturer William Keeney Bixby (Howarth, xix-xxviii). A few leaves of Walden were acquired by Houghton Mifflin, ending up in the publisher’s 1906 “Manuscript Edition” of Thoreau’s works in twenty volumes, which incorporated a leaf or half-leaf from Thoreau’s various manuscripts in the first volume of each of the six hundred sets printed. When Bixby died in 1931, the majority of the manuscripts in his possession were dispersed; most of Walden would go to the collection of the Huntington Library, where it is catalogued as HM 924, but leaves of Walden found their way into the hands of various private individuals and libraries: the Concord Free Public Library, the Boston Public Library, the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library, Exeter Academy, and libraries at Yale, Harvard, University of New Hampshire, University of Texas at Austin, Middlebury College, and the University of Virginia.

When J. Lyndon Shanley examined HM 924 in the 1950s, he found “almost twelve hundred pages of writing on leaves of different colors and sizes, in different inks and varying handwritings of Thoreau, with cancellations and ink and pencil interlineations everywhere,” together with “some torn leaves and scraps and a few leaves with irrelevant material marked ‘A Week’ or ‘Civil Disobedience'” (Making, 2). No effort had been made to sort these materials so as to illuminate the manuscript’s progress through a multitude of revisions; the pages had been arranged not chronologically but in relation to the published text (3). Sorting the leaves by size and color, stationer’s marks, ink, and handwriting, Shanley was able to reconstruct a complete first version of Walden containing passages from every chapter of that work except the last. Moreover, he was able to identify six additional distinct stages in the manuscript’s development. These additional stages are not embodied each in its own group of leaves, however, since “each time Thoreau added the material to a new group of leaves, he also went back and canceled, emended, and rearranged previously written material, and thus he created a new version of Walden with each set of additions” (5).

Thoreau moved into his cabin at Walden Pond on July 4, 1845. By March, 1846, Shanley notes, he was already using his journal to begin drafting a lecture on his experience living in the woods (19). By September, 1847, when he left the pond, Thoreau had lectured at least two and possibly three times from the growing manuscript combining his reflections on this experience with journal passages going as far back as 1840: what would constitute a complete first version of Walden (Shanley, 24; Dean, “Lectures before Walden, 149). This version bears from its opening sentence the marks of its origins as lecture copy: “I should not presume to talk so much about myself and my affairs as I shall in this lecture book work book if very particular and personal inquiries had not been made concerning my mode of life…”2

Thoreau likely returned to the manuscript in 1848-49, possibly starting out with a fair copy, and produced the second and third versions. By February, 1849 he was in correspondence with the publisher W.D. Ticknor about publishing both Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Shanley, 29-30; Sattelmeyer, 53). In the event, it was James Munroe who published A Week in 1849, with an advertisement in its pages for the forthcoming Walden. But when A Week failed to sell more than about 200 copies, Thoreau put publication of Walden on hold. He returned to the manuscript in early 1852, and in the course of 1852-54 he made additional changes in fourth, fifth, and sixth versions that more or less doubled its length. In early 1854 he made a seventh set of revisions, then presumably sent an eighth and final copy of the manuscript (now lost) to Ticknor and Fields before the end of March (Shanley, 32). Walden was published in April, 1854.

A manuscript page from HM 924, the manuscript of Walden in the Huntington Library. Used with permission.

In Revising Mythologies, Adams and Ross speculate about Thoreau’s likely workflow in producing these versions and aptly describe the difficulty of establishing clear boundaries between the versions:

While no physical evidence exists, we assume that he kept a pile of manuscript pages which represented the current “stage” of Walden. We conjecture that he took only the appropriate sheets when he lectured out of them, since the working pile must have been one hundred fifty leaves long. As he recopied and revised for style, he must have put the superseded pages aside in another pile; it seems unlikely that he would have added to the confusion by keeping new material and rejects together. One curiosity in the writing process is why Thoreau did not throw pages away once they were transcribed (Shanley and Clapper catalogue relatively few missing leaves). We know of colleagues who do exactly as Thoreau did; they keep copies of all drafts of an article, at least until it is published. As Elizabeth Witherell points out, “The process of construction must have involved much shifting of papers as well as recopying. In fact, pinholes and cuts throughout the manuscript indicate that leaves now assigned to separate versions must have been combined at earlier stages of the work.” Identifying a passage as having been in one of the seven stages tells us when it appears in a working draft, even though we may never be able to reconstruct fully what that draft contained at any particular time (59).

In The Making of Walden, Shanley worked out a chronology of the manuscript versions, numbering them I-VII, and printed his reconstruction of Version I. Since the publication of “The Development of Walden,” however, scholars have generally followed Clapper in labeling the versions A-G. Thus, Ross and Adams offer the following timeline (256-58):

Version Date of composition
A Late September 1846 to September 1847
B-C Mid 1848 to Late Summer 1849
D Early 1852 to September 1852
E September 1852-53
F Late 1853 to Early 1854
G February or March 1854

While Shanley’s reconstruction made it possible to compare Thoreau’s first draft of Walden to the published work and begin to speculate broadly about the significance of intervening changes, readers still had no way to study particular revisions in detail or to grasp the relationships among versions B-G. As Clapper explains, “Scholars who approached the manuscript could look at the leaves contained in manuscript stages B through G, but they had very little sense of where these leaves fit into the working manuscript” (Email). To throw further light on the progress of the manuscript, Clapper “began with a printed text of Walden and seven colored pens (red for stage A, pink for B, orange for C, yellow for D, green for E, blue for F and purple for G), and, reading through each set of manuscript leaves, marked each paragraph of the printed text with the color of the stage in which it first appeared in the manuscript.” He then, “in the form of footnotes, recorded all the substantive variants in the various manuscript versions of that paragraph.”

Ronald Clapper at work with HM 924 in the Huntington Library in the 1960s. Used with permission.

Surveying Thoreau’s revisions from 1846 to 1854, Shanley concluded that although “the manuscript reveals how much more polished, more spacious, and better designed the published Walden is than the first and other earlier versions, it also reveals that the essential nature of Walden did not change from first to last. Much material was added over the years, but it did not introduce a new strain; it was absorbed by and used according to the nature of the original piece” (6). However, Clapper’s painstaking examination of where, when, and how in the manuscript’s development each textual addition, substitution, deletion, and re-deployment was made drove him to the opposite conclusion: “The ‘nature of the original piece’ did change,” he asserted, pointing out that passages expressing markedly different attitudes towards nature entered the manuscript years apart. As we have already seen, subsequent studies of Walden‘s development based on Clapper’s genetic text have supported this conclusion, even as they have proposed varying accounts of why and how Walden changed in meaning as much as style.

Among these studies, Revising Mythologies seems particularly attuned to the value of Clapper’s copious footnotes as data. Ross and Adams offer some illuminating visualizations of this data that, while primitive in comparison to what modern computing has made possible, still make their point, such as this graph illustrating how unevenly Thoreau revised Walden‘s chapters across his seven drafts:

Reprinted with the authors’ permission from Stephen Adams Donald Ross, Jr., Revising Mythologies: The Composition of Thoreau’s Major Works, 58

Walden: A Fluid Text Edition also treats Clapper’s footnotes as data. Each and every revision has been marked up in XML following the standards of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), not only permitting readers to follow Thoreau’s manuscript revisions with unprecedented ease but also enabling a new generation of scholars to produce fresh quantitative analyses of the information that Thoreau’s manuscript embodies.

Walden as fluid text

“Truth be told,” writes John Bryant in The Fluid Text, “all works — because of the nature of texts and creativity — are fluid texts. Not only is this fluidity the inherent condition of any written document; it is inherent in the phenomenon of writing itself” (1). Writers revise; culture re-mixes. Not only meanings, but the texts from which we construct them, lack stability. They are never one, always many. The “work” of literature is best conceived not by thinking of the French equivalent oeuvre, Bryant suggests, but rather another French synonym, travaille, not as “product” but as “energy” (61, 88).

Yet if all texts are fluid, some “reveal their fluidities more or less fully than others,” depending on whether manuscripts, letters, and other documents have survived to bear witness to a writer’s revisions; on whether the writer’s work was published in one edition or multiple editions with substantive textual variants; on whether follow-on artists in a variety of media — words, images, sound, motion — have found a work ripe for adaptation and re-invention (116).

As we have seen, Walden‘s fluidity has been obvious since J. Lyndon Shanley first discerned seven distinct stages of composition in the nearly 1200 pages of HM 924. We have seen that this fluidity has also been the subject of significant scholarly study, and thus an exception to the rule that textual fluidity “has been largely ignored” by literary criticism, thanks in large part to Ronald Clapper’s transcription of the manuscript, which remedied to some extent “the problem of access” that Bryant diagnoses as a major reason that “fluid texts have not been analyzed much as fluid texts” (9). Bringing Clapper’s transcription to the web in an interface that makes Walden‘s fluidity easy to follow and that gives users access to the data behind the interface will produce, we hope, not only new scholarly perspectives on Thoreau but also expanded attention in courses on literature and writing both to Walden‘s fluidity and to the fluid nature of textuality in general.

At the pre-publication stage, the “work” of literature in Bryant’s sense is the work of authorial or editorial revision; consequently, according to Bryant, a fluid-text edition should not only identify sites of revision but provide for each one a revision narrative: the editor’s best judgment as to what end or ends the revision was designed to realize (144). Since Clapper’s transcription does not offer such narratives, neither will they be found in Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition. However, Digital Thoreau has been exploring how best to approach the question of revision narratives through its Walden Manuscript Project.

This companion project to Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition was launched in 2019, five years after the fluid text’s publication, and was made possible by the Huntington Library‘s digitization, with financial support from the State University of New York, of both HM 924 and the corrected publisher’s proof of Walden, HM 925. The project’s most immediate goal is to cross-reference the Huntington’s IIIF-compliant images of HM 924 with the fluid text, so that, between Thoreau’s own inditing and Clapper’s transcription, readers can better understand how Thoreau worked and re-worked the language and structure of Walden within and across versions. But the images also open the door to providing plausible narrative accounts of those revisions. Finding the right way to construct and share these accounts will require some important decisions—at a minimum, decisions about scale (How many changes should a revision narrative encompass?), encoding (What is the best use of TEI to connect narratives, manuscript surfaces, and transcriptions?), interface (How can image, transcription, and narrative be brought together on the screen in a way that best captures the sequential flow of revision?), and inclusiveness (Should the project host narratives constructed by readers other than the editorial team?). Arriving at answers to these questions, and then implementing the solutions implied by those answers, will take time; but the outcome will bring us closer to realizing the vision Bryant articulates.

Encoding and other technical matters

Transforming Clapper’s 1967 dissertation into XML/TEI (download as zip, tar.gz) involved a number of technical challenges. Fortunately, re-typing two volumes’ worth of content was not one of them; shortly before he was approached about this project, Clapper had prepared a new copy of the dissertation in Microsoft Word. This still left all the encoding to be accomplished, but because Clapper’s notation for textual insertions and cancellations amounted to a code of its own, a first pass at transforming the notations into TEI could be automated.

Joe Easterly, then Electronic Resources and Digital Scholarship Librarian at SUNY Geneseo’s Milne Library, oversaw the work of encoding, assisted by members of the library’s technical services team: Elizabeth Argentieri, Special Collections and Reference Librarian; Joan Cottone, Cataloging Librarian; and Donna Hanna, Acquisitions and Cataloging Clerk.

TEI’s critical apparatus tagset and parallel segmentation method for encoding textual variants were selected, and J. Lyndon Shanley’s edition of Walden, published as a volume of the The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, was chosen as the base or “lemma” text to which the seven witnesses, drafts A through G, could be compared.3 (Clapper had used the 1906 edition for his base text in 1967 but adopted the Shanley edition, published in 1971, for his electronic version.) A series of XSLT transformations written by XML Programmer-Analyst Syd Bauman converts the TEI to HTML for display in the Versioning Machine, open-source software originally conceived in 2000 by Susan Schreibman, Professor in Digital Humanities at Maynooth University, who continues to oversee development. The Versioning Machine provides a simple interface for comparing textual versions marked up using parallel segmentation.

The reading interface for Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition

As noted above in the description of the Walden manuscript, Thoreau’s seven drafts do not correspond to seven separate sets of manuscript pages: “none of the subsequent versions [after A] forms a complete piece in itself but consists of revisions of and additions to earlier versions” (Clapper, 4). The only continuous text in Clapper’s dissertation is the base — Shanley’s edition of the published Walden — which runs from the first word to the last. Clapper’s footnotes record differences from that base. As a result, when marked up in TEI and processed by the Versioning Machine for reading, the dissertation produces one column of continuous text for the base and seven parallel columns each containing numerous gaps where there are no differences to display. Because the gaps make it difficult to compare versions, and because filling in the gaps makes it possible to reconstitute each stage as a continuous text, we have decided to supply the missing words in each column with a gray background. These words are inferred to belong, conceptually, to the version in question; they are not to be understood as a transcription of handwriting on a manuscript page.

In the comparison below of “Economy” paragraph 2 in Clapper’s genetic text and Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition, note that in registering variants to the base phrase “obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers,” Clapper provides information about Versions A and C but not Version B or Versions D-G. To improve readability, the fluid-text edition retains the wording of A in the column for B, assuming no change since none is noted by Clapper, and highlights the words as a reminder that they are merely inferred. Since no changes are noted after C, the fluid-text edition adopts the wording of the published Walden of 1854, similarly highlighted, for columns D-G.

“Economy” paragraph 2 as annotated by Clapper
“Economy” paragraph 2 as annotated in the fluid-text edition

Within each version, strikethroughs represent Thoreau’s cancellations, text in bright green represents additions Thoreau made in ink, text in olive represents additions made in pencil, and text in red represents text not found on any extant manuscript leaf of HM 924 connected to that version but assumed, from other evidence, to belong to it.

There are many places where Thoreau’s changes become too complicated to represent through this simple scheme, such as when paragraphs have been re-ordered between versions, or when a passage has been re-worked more than once within a single version; there are also places where it is necessary to understand facts about the material state of the manuscript to grasp how a passage fits into Thoreau’s workflow. In all these cases, the relevant information has been supplied in notes that pop up when a user mouses over a paragraph number. For convenience, these notes are attached to a given paragraph number in every version where that paragraph appears.

Certain complex revisions are explained in pop-up notes.

The fluid-text edition retains Clapper’s enumeration of the paragraphs. As in the dissertation, “when considerable amounts of a paragraph were added to the manuscript at different stages or in different order, the paragraph has been divided into sections, which are identified by the paragraph number and a lower case letter” (34). Mousing over any paragraph or sub-paragraph number will bring up a note indicating the version in which that stretch of text first appeared and the subsequent versions in which it underwent revision.

In any panel, clicking on a word or passage that has variants in one or more of the other versions will highlight that word or passage in every open column for comparison. Leah Root, technical lead for Digital Thoreau and Publishing and Web Services Developer at Milne Library, SUNY Geneseo modified Versioning Machine 4.0 to create this scrolling capability.

Click on text that varies across versions to compare. Scroll in columns to align.

Revising deliberately

“A word fitly written is the most choice and select of things,” wrote Thoreau in paragraph 5 of “Reading,” before revising the sentence to “A written word is the choicest of relics” (Walden, 102). After making this change in Version A (1846-47), a change that transformed the sentence from a claim about writing of a certain kind to one about writing in general, he evidently judged his own words to be fitly written, for he did not change them again across the remaining six drafts.4 “No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket,” he continued. “It is the work of art nearest to life itself.” This last sentence had earlier appeared farther down in the paragraph, but Thoreau moved it up, perhaps to give it more prominence, penciling it in at the new location. At some point between Version A and 1854, he also moved the sentence about Alexander ahead of that about the written word, with the result that the “It” in “It is the work of art…” now referred to literature in its entirety rather than to the Iliad alone. There is no evidence that he recognized the irony of allying art with life while at the same time exalting that art using words that connote death: casket, relics. But there are signs of struggle in his effort to articulate the living quality of “the written word”:

It may be translated into every language, and not only be read, but, though it is different from not speech it may be breathed from every human mouth, and become anew to some extent the product as it were of our physical organs, as its sense is recognized by our intellectual ones of humbler organs.

This sentence, too, changed at some point between Version A and the published version, where it reads: “It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; — not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself” (102). Human readers breathe the spark of life into the otherwise dead word, sometimes by changing the word — however choice, however select, however fitly written — into another word in another language. The word brought back to life is shaped at least “to some extent” by the reader rather than the author: the “product” of the reader’s physical organs, a thing “carved [by the reader] out of the breath of life itself.” At once material and ethereal, product of mouth and mind, conveyed by pulses in the air, it is not dead but endlessly born anew. The difference between the writer’s living thought and its material instantiation on “canvas or marble” seems unintentionally to throw Alexander’s reverential treatment of his physical Iliad into still further doubt as perhaps a mistaken elevation of matter over spirit.

As is clear from Clapper’s notes and Adams and Ross’ graph, “Reading” changed little after Version A. By contrast, about sixty percent of “Spring” took shape in D-G. Paragraph 9a of the latter, composed in G (1854), pointedly equates the book as physical form with death:

The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit, — not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic. Its throes will heave our exuviæ from their graves. You may melt your metals and cast them into the most beautiful moulds you can; they will never excite me like the forms which this molten earth flows out into. And not only it, but the institutions upon it, are plastic like clay in the hands of the potter. (Walden, 308-9)

Adams and Ross argue that Thoreau’s aesthetic outlook shifted from neoclassic to romantic in the two-year period between C and D (6-11). If they are right, then the shift may be reflected in the distance between the conventional genuflection towards Homer in “Reading” and the Keats-like characterization of poetry and general organicism here, a distance Thoreau may have already begun to traverse in struggling with the earlier chapter’s ambiguous and divided language about the written word. What is certain, in any case, is that by “Spring” the image of literature as precious relic — fixed, permanent, and in consequence, perhaps, dead — has found a rival in the image of nature’s fluid text, alive and endlessly assuming new forms. Apparently Thoreau hit on the contrast between book-leaves and tree-leaves only after developing and deleting a different one: “The earth is not a graveyard full of skeletons, but a granary full of seeds.” One can only assume that he suddenly grasped the connection between his thought here and his extended development, through the immediately preceding paragraph into this one, of the idea that “The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf.” The leaf is the “hieroglyphic” that we must “decipher” so that we may “turn over a new leaf at last.” As if in pointed contrast to his earlier “No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him,” he now remarks, “No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly” (par. 7a; Walden, 306). The sand in the railroad cut; the blood vessels and other internal organs of the human body; external features such as hand, lip, nose, and earlobe; the very etymology of words such as lobe, globe, and leaf; the shape and sound of the letters that compose those words — all constitute, as it were, the language through which “the very globe continually transcends and translates itself…” It is nature’s fluid text that turns out to be “the work of art nearest to life itself,” that may be “translated into every language” (102). Yet the fluidity that is nature’s organizing principle and central theme, its message to itself and to us who are a part of it, cannot help but inform our own productions, too: “not only [the earth], but the institutions upon it, are plastic like clay in the hands of the potter” (309).

If we count literature — “poetry” — among these productions, and regard the books of humans as no different from the Book of Nature, then Walden becomes for us a work that did not begin as, but ultimately became, a fluid text naming fluidity as the inevitable condition and life-giving principle of literature. This is a convenient revision narrative for an edition of Walden that makes the same identification — perhaps too convenient to be entirely trusted. We invite readers to provide alternative narratives, or improvements to this one, in the margins of Walden itself, here, here, or elsewhere.

Submitted as a dissertation in 1967, revised and re-typed into digital files in the 1980s, and now encoded in TEI, Ronald Clapper’s attempt to represent the flow of Thoreau’s revisions to Walden is itself a fluid text. But in its present version as Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition, Clapper’s “work” – his travaille – is for the first time designed to be a work-in-progress and thus to be, in its becoming, the work of Clapper and others. It is no longer possible to do what Shanley and Clapper did at the Huntington: spread out, sort through, and re-arrange the leaves of Walden in an effort to follow the stream of Thoreau’s editorial consciousness. Researchers may not remove the leaves from the plastic sleeves intended, understandably, to protect the manuscript from the ravages of handling. But between Clapper’s transcription and the Huntington’s freely accessible digital images of HM 924, any reader with an internet connection can now do what in the past could only be done by a privileged few: examine the manuscript up close and contribute to our understanding of it.

In “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Thoreau tells us that he went to the woods to “live deliberately” (90). A few pages later, in “Reading,” he advises us that “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written” (101). To deliberate over words and meanings surely constitutes part of what it means to write deliberately; to reconstruct and understand those deliberations as best we can, where we have the luxury of evidence, might be regarded as essential to reading in the same spirit. “The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text,” was a first attempt at practicing this kind of deliberate reading extensively on Thoreau’s most famous work. Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition builds on that effort, and will continue to build on it, unreservedly, but carefully, gratefully, and deliberately.

Ronald Clapper and Elizabeth Witherell, editor-in-chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, with the manuscript of Walden at the Huntington Library, 2013

Works Cited

  • Adams, Stephen and Donald Ross, Jr. Revising Mythologies: The Composition of Thoreau’s Major Works. The University Press of Virginia, 1988.
  • Boudreau, Gordon V. “Springs to Remember.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Henry David Thoreau — Updated Edition. Ed. Harold Bloom. Infobase Publishing, 2007, pp. 87-105.
  • Bryant, John. The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen. The University of Michigan Press, 2002.
  • Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and The Formation of American Culture. Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Clapper, Ronald Earl. “The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text.” Ph.D. diss. UCLA, 1967.
  • —. “Exciting news — and a request.” Message to the author. 10 September 2013. Email.
  • Dean, Bradley P. and Ronald Hoag. “Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: An Annotated Calendar.” Studies in the American Renaissance (1995), pp. 127-228.
  • Harding, Walter. “Thoreau’s Works.” The New Thoreau Handbook. Ed. Walter Harding and Michael Meyer. New York University Press, 1980.
  • Howarth, William L. The Literary Manuscripts of Henry David Thoreau. Ohio State University Press, 1974.
  • Lernout, Geert. “Continental Editorial Theory.” The Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship. Ed. Neil Fraistat and Julia Flanders. Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 61-78.
  • Milder, Robert. Reimagining Thoreau. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Moldenhauer, Joseph J. “Walden and Wordsworth’s Guide to the English Lake District.” Studies in the American Renaissance (1990), pp. 261–292.
  • Peck, H. Daniel. Thoreau’s Morning Work: Memory and Perception in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Journal, and Walden. Yale University Press, 1990.
  • Richardson, Robert D. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. University of California Press, 1986.
  • Rossi, William. “Following Thoreau’s Instincts.” More Day to Dawn: Thoreau’s Walden for the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis and Laura Dassow Walls. University of Massachusetts Press, 2007, pp. 82-89.
  • Sattelmeyer, Robert. “The Remaking of Walden.” Writing the American Classics. Ed. James Barbour and Tom Quirk. University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 53-78.
  • —, ed. Journal 2: 1842-1848. Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Princeton University Press, 1984.
  • Shanley, J. Lyndon. The Making of Walden, with the Text of the First Version. The University of Chicago Press, 1957.
  • Tauber, Alfred I. Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing, University of California Press, 2001.
  • Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Ed. Carl Hovde, et al. Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Princeton University Press, 1980.
  • —. Walden. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Princeton University Press, 1971.


  1. On the theory and methods of genetic text editing as practiced on the European continent, including its difference from the dominant varieties of Anglo-American editorial practice, see Lernout. In the U.S., Hershel Parker is sometimes credited with sparking interest in an approach to textual editing that “invites us to consider literary texts as manifestations of the creating imagination, rather than as final Works that somehow got bound into matched sets at the ends of their creators’ lives” (Adams, 6). See his “The ‘New Scholarship’: Textual Evidence and Its Implications for Criticism, Literary Theory, and Aesthetics,” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 9, no. 2 (1981), pp. 181-97.
  2. For an explanation of the color-coding in this quotation, see the section below on “encoding and other technical matters.” Dean and Hoag speculate that Thoreau gave his first Walden lecture on January 19, 1847 in response to inquiries from his neighbors curious about his life at the pond. He lectured again that year on February 10 and 17 (“Lectures Before Walden,” 148-52).
  3. We wish to thank Princeton University Press for permission to reprint the text of this edition.
  4. In a journal entry recorded between July 16 and August 6, 1845, Thoreau had written, “There is something very choice & select in a written word,” so the revision in A actually represents a return in emphasis from the word “fitly” written to writing in general. The full Journal passage reads:
    There is something very choice & select in a written word. No wonder Alexander carried his Homer? in a precious casket on his expeditions. A word which may be translated into every dialect and suggests a truth to every mind, is the most perfect work of human art, and as it may be breathed and taken on our lips and as it were become the product of our physical organs and as its sense is of our intellectual — it is the nearest to life itself. It is the simplest and purest channel by which a revelation may be transmitted from age to age. How it subsists itself whole and undiminished till the intelligent reader is born to decypher it. These are the tracks of Zoroaster — of Confucius — and moses — indelible in the sands of the remotest times. (Sattelmeyer, Journal, p. 164)

Earlier Versions

A revision history of this editorial introduction may be found on GitHub.