Making Walden and Its Sandbank

by William Rossi

For Beth, Bob, Joe, and Will

Editors’ note—“Making Walden and Its Sandbank” originally appeared in The Concord Saunterer Vol. 30 n.s. (2022), 10–58. Significant differences between the essay as originally published and the essay as it appears here include the addition of relevant manuscript images and other illustrations; revisions to the transcriptions originally printed in an appendix and here placed facing their corresponding manuscript surfaces; and regularization of the terms used to describe Thoreau’s different types of revision, intended to distinguish the manuscript’s major versions more clearly from other, intermediate stages of composition.

detail from the manuscript of Walden

Detail from Volume 6, p. 4 of HM 924, the manuscript of Walden.

With the exception of “Ktaadn and the Maine Woods” (1848), Thoreau’s current reputation as an environmental writer rests entirely on the work of his last decade, the second half of his career. Scholarly recognition, beginning in the mid 1980s, of the extent of his engagement and expertise in contemporary natural history as well as the distinctive character of the Journal (then being reedited from manuscript with restored Walden period notebooks coming to light), laid the groundwork for the ecocritical focus of so many studies that followed over the next two decades in the wake of Lawrence Buell’s Environmental Imagination and Laura Dassow Walls’s Seeing New Worlds (both 1995). While modified by shifts in literary theory and an ever-growing sense of urgency regarding environmental justice, race, and climate change, the impetus of this good work continues with a new generation of scholars whose studies have encompassed topics such as materialism and ineffability in the later Journal and “Ktaadn”; environmental time and experimental knowing in the unfinished Kalendar project; and the entanglements of embodiment, ecology, and race in the late natural history and abolitionist writings.1 Surprisingly, though, we still lack sufficient understanding of the pivotal moment of Thoreau’s career, roughly from 1848 to 1852, out of which the mature thinker and stylist so carefully explored by these scholars emerged.

The period is usually framed by the commercial failure of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and early 1852, when Thoreau seems to have renewed work on the Walden manuscript he is believed to have shelved. This transition, culminating in the re-creation of the book and the “reinvent[ion] of the writer,” is often associated with the dramatic transformation of the Journal that occurred in the interim (Walls, Henry David Thoreau 273).2 Although perhaps not as “astonishingly productive” as he had been at the Pond and for the two years following his return to “civilized life again,” Thoreau was far from inactive during this period (Richardson, Henry Thoreau 154; Walden 3). Yet the motivation behind his mid-career shift—what made the pivotal period “pivotal”—remains something of a mystery. As the late Bradley Dean, a scholar and editor-without-peer of Thoreau’s manuscripts, used to say: “Something happened” (Brad favored 1851 as “the” moment), “but what?”

Clearly, as the post-1850 Journal testifies abundantly, whatever precipitated the shift involved a deep reorientation to place and a fresh determination to live what he had earlier characterized as a “natural life.”3 Largely because the transition also involved a heightened commitment to the study and practice of professional natural history, it has come to be described as Thoreau’s “turn” or, more strongly, “conversion to science,” a move influenced, Walls has argued, by his reading of Alexander von Humboldt in the early 1850s (Walls, Henry David Thoreau 273–312; Thorson, Walden’s Shore 273).4 In the now standard narrative, this crucial development leads to a renunciation of his earlier idealism, a rejection of Emersonian correspondence, and a resistance to viewing nature symbolically, thereby facilitating the emergence of a recognizably modern Thoreau out of the cocoon of American Victorianism.5 But if “conversion” misleadingly suggests an abrupt change of direction that overlooks Thoreau’s decade-long poetic investment in scientific theory, there is no denying the pronounced empiricism and greater environmental density of his writing that we find registered in the post-1850s Journal as well as in additions to the later Walden chapters drafted at this time.6

As it happens, an extraordinary event recorded in the spring 1848 Journal—a substantial draft of the famous vision of a thawing sandbank in the Deep Cut—sheds bright light on this pivotal period. Although underscored in the “Historical Introduction” to Princeton Journal 2, and thus known to Thoreau scholars ever since that volume appeared in the mid-1980s, the wide-ranging significance of this draft has never been explored.7 But when considered in connection with his use of the Journal at this time, particularly in the composition of Walden, this remarkable episode provides considerable new insight into the “turn” that Thoreau was even then in the process of making. Not that the draft by itself clears up the mystery. But the story of its development proves useful in marking a defined path into, if not entirely through, the enigma. At the same time, it serves to call into question several notions we have come to take for granted about Thoreau’s development, both as a naturalist and a writer, in relation to Walden: the “central idea” and narrative climax of which—that “there is nothing inorganic”—this celebrated moment epitomizes (Richardson, Henry Thoreau 256; Walden 308).8

For one thing, the very existence not merely of the first flowering but, as I will argue, really the core of the passage in its final form, a year before the publication of A Week and some four years before the passage is supposed to have entered the manuscript, complicates the standard narrative of Thoreau’s and his book’s development. Considering how the passage’s climactic function presupposes the shape and broad thematics of the narrative as a whole, its early development provides insight into the status of Walden at a time when, having finished a complete draft at the Pond, Thoreau was in the midst of revising his manuscript with an eye to publication. Secondly, drawing on the archive of Walden materials at the Huntington Library promises to shed new light on how Thoreau worked to construct both the passage and the book, particularly on the role played by the Journal, a role hitherto neglected in studies of the book’s composition. While, generally speaking, the development of Thoreau’s use of his Journal from the Walden period to the 1850s is accurately described as a shift from a more or less disposable draft book to a carefully preserved, open-ended record of his local excursions, this useful generalization fails to capture the complexity of the Journal’s relation to the Walden project during these years. Finally, reading the development of the famous passage in the context of Thoreau’s engagement of science well before his so-called “turn to science” reveals a philosophical and quite public dimension of that engagement missing from the more common portrayal of Thoreau as a proto-professional researcher following his private scientific instincts.

Writing Life

From the early months of his residence at Walden Pond until his death, virtually all of Thoreau’s environmental writing exhibits a preoccupation with translating life and vitality, his own and nature’s, into writing. We see this ideal of literary vitality expressed, for instance, in his effort to inscribe seasonality and seasonal transformation in A Week, Walden, “Autumnal Tints,” and the Journal; in his notion that pages of the Journal are most successful when “allied to life” or as bearing the “fugacious ethereal qualities” of wild fruits; or when he envisions the possibility of literature animated by words “so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring” (January 27th, 1852; Journal 4:296; “Wild Apples” 267; “Walking” 208). Small wonder that this ideal would also come to inform his notion of science.9 To be sure, Thoreau seems to have been fully aware of the delicate art required to keep words alive, of the tension, inherent in the act of experiencing a life in or of nature, on the one hand, and making lively writing, on the other. In the early 1850s, as his natural history explorations were beginning to intensify, he counseled himself not to “tread on the heels of your experience” but rather “[b]e impressed without making a minute of it. Poetry puts an interval between the impression & the expression—waits till the seed germinates naturally” (July 25, 1851; Journal 3:331).10 But the same aesthetic self-awareness about writing life can be detected earlier, too, as in the couplet, “My life has been the poem I would have writ / But I could not both live and utter it,” where a seemingly straightforward lament belies an awareness that the very life problem the speaker protests is at the same time being “uttered,” that, paradoxically, the couplet manages to perform precisely what it claims is impossible (August 28, 1841; Journal 1:324; A Week, 343).

The post-1850s Journal, of course, represents the most extended, self-reflexive and radical inscription of this ideal, as several have argued. Within Thoreau studies at least, the Journal is now widely recognized as a deliberately wrought, if unconventional, literary work in its own right, “both a work of art and a critical work,” fashioned by “an unprecedented art of seeing, being affected [by the world] and knowing” (Davis 39).11 But prior to the mid-1980s, it was commonly regarded as little more than a diary and portable storage unit, a collection of insights and observations to be culled at some later date for literary works then in progress. This view seems to have coalesced out of a number of facts, rumors, and fantasies: the example of Emerson, who described his notebooks as a “Savings Bank”; Emerson’s influential eulogy, which stressed Thoreau’s peculiar character over any literary talent he might have possessed; the cultural mythology of “Thoreau,” generated by the writer himself; and, related to this, his posthumous reception as an idiosyncratic sometime-mystic, scribbling naturalist. To the extent that literary ornithologist Bradford Torrey, a co-editor of the 1906 Houghton Mifflin edition of the Journal, recognized Thoreau as “a writing man” like himself, for instance, the Journal provided a “place of practice” and “a daily record of things thought, seen, and felt” (1906 Journal I:xx).

Yet, much as the recent study of the Journal has expanded our appreciation of Thoreau’s formal experiment as a means of writing the life of Concord environs and his experiential relation to it, the diary-cum-storehouse model still conditions our view of its relation to Walden’s development. Although partly because that relation has never been questioned and partly because we now focus on the Journal as a separate (albeit un-focusable) work, this particular form of blindness is also a legacy of Sharon Cameron’s insightful, provocative reading of the Journal “against” Walden. In order to define the Journal as both “autonomous” and “primary” rather than subservient to Thoreau’s published writings, Cameron constructs a mutually exclusive relation between the two works based largely on the premise that the Journal is “private.” In that space, she argues, liberated from having to consider any audience but himself, Thoreau could explore his relations to nature “unmediated by the social world,” including the literary conventions that constrained its representation in Walden (25–26, 46).12 As I will argue, however, rather than the competitive relationship Cameron portrays, Thoreau developed a practice that fostered an intimate collaboration between the Walden and the Journal, one that also complicates the notion of privacy usually associated with the latter. More on this collaboration below. Suffice it now to say that Thoreau’s use of the Journal not only to record but, bit by bit, to construct the life he lived at Walden differed significantly from the role it played in making A Week.

Thoreau put his finger on the difference in summer 1845, not long before completing the first draft of A Week:13

From all points of the compass from the earth beneath and the heavens above have come these inspirations and been entered duly in such order as they came in the Journal. Thereafter when the time arrived they were winnowed into Lectures—and again in due time from Lectures into Essays— And at last they stand like the cubes of Pythagoras firmly on either basis—like statues on their pedestals—but the statues rarely take hold of hands— There is only such connexion and series as is attainable in the galleries. And this affects their immediate practical & popular influence. (Journal 2:205–6)

Critics have been divided over whether to take this reflection as a prescient observation of the “practical” difficulty readers would experience with A Week, as a prediction of that book’s failure to attain “popular influence,” or as an astute diagnosis of a compositional limitation Thoreau would work to overcome as he revised it (Journal 2:453–54; Fink 216–17). Whichever it is matters less now than noting the difference between a practice of collecting polished thought-gems to be assembled later in some kind of “series,” as he had done before moving to Walden, and the way, once settled there, he began to use the Journal as a draft book uniquely suited to his second project. For, whether by accident or intention, quite early in his residence at the Pond Thoreau seems to have discovered in the Journal a means of mediating life into the “poem” he would write. This is evident in the way many passages that would find their way into Walden “are clearly ‘worked up’ and given a literary treatment.” And this same characteristic, what the Journal 2 editor, Robert Sattelmeyer, describes as the “virtually immediate transformation of personal experience into literary vignette,” continues to feature in the post-Walden Journal throughout the period of Thoreau’s work on the book (Journal 2:455).

Revisiting the Making of Walden14

What then was the status of the Walden manuscript at this point? According to J. Lyndon Shanley, who identified and sequenced seven partial drafts written between 1846 and 1854, publishing a text of the first version in the late 1950s, Thoreau was indeed close to completing a publishable text of Walden in 1849. But he “never finished preparing [it] for publication at this time because A Week did not sell.” Because Shanley found only “a few scattered [Walden-related] items in the journals of 1850–51” and then an abundance of new draft material beginning in late January 1852, he concluded that while Thoreau may have “thought of Walden from time to time” after A Week appeared, “it is certain that he did not write any significant amount of new material in the manuscript until January or February of 1852,” when he became “engrossed in it once more” (Making 30–31).15 Accordingly, Walden is believed to have been composed in “two major bursts”—1846–49 (versions A–C) and 1852–54 (D–G)—with “the second half of the book . . . much more extensively developed in the later versions,” its dense environmental description and darkly introspective central chapter, “Higher Laws,” serving to balance as well as to mute the initial social critique in “Economy” (Buell, Environmental Imagination 126, Sattelmeyer, “Remaking” 60).16

As I have already suggested, the weak link in the conclusions Shanley and his heirs have drawn involves the role of the Journal in Walden’s composition.17 As chief inspector of Thoreau’s “masterpiece,” Shanley had a stake in countering the myth that the book was essentially a compilation of Journals kept at the Pond. His diligent archival work and analysis of Thoreau’s efforts to improve the style and structure of his book through a succession of stages demonstrated clearly, he argued, that instead of “the immediate, random, and intermittent notes of a journal,” Walden was the work of an artist, one who exercised great “care and skill in revising sentences and paragraphs,” and who, over the years, achieved “an artistically satisfying” and unified structure. Far more than a simple record, the book represented “a reflected-on and consciously shaped re-creation of his experience.” (Making 23, 34, 74).18

Important and authoritative as this study has been, it was considerably circumscribed in two respects, one material, the other theoretical. In the first place, Shanley’s ability to appreciate the role played by the Walden period Journal was limited by the truncated 1906 Houghton Mifflin edition available to him. Not only had the publisher omitted several passages from the Walden and later Journal notebooks that seemed to “duplicate” already published material, but the editors were also unaware of the existence of three notebooks Thoreau used from April 1846 to September 1850, a four-year period now filled by over two-hundred printed pages in the Princeton Edition.19 In addition to the deficiency of the record available to him, Shanley’s quasi-New Critical conception of the Journal as a diary, an artless transcript of the author’s experience, limited his ability to accurately gauge the status of the book Thoreau hoped to publish following A Week.

In reconstructing the first (A) version, for instance, Shanley noted a number of segments as “missing” from that version because they show up only in later drafts or, in some cases, not at all. While a few of these, such as the core sandbank passage and the Poet-Hermit colloquy that follows “Higher Laws” can now be found in one of the fragmentary, restored notebooks unknown to him, several do in fact exist in the 1906 Journal, often, as mentioned, quite close to their final published form.20 The simple explanation for why Shanley failed to note the obvious connection between such passages in the 1906 Journal and the Walden manuscript is that, focused primarily on cases where Thoreau “broke up” a Journal passage, “developed it, and finally ordered it,” he read them as mere raw material: spontaneous autobiographical observations not yet shaped by reflection and conscious literary design (Making 23). Yet, strikingly, a set of passages—the encounter with the Irishman John Field and his wife followed by the narrator’s famous woodchuck sighting and his confession of harboring two “instincts”—appears not only in essentially the same form as in the published text but in the same sequential order, thereby implicitly serving the same transitional and thematic function, moving the “plot” from “Baker Farm” to “Higher Laws” (August 23, 1845; 1906 Journal I:383–84; 1906 Journal I:384–85).21

Again, according to Shanley, Stephen Adams, and Donald Ross Jr., Thoreau began “to write out the first version late in 1846 or early in 1847,” by which time his draft contained material “that eventually wound up” in every chapter except “Conclusion,” and, “by and large, in [what would be] the final order” (Making 24; Adams and Ross 51).22 However, when we go on to correlate the revisions Thoreau began to make “in great detail” during summer 1848 to make the B/C draft with material that appears in Journal notebooks he filled after leaving the Pond but that for one reason or another was not included in the 1906 edition, it becomes clear that within just a few years Thoreau had made substantial progress in filling out that “final order.” In addition to the John Field-woodchuck-instincts sequence, drafted at the Pond, these include nearly verbatim iterations of the “John Farmer” meditation that concludes “Higher Laws,” the retrospective summary that would eventually appear in “Conclusion” (“I learned this by my experiments in the woods, of more value perhaps than all the rest . . .”), and material used in several of the later chapters, including “The Ponds,” “Brute Neighbors,” “Housewarming,” “Former Inhabitants,” and “Winter Animals”—all before December 1850 (Walden, 221–22, 323–24).23

According to Ronald Earl Clapper, like the sandbank passage, with the exception of two passages added to version D, none of this material appears in the manuscript before E.24 In this respect, then, the spring 1848 sand foliage draft and its revisions, which do not appear in the Huntington manuscript until versions F and G (early 1854), typify the problematic discrepancy between the evidence of Thoreau’s work on Walden in the Journal, and the representation of that work in Shanley’s arrangement of partial drafts and Clapper’s genetic text. On the one hand, like the majority of passages in Walden that were drafted in the Journal, the sand foliage draft, which dramatically expands Thoreau’s brief description of the phenomenon in version A, exhibits the same “worked up” character described by Sattelmeyer (Journal 2:455). On the other hand, the authority of Shanley’s taxonomy and the genetic text created from it led Richardson, for instance, to interpret “the dramatic expansion of the description of the clay bank” as evidence that only in late 1853, after its long “incubation,” was Thoreau’s book “finally reaching maturity” (Richardson, Henry Thoreau 311, 312).25

We can get help resolving this dilemma by consulting the indexes Thoreau prepared for his Journal notebooks, which are printed as appendices in the Princeton Edition. Indexing in some form seems always to have been an integral part of keeping a journal for him. But because, in the period between 1850 and 1854, the indexes were compiled in real time—as he filled each volume rather than after he had completed it—they yield considerable insight into how and when he used the Journal in composing draft for Walden.26 So meticulously did he track Journal contents during the second phase of the book’s composition, for example, that the index for a single large notebook takes up twenty-six pages (Journal 8:317–42). By contrast, for the Walden period and the immediately post-Walden years, when he used the Journal primarily as a draft book, the indexes are comparatively sparse. This makes sense considering how fervidly Thoreau worked at this time, literally consuming notebook pages in the heat of book and essay composition.27 For why bother to index what has already been transferred, whether physically removed or recopied, to a draft-in-progress? Yet this is what we also find in the early 1850s regarding material obviously written with Walden in mind. When working on “The Ponds” and the loon chase in “Brute Neighbors” in fall 1852, for example, of over thirty passages he drafted in the Journal between late August and early December, only one appears in Thoreau’s index.28 Thus, even as the Journal had become its own project dedicated to inscribing Thoreau’s regular local excursions, he continued to use it as a draft book, albeit differently. Now, in order to preserve his Journal volumes intact, he either copied draft onto separate pieces of paper or entered it directly onto the Walden manuscript; both practices are evident in the Huntington papers.29 Consequently, the very absence of such passages from the indexes—their conspicuous omission from his real-time practice when every other item on the pages where they occur is included—provides a kind of image in relief of Thoreau’s work on his book.

Index pages from Thoreau's Journal
Final page of Thoreau’s index for his MS Volume 17 (MA 1302.23), which contains entries dated February 13 through September 3, 1854. Photo credit: Loriane DiSabato via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 From the Morgan Library’s traveling exhibition This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal, as exhibited at the Concord Library and Museum, 2017–2018.

Equally significant is a pattern that can be detected in Walden-related draft that is indexed, which tends to be material that winds up in later chapters. Like his use of the Journal to “utter” his Walden experience while living it, this is a practice that began at the Pond. There, in the first index he made, Thoreau grouped entries from three notebooks he had finished filling in February and late March 1846 under such headings as “beans,” “John Field,” “savage life,” and “Spring.” Then, by numbering each item to indicate its order, he effectively created an outline with the index of the second half of the book (Journal 2:388). As Shanley notes, “neither the original order of the list nor the numbered order [of items in it] corresponds exactly to the order of the material” in version A (Making 100). Yet, besides confirming Thoreau’s conception of a book thus early, the outline nonetheless delineates an ordered sequence that (with the exception of various bird and animal life sketches he would later distribute among “Brute Neighbors,” “Winter Animals,” and “Housewarming”) remained essentially unchanged through publication eight years later. Not only is the seasonal structure clearly present, but so is the placement of particular episodes and segments, such as the encounter with John Field, moral qualms about fishing (“savage life”), and the pond survey.30 And Thoreau continued this practice, using his indexes to keep track of material to be incorporated later, for the duration of his work on Walden. It can be seen, for instance, in what he labeled “old inhabitants” in the first index, made at the Pond, and “Sand foliage,” the heading he used in those of the early 1850s (Journal 2:388; Journal 4:506, 508).31 Yet no sign of the passages to which either of these headings refers appears in the Huntington manuscript until the E and F versions, respectively.

All in all, taking into account the mediating role Thoreau’s Journal played in the composition of Walden complements the taxonomy of discrete stages established by Shanley and Clapper, depicting a more fluid, dynamic, and above all continuous process. Certainly the burst of drafting that appears in the January and February 1852 Journal, which Shanley used to date version D, is striking and just as certainly indicates a renewed push on Thoreau’s part to complete his book. But when we observe portions of well over sixty Walden paragraphs drafted in the Journal during the supposed two-year hiatus, together with the pattern of indexing I have described, Shanley’s confident assertion, long accepted by scholars, that Thoreau “did not write any significant amount of new material in the manuscript” between the commercial failure of A Week and early 1852 simply does not hold up (Making 31). To be sure, it makes for a dramatic story to imagine that one day in November 1851 Thoreau pulled down “the old manuscript he had put away two years before. . . . shook off the dust, and set to work.” But the evidence of his persistent labor over the long haul—subject, of course, to creative ebb and flow and worldly interruptions—reduces the likelihood that there was ever such a single day, or any dust (Walls, Henry David Thoreau 312).32

Making Walden, it appears, was less like incubating an egg, in Richardson’s metaphor, than constructing a house, except that of course Thoreau had to make, find, and borrow all the materials himself. Once founded, framed, raised, roofed and roughed-in, some few rooms, such as “Reading” and “The Bean-Field” were finished quickly; others, like “Sounds,” “Solitude,” “Baker Farm,” and “Economy” finished mostly (though Thoreau never ceased making small additions to the latter); while the initial designs of others were altered later in the process the better to fit the builder (“Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” “The Village,” “Higher Laws”). Along the way, starting in spring 1848, Thoreau began to install a fireplace whose mantle would be the earth itself.

Into the Weeds

This brings us back to the sand foliage draft, which we can now examine in greater detail. Wary readers will want to lace up their boots at this point, however, because the weeds grow thick and close in this here part. Indeed, if we include an unpublished leaf with which those from Thoreau’s 1848 Journal are grouped in Huntington MS 924, we are faced with at least four levels of text and revision to pick through (see below for a transcription). Fortunately, because the Princeton Edition has been edited to reproduce the “current” text, that is, as Thoreau wrote the Journal from day to day rather than as he later revised it, the original level of composition is clearly identified. But since our interest lies not only in the Journal as an autonomous work but also as a node in the growth of another project, we must first parse and try to date the levels of revision that went into building Walden’s sandbank.

The five-page document is fascinatingly complex. At first glance its pages appear a welter of script written in two different hands and two shades of brown ink, one grayish, the other dark reddish. In the left-hand margin of the first four pages, next to segments of text that have been separated by horizontal lines, Thoreau has written numbers, non-sequentially, in both pencil and ink. Where, finally, his description of the thawing process continues from the bottom of the fourth page onto the fifth, the sentences have been squeezed between the lines of an entirely unrelated, preexisting text, lacking any other space in which to write.33 In all, and together with the unpublished leaf to be described shortly, these pages comprise all-but-identical iterations of the first three paragraphs of Walden’s famous passage as well as the lead sentence of the fourth.34

As in the published text, this draft begins with what Robert Thorson identifies as a precise rheological description of the thaw and flowing process, including the sand-clay mixture and materials, its colors, fluid mechanics, and diurnal expansion and contraction in accordance with fluctuations in the intensity of heat and light.35 As in the published text, the scope of Thoreau’s description then widens to encompass analogous forms that the mixture appears to assume (“the forms of vines . . . the feet & claws of animals . . . of the human brain or lungs or bowels & excrement of all kinds”), before arriving at its inductivist conclusion: “Thus it seemed as if this one hill side contained an epitome of all the operations in nature.”

For the most part, although a few new observations have been added, Thoreau’s revisions of the 1848 Journal draft primarily refine and contextualize that original draft. He comments, for instance, on the rarity of the sand foliage phenomenon “before railroads were built,” notes how the emerging forms resemble “excrement [in the now obsolete sense of any type of outgrowth] of all kinds,” and imagines that the process is “destined perchance to be the subject of admiration to future geologists” (Journal 2:577–78). But this is not to imply that the revisions are merely literary. The concrete specificity of the new observations—one in particular, to be discussed below—indicates that Thoreau must have reexamined the phenomenon on-site, whether in the same season or another is impossible to determine from the document alone. The signal difference between the two stages of composition, however, is that in the first Thoreau’s observations and reflections stand alone, as yet unconnected and unordered, as if the important thing was to get them down fresh. The marginal numbering in pencil of these standalone segments clearly occurred sometime afterward.36

The core sandbank passage

Leaves from Volume 6 of HM 924 and one leaf from Volume 8 (Additional Material)

Although included in Vol. 6 of HM 924, which for the most part gathers leaves from the F version of the manuscript, four of the images below (1008–1011) belong to a now-fragmentary MS Journal volume that Thoreau filled from winter 1846–47 through spring 1848. Thus, the leaves contain material that was probably first written in spring 1848, combined, as described in this essay, with some later revisions. (See Journal 2 in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau pp. 462–65.) The first image (1299) is from Vol. 8.

The transcriptions below are intended to model Thoreau’s revisions, not to reproduce the appearance of the manuscript surface. For example, they do not capture line endings or different types of marks on the page. While mostly faithful to the Princeton Journal text (Journal 2:382–84, 587–89), they present a different reading of Thoreau’s section “12” on page 3 below.

As explained on Digital Thoreau’s manuscript search tool page under “Accessing and identifying images,” users may find the image numbers in HM 924 URLs and metadata to be more reliable than volume/page numbers for referencing images in the collection. Both references are given below each image. The manuscript search tool explains how to use image numbers to locate images on the Huntington website. In addition, the embedded image viewers below are zoomable and scrollable and can be set to full-screen in the browser. Each also provides a link to download the image. (Be aware that these are large files and can take some time to download.)

initial inditing: black
canceled initially: black line-through
inserted later in ink: green
canceled later in ink: green line-through
inserted later in pencil: orange
canceled later in pencil: orange line-through
overwritten: beneath above
uncertain or indecipherable: {braces}

Image 1299 (Vol 8, p. 33)

Bottom quarter of page

2 This phenomenon must have been rarely observed before railroads were builts since it is not often even now that you meet with a freshly exposed bank of the right materials

1 Few phenomena give me more delight than to observe the forms which thaug thawing clay and sand assume in the spring of the year on flowing down on the sides of a deep cut on the rail road through which I walk pass on my way to the village

4 5 The clay especially as it contains more most moisture & so is more most solidly frozen & is longer longest thawing assumes an infinite variety of forms—

Image 1008 (Vol 6, p. 1), recto

3 4 There lie the sand and clay all winter on this shelving surface an inert mass but when the spring sun comes to thaw the ice which binds them they begin to flow down the bank slope a distance of which is 40 or 50 feet high like lava—

6 These little streams & ripples of like lava like clay over flow & interlace interweave one with another like vines—forming producing a sort of Hybrid product—obeying half way the law of currents & half way the law of vegetation. as it were some a mythological vegetation—or like the forms which I (seem to) have seen imitated in bronze—clusters of graceful sprays overlying each other a foot or more in depth

10 What affects me is the presence of the law I am affected as it were by the presentness of the eternal law—between the that inert mass and the this luxuriant vegetation what interval is there? but God Here is an artist at workthat God who is reputed to have built this world 6000 years ago still at his work.—freshly this spring day sporting on this bank—and contriving new designs as it were not at work but-a-playing designing—

7 8 It no sooner begins to flow than it & immediately it takes the forms of vines—or of the feet & claws of animals—or of the human brain or lungs or bowels & excrement of all kinds—clusters of graceful sprays sometimes overlying each other a foot or more in depth destined perchance to be the subject of admiration to future geologists.

7 Now it the material is bluish clay now clay mixed with reddish sand—now pure iron colored sand—and sand and clay of every degree of fineness and every shade of color—

9 9′ The whole bank for a quarter of a mile is {some} {on} on both sides of this cut is sometimes over-laid with a mass of plump & sappy verdure foliage of this kind—the produce of one spring day I am startled probably because it grows so fast—it is produced in one spring day. It would not be so remarkable if it did not spring into existence thus suddenly & as it were by magic—while to the eye it has all the perfectness which belongs to the slowly of formed works of nature & art.

13 Each The rounded lobe lobe of these earth leaves—perchance of all leaves—is a thick—now loitering drop like the ball of the finger larger or smaller

Image 1009 (Vol 6, p. 2), verso

2 14″ so perchance the ball of the human finger is a drop congealed and the fingers & toes flow to their extent frm the thawing mass of the body—& then are congealed for a night.— The ball of the finger is a drop congealed. Whither may the sun of a new spring lead them on—These roots of ours—who knows what the human body would expand and flow out to under a more genial sky?

1 14′ As In the mornings as the sun’s rays fall on them these resting streams start again and branch & branch again into a myriad others— Here it is coarse red sand & even pebbles—there fine cla— adhesive clay

9 —And where the flowing mass reaches the drain at the foot of the bank on either side it spreads out flatter in to sands like those formed at the mouths of rivers—the separate streams losing their semicilindrical form—and gradually growing more and more flat—and running together as it is more moist till they form an almost flat sand—variously & beautifully shaded—& in which you can still trace the original forms of vegetation till at length in the water itself they become the mere ripple marks on the bottome

14 The lobes are the fingers of the leaf as many lobes as it has, in so many directions it inclines to flow—mor genial heat or other influences in its springs might have caused it flow farther.

17So Thus it seemed as if this one hill side contained an epitome of all the operations in nature.

Image 1010 (Vol 6, p. 3), verso

11 16 so too we may ask the stream is but a leaf What is the river with all its branches—but a leaf divested of its pulp— —unless but its pulp is intervening earth—forests & fields & town & cities— What is the river but a tree an oak or pine—& its leaves perchance are ponds & lakes & meadows innumerable as as the springs which feed it.

11 I perceive that there is the same power that made me my brain my lungs my bowels my fingers & toes working in other clay this very day— I am in the study studio of an artist. who is even now at work—or rather at play—forming fresh designs.

3 This cut is about a quarter of a mile long—running north & south & 30 or 40 feet deep—and in several places clay occurs commencing about about which rises to within a dozen feet below of the original surface.— of the Where there is sand only the slope is greater & more uniform—but the clay being more adhesive inclines now to stands out longer from the sand as in boulders threatening masses—which are continually washing & coming down.

15 The material Flowing downward it of course runs together and forms masses and conglomerations but if flowed upward it as it does in trees it would dispersed itself more finely—& grow more freely—& unimpeded open & airy.

12 clusters of graceful sprays overlying each other

But there lies the blood vessel forming & the lungs a little silvery stream glancing like lightning, and swallowed up in the sands— It seemed so artful

Here you may see how blood vessels are formed—first there pushes forward from

[Note: On the manuscript surface, the sentence portion beginning Here you may see . . . is interlineated between clusters of graceful sprays . . . and But there lies . . .]

Image 1011 (Vol 6, p. 4), verso. Text is interlined among “Ktaadn” draft.

the thawing mass a streamed of softened clay or sand with a drop-like point like the lobe of a finger feeling its way—till with more heat and the moisture the water which is the blood in this finger and is in most haste—rushing from above separates itself from the solid parts and forms for itself a channel or artery within—and as the sun dries the uper side it falls in & reveals a little silvery stream glancing like lightning and anon swallowed up in the sand—coursing through this whole system of

So are rivers but arteries whose uper halfs halves have fallen in and they are left open ditches channels

Those parts which are most inclined to flow—whose particles perchance are the roundest in their efforts to obey the law to which the most solid and inert also yield—form for themselves channels through the latter.

What is man but a mass of thawing—dissolving clay? In the siliceious matter which is deposited you see the boney system & in the still finer sand & earth mould the flesh.

Perhaps to some readers little in this scene of writing will seem very complicated or unusual after all. Since the passage does not appear in the Huntington manuscript until versions F and G (late 1853/early 1854), why not simply conclude that the pencil ordering of segments marks the moment when, late in the book’s composition, Thoreau returned to his spring 1848 impressions to work them up? This would align the extensive revisions, made in darker ink and smaller, neater hand, with work on the F version, just as Clapper’s genetic text indicates. But this conclusion is not supported by closer analysis of the document. Indeed, when considered along with other features, Thoreau’s pencil ordering suggests that the initial inditing and subsequent revision unfolded in a relatively short period of time. For one thing, it is clear from the manuscript that he drew the horizontal section lines between observations not after he had drafted them but in the same window of time, as he was getting them down. Had he drawn the lines afterward, in other words—if, for instance, the sections had been marked off in pencil or in darker ink or had clearly been written over the current text—the document would more readily reflect a later date for revision, whereas marking sections off in the act of first drafting already presupposes an intent to reorder them. Secondly, and surprisingly, the majority of patently later ink revisions turn out to predate Thoreau’s pencil ordering of segments. The order, therefore, appears to have been: initial draft marked off in segments, followed by ink revisions, then pencil ordering of segments. Again, as sectioning in the act of drafting implies an intention to order the sections, so assigning numbers to them implies an intention to revise further, or, at the very least, to recopy the draft in that assigned order.

This, in fact, is what Thoreau did on the single leaf that follows two of those torn from the 1848 Journal in the Huntington materials arranged by Shanley. As he typically did when transferring Walden-related draft from the Journal to the book manuscript-in-progress, or from one version (e.g., C) to another (e.g., E), in this next stage of constructing the famous passage Thoreau began by copying the source text verbatim, following the designated penciled order, while occasionally altering a word or phrase (and, in one case, reordering the segments) as he went. That this reordering, as well as the leaf as a whole, is written in the same darker ink and neat hand with which the Journal draft revisions were made not only confirms their relationship. It suggests further that he worked on both simultaneously as well as sequentially. When he eventually returned to build the passage out further in version F, he began as before by copying verbatim this most recently revised text.

A pre-F leaf from Vol. 6

This transcription presents the hitherto unpublished text of what appears to be the next surviving stage of Thoreau’s work on the sandbank passage, a further revision of the second half of the draft transcribed above, or sections “12–17” as Thoreau numbered them. Rather unusually, Thoreau’s text begins on the verso rather than recto side. Besides suggesting the possibility of another leaf of revision that has not surfaced and that this one continues, the verso beginning has affected the order in which these pages appear in the digitized manuscript. Accordingly, the present transcription reverses this order to reflect the fact that Thoreau’s text begins at the top of Vol. 6, p. 6 (“Here you may see how blood vessels are formed”) continuing onto Volume 6, p. 5 (“as many lobes as it has”). Prepared with the assistance of Elizabeth Witherell, Editor-in-Chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (Princeton University Press).

initial inditing: black
canceled initially: black line-through
inserted later in ink: green
canceled later in ink: green line-through
inserted later in pencil: orange
canceled later in pencil: orange line-through
overwritten: beneath above
uncertain or indecipherable: {braces}

Image 1013 (Vol 6, p. 6), verso

Here you may see how blood vessels are formed. If you look closely you will see observe that first there pushes forward from the thawing mass a stream of softened clay or sand with a droplike point like the ball of a finger—feeling its way slowly and blindly downward—until at last with more heat and moisture the water which is the blood in this member or in other words those parts which are most inclined to flow—whose particles perchance are the roundest in their efforts to obey the law to which the most solid and inert also yield separates its self themselves from the solid parts and forms for itself separate from the latter & & form for themselves a channel or artery within it the {illegible} them— But as the sun dries the upper surface of this artery it falls in here and there and reveals here & there a little silvery stream glancing like lightning from mass to mass—& ever and anon swallowed up in the sand.— From this analogy we might infer that river So perhaps we might say perchance that open river channels are the remains of hollow arteries cylinders whose upper halves have fallen in on being exposed to the sun.— for what are these veins but rivulets—the true real actual sources of all rivers—and when the sun in the winter season when the sun shines obliquely & nature to some extent retakes recalls all her progeny into her womb—is not the mightiest river bridged over as at first and flowing concealed as in an artery under the surface.

In the silicious matter which is the water deposited deposits you may see also the lung system & in the still finer sand or earth—the fleshy fibre & cellular tissue.

What then is a man but a mass of thawing clay?

Each rounded lobe of these earth-leaves perchance of all leaves, is a thick & (now) loitering drop, larger or smaller.— The

The lobes are in fact the fingers of the leaf.

Image 1012 (Vol 6, p. 5), recto

as many lobes as it has, in so many directions it inclines to flow—more genial heat or other influence in its spring (might) would have caused it to flow yet further.

2 The material flowing downward, it of course runs together and forms masses and conglomerations, but if it flowed upward as in trees, it would disperse itself more finely, & grow more freely and unimpeded open and airy.

1 In the morning these resting streams will start again and branch and branch again into a myriad others. So perchance the ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed the The fingers and toes flow to their extent from the thawing mass of the body, and then are congealed for a night. How short & feeble are our roots, how uncongenial is our sky? Man extends his arms & legs in vain. Who knows what the human body would expand and flow out to under a more genial heaven.

So we may ask—what is a river, too, with all its branches but a leaf divested of its pulp, unless its pulp is intervening earth, forests and fields and towns and cities—what is the river but a tree an oak or pine. and its leaves perchance are ponds and lakes and meadows innumerable as the springs which feed it.

Thus it seemed as if this one hill side contained an epitome of all the operations in of nature. Show me how to make a leaf and I will make you a world—and beings like you to inhabit it. {illegible letters}

Added in right margin, written from bottom of page up
(Use the viewer’s icon to rotate the image.)

In the spring of the year Nature is lusty & full of sap & from excess of energy squanders scatters leaves of clay & sand— But Why these forms Madam—why these particular forms? Hast thou {taken} learned but one lesson—thyself or is thy pupil not ready for another? What Champollion shall decypher this hyeroglyphic for us that we may turn over a new leaf at last.

Two F pages from Vol. 6

Pages in Vol. 6 are those that Shanley judged to belong to the F version. As seen above, some of the sand foliage pages in Vol. 6 are in fact from Thoreau’s Journal and pre-date F. Comparing the images of Journal draft and the pre-F leaf, above, with those from F, below, shows how, when Thoreau returned to the sand foliage passage at this time, he followed the same practice illustrated in the earlier phases: copying his most recently drafted text verbatim before revising further.

Image 1217 (Vol 6, p. 210)

Image 1218 (Vol 6, p. 211)

Dating the Core

So, if not in version F, when did Thoreau make the sequence of revisions that established the sandbank core? We can begin to answer this question by noting that the appearance of sandbank draft in the Journal evidently coincides with his decision to try to publish Walden.37 When we include the existence of the second-half outline in the Walden notebook index, described above, and consider the abundance of Walden-related draft in the Journal through mid-1850 as well as evidence from the indexes that he deliberately stored material for later insertion, it becomes clear that by the winter of 1849/1850 his book was more complete than we have realized. If we factor in the presence of the core sandbank passage, then the entire narrative arc of Walden, with its climactic epiphany, would have been in place. Having negotiated a deal with Emerson’s publisher, James Munroe, in February 1849 to publish both books and being obliged to pay the printing expenses of A Week out of sales, Thoreau would have been on the hook to finish the second book sooner rather than later. It’s hard to imagine that the experience of seeing a forthcoming Walden advertised in the page proofs of A Week he was correcting in March and April of that year would not have been mingled with some anxiety as well as excitement.38 And, indeed, he was already building interest in the second book, having chosen to deliver all nine of the 1848–49 season’s lectures from the Walden manuscript, despite having plenty of other material available.39 This push might explain the apparent rapidity with which the 1848 draft was revised.

Title page for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
Publisher’s proof for the title page of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, with markings in Thoreau’s hand. Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens call number 110229. Photo credit: William Rossi.
Publisher's advertisement for soon-to-be-published Walden
Advertisement for Walden in the publisher’s proof for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. In the event, Walden would be published by Ticknor and Fields, not Munroe. Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens call number 110229. Photo credit: William Rossi.

We can approach the question from another angle by viewing Thoreau’s work on the core in the context of the passage’s construction as a whole. Like many other parts of Walden, the four-paragraph sandbank passage grew by accretion rather than having been successively rewritten in toto or holistically revised over time. Typically, with much of the book, once the structure of a chapter, section, or paragraph had been established, Thoreau expanded it by inserting new material, whether social critique, anecdote, natural history description, quotations, or transcendental reflection. This practice is what gives so many of Walden’s paragraphs the dense, sometimes bizarrely digressive, fragmented, and polysemous character that continues to delight many readers and exasperate many others.

Viewed from the standpoint of its overall composition, the development of the sand foliage passage epitomizes this process. As we have seen, in the core the passage begins to assume what will be its final form in diction, syntax, and structure. Thereafter Thoreau added a few new descriptive details as he continued to observe the phenomenon annually, when possible, inspecting anew and more closely its physical features and micro-processes.40 But apart from the basic “foliage” analogy and the sense of standing in the presence of the “Artist who made the world and me,” most of its lyrical generalizations—the elaborate analogies of “leaf” and “lobe” forms, rapid shifts of perspective from the granular to planetary, and the final rhapsodic peroration to vital force and plasticity—were developed after the core. Like the initial 1848 draft, much of this later material was composed in the Journal, and all of it after December 1851.41

Given his customarily accretive process of composition, then, we can conclude that the revisions that completed the core must date from no later than December 1851, when the earliest of those later additions was drafted in the Journal. Since, like all other Journal draft related to the sandbank phenomenon (with one exception), those revisions were based on observations made on-site and in season, as their concrete specificity attests, Thoreau must therefore have returned to revise the original spring 1848 account when the foliage flowed again either the following year, or, at the latest, two years after, in late winter/early spring 1850.42

“Glancing Like Lightning”

So much for the what, when, and how of the sandbank core in relation to the Journal and the status of Walden. How does this assessment affect our understanding of Thoreau’s pivot and his “science?” Besides marking the turn considerably earlier, the story of the sandbank draft confirms a metaphorical pivot in the true sense—a turn that carries an object in a continuous action, as in basketball—rather than a stark change of direction.43 On the one hand, that is, Thoreau’s literary representation of the event as a revelation of formative forces shaping both his own creative life and that of the planet aligns with his earlier expressed desire simultaneously to live and to write the “poem” he would utter. On the other, his use of the Journal as both a draft book and an instrument of empirical inquiry anticipates the integral role it will play in the empiricist immersion that has so far defined his engagement with science.

Yet the core sandbank drafting also makes clear that, from the start, Thoreau’s interest in science went far beyond natural history, at least as that discipline came to be narrowly defined by Thomas Henry Huxley and other promoters later in the century.44 In A Week he argues that, instead of trusting to blind fact collection, what is needed in science, is to make more “systematic approaches” to the significant or “central fact,” thereby combining “constant and accurate observation with enough of theory to direct and discipline it” (363–64). Appropriately enough, the particular “theory” of “development” (or evolution) that concerned him at the time, one that patently informs his account of the sand foliage, as other critics have noted, was also known as the “theory of creation.”45 Although the question of the origin of life, or abiogenesis, is now a study distinct from that of evolution per se, even Darwin could not entirely separate the origin of species and speciation from that of life itself, as his antagonists saw clearly. In the evolutionary debate that preceded the publication of On the Origin of Species, triggered by the appearance of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation shortly before Thoreau moved to Walden, these two issues were inextricably connected. Consequently the very existence of evidence that might support a theory of natural origins, whether in the deep past or the present, was a primary bone of contention.46 Indeed, responding to his scientific critics, Robert Chambers, the anonymous author of Vestiges, speculated that one reason that “no such phenomena as the starting of new life or passage from one form to another has ever been witnessed” by English naturalists was that they did not look for it. It was not a significant “fact” to them, as Thoreau might say; lacking the “idea,” they were not “prepared” to see it, as he put it later (“Autumnal Tints” 256–59). Likewise with regard to transmutation, given the current “strong prepossession” in favor of species immutability, Chambers argued, perhaps even if such a phenomenon were observed it would be “explained away on some other supposition, or, if presented, would be disbelieved and neglected” altogether by naturalists ([Chambers], Vestiges lii).47

The full story of Thoreau’s engagement in the Vestiges controversy lies far beyond the scope of this essay.48 But, in keeping with our hyper-focus on the sandbank core, we can briefly take the measure of his engagement by examining a little-noticed detail integral to the passage’s comprehensively organic vision. It’s a strange detail, involving the formation of blood vessels which the narrator claims to “see” in the flowing sandy mixture, an observation easily written off as transcendental fantasy or the product of analogical imagination run amok. Yet, in addition to beautifully exemplifying Thoreau’s “extraordinary gift for microcosm,” the analogy directly underpins the ontologically radical assertion to which it leads, that “man” is “but a mass of thawing clay” (Buell, Literary Transcendentalism 188). Once copied into the manuscript and revised only slightly thereafter, this extraordinary description would remain essentially unchanged through the completion of Walden:

Here you may see how blood vessels are formed—first there pushes forward from the thawing mass a stream of softened clay or sand with a drop-like point like the lobe of a finger feeling its way—till with more heat and the moisture[,] the water which is the blood in this finger and is in most haste—rushing from above separates itself from the solid parts and forms for itself a channel or artery within—and as the sun dries the uper side[,] it falls in & reveals a little silvery stream glancing like lightning and anon swallowed up in the sand—coursing through this whole system. . . . What is man but a mass of thawing—dissolving clay? In the silicious matter which is deposited you see the boney system & in the still finer sand & mould the flesh.

This scene, which will form the bulk of the sandbank passage’s third paragraph, represents a doubly dramatic revision: both an addition to the observations Thoreau initially made in his 1848 Journal draft and a new and deeper vision of the phenomenon itself, now observed as the mixture begins to flow again the following morning. As such, it enacts a shift in narratorial perception as well—moving, that is, from a physical-analogical description of the flowing forms in the first paragraph, to the realization in the second that “the same power that made me my brain my lungs my bowels my fingers & toes [is here] working in other clay this very day,” to a renewed and even closer scrutiny of that creative process. Now the phenomenon is seen not, on reflection, as an analogy or resemblance but directly as the actual formation of blood vessel and tissue, with the formative nisus of skeletal system and flesh materializing in the deposition of “silicious matter.” This, in turn, generates a second inductive leap, parallel to the first (but far more heterodox in Thoreau’s day) that “man [is] but a mass of thawing[,] dissolving clay.”49

The relevant context for this strange sighting involves the notorious experiments of Andrew Crosse, which Chambers had cited as possible evidence of the evolution of life from inorganic matter, or abiogenesis. Examining the effects of electricity in the formation of crystalline deposits, working privately in his laboratory in Somerset in 1836, Crosse set out with the aim of forming crystals from silica. Three weeks after having electrified a solution of potassium silicate and hydrochloric acid, he witnessed the appearance of small mites, later christened Acarus Crossii. While it turned out that Crosse had not taken enough precautions to prevent atmospheric contamination to satisfy his critics, in the early 1840s William Henry Weekes, a well-known surgeon, lecturer in natural philosophy, and more rigorous experimentalist, was able to replicate Crosse’s results, detailed accounts of which Chambers appended to Explanations, his book-length response to critics.50 Not long thereafter, by following Weekes’ protocol, Crosse also successfully reproduced his original results, detailing his procedures in a letter to Harriet Martineau, who subsequently wrote to inquire about his notorious experiment.

Extreme responses to Chambers’s claims and the Crosse-Weekes experiments could have been predicted. On the Christian conservative side, Francis Bowen and American geologist Edward Hitchcock protested that the alleged materialism of the anonymous author’s conception of “creation by law,” “by virtue of the inherent qualities of inorganic matter,” would have dire consequences for “practical religion” ([Bowen], 437; Hitchcock, 296). Similarly, in a review that was bound with many American editions of Vestiges, David Brewster, physicist and author of a biography of Newton that Thoreau owned, objected that such a view reduced “the Divinity” from a “tender parent” and benevolent Creator to “little more than an electric spark”(472).51 On the other end of the spectrum, in their Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development, free thinkers Henry George Atkinson and Harriet Martineau celebrated Crosse for having performed the “noblest experiments of the age,” reprinting his lengthy response to Martineau in their book, along with a corroborative statement by Weekes (181, 361–67).52

Thoreau’s spirited defense of Letters, “Miss Martineau’s last book,” in his Journal is one of several indications that he maintained an avid concern with the issue (September 7, 1851; Journal 4:51).53 Yet the sandbank draft suggests that it would be a mistake to conclude that this interest was driven by a desire to “remov[e] the finger of God from the origin of organic beings” or to prove “that religion [is] a fable,” as James Secord describes the motivation behind Atkinson’s and Martineau’s endorsement (“Extraordinary Experiment” 373). Instead, approached in this context, Thoreau’s naturalization serves rather to enhance than to evacuate the mystery of “creation.” True, Thoreau’s ambiguous redeployment of the divine creation trope, with its “drop-like point like the lobe of a finger feeling its way” down the bank, animated by “a little silvery stream glancing like lightning,” represents no “tender parent,” just as Brewster feared. Yet neither does Thoreau reduce creative agency to an “electric spark,” the very ambiguity rendering this power at once wholly material and wholly divine.

Thoreau’s engagement in this public debate returns us to one final question raised earlier concerning his use of the Journal in collaboration with Walden. If, as I have argued, Thoreau’s Journal practice of writing life was coeval with the Walden project, it makes sense that it would soon come to reflect, even as it enabled, the broader and deeper conception of “life”—his own and nature’s—so minutely detailed in Walden and explored in the later Journal. That it did so in the context of a debate in which “life” and “science” were contested terms reminds us that the Journal is not only a private document but also, in ways we have only begun to appreciate, a social one. In retrospect, the rhetorical character of any number of passages, like the thawing sandbank, composed with Walden aforethought, is obvious. But likewise and more specifically (if less obvious) with science: Thoreau’s reading, the contemporary theory-laden dimension of many natural history observations, and the currency of his figures and allusions all make it clear that the wide audience for this controversy, particularly the progressive and science-literate general readers among them, formed a good part of the readership to which he wrote. Thus to imagine Thoreau as talking only and always to himself in the Journal is only to fall back on the lonely genius narrative. In doing so we are also squeezing him into a jacket of variously alienated modernist consciousness that, while stylish enough, seldom fits him. However much he professed to complain from within “the angle of a leaden wall” about “the noise of my contemporaries,” from the Journal as from Walden and other works we know he was listening carefully, and that he never ceased to keep up his part in the dialogue (Walden 329).


  1. Materialism and ineffability: Finley, “Matter and Objects”; Rochelle L. Johnson; Kelly; Arsić; Sexton. Kalendar: Case, “Knowing as Neighboring”; Dimick. Geology: Gazaille; Thorson, Walden’s Shore. “The Wild”: Willsky-Ciollo. Animal relations: Matheson; Neely. Grief and loss: Arsić; Raden. Embodiment, ecology and race: Ellis, 61–95.↩︎
  2. The commercial failure of A Week was “the most consequential event in Thoreau’s life as a writer,” so cataclysmic that he had no “choice [but] to start over” and completely “reinvent himself” (Walls, Henry David Thoreau 268, 272, 273).↩︎
  3. See Robinson 74–83, 127–30, 143–47, 155–61, and 178–85 for a compelling analysis of this primary concept.↩︎
  4. For the argument that Thoreau adopted Humboldt’s methodology at this time, see Walls, Seeing New Worlds 94–130; this is “the method” that “by November 1850, he had caught hold of” (Walls, Henry David Thoreau 289). Thorson identifies Thoreau’s “conversion to science” as beginning with reading the geological uniformitarianism exhibited in Darwin’s Journal of Researches in 1851 (Walden’s Shore 121–23; see also Thorson, “Physical Science”). For an overview of the gradual critical recognition of Thoreau’s scientific practice, see Sattelmeyer, “Evolutions.”↩︎
  5. Whether the emergent creature was truly ecological in his thinking (Walls, Seeing New Worlds), still partially stuck to the cocoon (Buell, Environmental Imagination), or only a freak of nature (Schulz) is still debated.↩︎
  6. On Thoreau’s early and continuous interest in science, see Richardson, “Thoreau and Science,” and Walls, Seeing New Worlds; Rossi, “Poetry and Progress,” treats Thoreau’s appropriation of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830–33). On Thoreau’s empiricism as registered in the post-1850s Journal and revisions to Walden, see Sattelmeyer, “Remaking” and Buell, Environmental Imagination 116–26.↩︎
  7. Spring 1848; Journal 2:382–84, 576–79. A partial image of Thoreau’s draft and revision is reproduced as the fourth illustration following p. 454. ↩︎
  8. Pre-1985 commentary on this passage is helpfully summarized in Boudreau 117–34. More recent discussions include: Sattelmeyer, “Remaking” 73–74; Milder 151–60; Buell, Environmental Imagination 133–34, 420–22; West 445–79; Tauber 86–87, 153–55; Gatta 133–42; Thorson, Walden’s Shore 278–88; Harvey and Johnson; and Peyser.↩︎
  9. “The man of most science is the man most alive—whose life is the greatest event—senses that take cognizance of outward things merely are of no avail. . . . If it is possible to conceive of an event outside to humanity—it is not of the slightest significance—though it were the explosion of a planet— Every important worker will report what life there is in him—” (May 6th, 1854; Journal 8:98).↩︎
  10. For Thoreau’s effort to make the later Journal into what in A Week he calls “a true account of the actual” as “the rarest poetry” (325), see Jonik.↩︎
  11. In addition to Davis, milestones in the development of this argument include Milder; Howarth; Cameron; Peck; Walls, “Romancing”; Jonik; Case, “Thoreau’s Radical Empiricism”; and Specq, “Poetics.”↩︎
  12. The “content of the document [i.e., the Journal] is a private relation . . . Thoreau’s relation to nature”; thus the “imperative that permits discourse in the Journal [is] indifference to a reader, the absence of a reader” (104, 102). Otterberg likewise questions Cameron’s claim regarding the “apparent formlessness” of the later Journal (131).↩︎
  13. According to Linck Johnson, Thoreau probably finished the first draft “sometime in the fall of 1845” (Complex Weave 270).↩︎
  14. For the sake of clarity, in the discussion that follows versions refers to one of the seven partial drafts identified by J. Lyndon Shanley, compiled into a genetic text by Ronald Earl Clapper, and now available as a digital “fluid text” []. My speculation about the state of an original Walden refers to the manuscript as it stood around 1850 that Thoreau expected to publish following A Week. This corresponds to Shanley’s versions II and III (Making 18–33)—same as Clapper’s B and C (“Development” 30–32)—plus the draft I identify as “current” in the reassembled notebooks published in Journal 2, including the core sandbank passage. Finally, published text or Walden refers to the book issued by Ticknor and Fields in 1854.↩︎
  15. Shanley’s sorting of the 622 leaves now in the Huntington Library, based on physical evidence (paper type, ink color, handwriting, pagination, and revisions) and the appearance of analogous passages in the Journal, is the most commonly used metric of Thoreau’s development as a writer and, more recently, environmental thinker. Elizabeth Witherell, Editor-in-Chief of the Thoreau Edition, notes that if Shanley’s arrangement “brings these leaves back to where they started in Thoreau’s writing process,” because of their complicated transmission from Thoreau to the Huntington, it is impossible to know either “the path they traveled through Walden as it was developing” or their final arrangement when he finished (Elizabeth Witherell, email communication, September 2, 2021). For a detailed history of that transmission, see Witherell. In addition to Shanley and Clapper, other important commentary on the composition of Walden includes Adams and Ross 51–63, 165–91; Sattelmeyer “Remaking”; Milder 57–164; and Buell, Environmental Imagination 116–26.↩︎
  16. For Buell, the nine-year evolution of the Walden manuscript correlates roughly with Thoreau’s development as an environmental writer from a romantic prose poet heavily influenced by Emerson in “his apprentice years” to a “natural historian and environmentalist” at “full maturity.” As such it represents a key document in “Thoreau’s thinking about nature,” indicating his “ragged progress” from “homocentrism toward biocentricism” (Environmental Imagination 137–38, 139).↩︎
  17. The analysis that follows is based on the record of Walden-related material listed in the tables of Cross-References to Published Versions printed in Princeton Journal volumes 2 through 8, comprising a little over five hundred items. Ranging in length from single sentences to long paragraphs, such as the final paragraph of “Reading” (September 27, 1851; Journal 4:101–3), the loon chase (October 8, 1852; Journal 5:367–69), and the multi-paragraph ant battle in “Brute Neighbors” (January 20, 1852; Journal 4:270–73), many appear to have been taken into the Walden manuscript with only slight revisions.↩︎
  18. On the reception and gradual “monumentalizing” of Walden into “masterpiece” status, see Sattelmeyer, “Walden: Climbing the Canon.”↩︎
  19. With respect to 1906 editorial practice, Sattelmeyer notes that whereas the Princeton text uniformly reproduces Thoreau’s original composition or “current Journal” reporting later revision in a separate table, Torrey and Allen “silently [chose] whatever version of a revised passage seemed best to them on aesthetic grounds. In practice, they tended to choose the final revised version of most passages,” which is to say the version “that is most distant from the original” (Journal 2:475 n5).↩︎
  20. It should be noted that while the Journal notebook from which Thoreau had removed them had not yet been reconstructed, Shanley was aware of the core sandbank material. Oddly, however, he seems not to have recognized their importance in Thoreau’s process. For he placed these leaves in different groups: some with those of version F, and another in a group labeled “Additional Material.” (Thanks to Elizabeth Witherell for this observation.) In all, of the twenty-eight paragraphs designated as “missing” from the manuscript in Clapper’s genetic text, one exists in pencil draft form in the manuscript, and portions of thirteen are now found in the Princeton Journal. While the remaining, truly missing, pieces may have been lost, they may also exist in private collections or tipped in to volumes of the Manuscript Edition that have not yet surfaced. Altogether, HM 924 is remarkably complete.↩︎
  21. As usual the 1906 editors silently corrected misspellings and introduced punctuation. Otherwise, these passages do not differ in the Princeton Edition. For comparison see Journal 2:175–76 and 177.↩︎
  22. That this order is evident this early in the book’s composition is not surprising given that, as discussed below, Thoreau had sketched a version of it using his first index as early as spring 1846.↩︎
  23. For John Farmer, compare Journal 3:112, dated September 9, 1850; for the summary of what “I learned . . . by my experiment,” see Journal 3:19, dated between May 26 and September 11, 1849.↩︎
  24. The two D version passages are a draft of Thoreau’s poetic apostrophe to Walden Pond (Walden 193), Journal 3:106, dated between July 29 and August 31, 1850; and the John Farmer—originally “John Spaulding”—meditation, cited in the preceding note (Clapper, 535, 595–96).↩︎
  25. Scholars who regard Shanley’s arrangement and taxonomy as definitive will reasonably conclude that Thoreau must have returned to the spring 1848 Journal draft and revised it extensively then no earlier than late 1853, during the writing of version F. But other evidence, I will argue, points to a much earlier date.↩︎
  26. For reasons not fully understood, Thoreau seems to have discontinued indexing his Journal notebooks in September 1854, shortly after the publication of Walden. Witherell surmises that this function was taken over by the various lists he had begun to keep of natural phenomena he was tracking. Interestingly, when he ceased real-time indexing mid-volume at this time, he inadvertently produced a stop-action illustration of the practice, completing the index only for the first twenty-eight pages, or up to September 10. See the end of MS volume 18 transcript, p. 439.↩︎
  27. Of two Journal notebooks, covering the period from Winter 1846–1847 to April 1850, only eleven and twenty-five percent, respectively, of the original leaves survive. Unfortunately, because boards and binder’s leaves are missing from the first one, where Thoreau drafted and revised sand foliage material in Spring 1848, no index survives from that notebook. See Journal 2:474 and Journal 3:501–2 for physical descriptions of each.↩︎
  28. August 27 through December 5, 1852; Journal 5:316–408. The sole indexed entry concerns the differing color of Walden water when viewed from a boat versus from the Cliffs (Journal 5:385.22–29; Walden 177.3–8), indexed as “Color of water” (495).↩︎
  29. On Thoreau’s practice of transferring passages often then scored with a penciled use mark, see Journal 3, “Historical Introduction,” 483–84. For an example of Walden-related Journal draft transferred first to a piece of scrap paper compare Journal 2:151.28–152.9 and HM 924 image 1285. For draft copied from the Journal and entered in pencil directly onto an existing manuscript page, compare Journal 3:91.26–27 (“—Wherever a man goes, men will pursue & paw him with their dirty institutions”) and HM 924 image 494. For two other examples, this time copied in ink from the Journal onto a fresh manuscript page, compare Journal 4:261.21–36 and HM 924 image 595 and Journal 4:263.5–8 and HM 924 image 596.↩︎
  30. In his text of the first version Shanley helpfully correlates Thoreau’s outline entries with particular chapters and paragraphs. While the index was most likely made not long after the last item was written, Thoreau could, of course, have ordered the items at a later time. In either case, the outline predates the completion of the first version, between September 1846 and September 1847.↩︎
  31. The final index headings for Walden material refer to draft in Journal entries for February 16 (“Paths revealed by snow”), regarding the “Indian path” around Walden, and March 2 (“Sand foliage”), confirm that Thoreau continued this practice up to a few weeks before he began receiving page proofs in late March, 1854 (Journal 8:317, 320; Shanley, Walden, “Historical Introduction” 367).↩︎
  32. For discussion of the ebb and flow of Thoreau’s creative activity, see Richardson, Henry Thoreau 245–48, and Lebeaux 111–50. While the Journal evidence does not support the truism that Thoreau shelved the Walden manuscript or ever put it out of his mind, there is no question that by fall 1850 other projects were coming to the fore, some related to Walden, like acquiring local natural history expertise, attending more deeply to seasonality, and writing and lecturing on walking and “The Wild”; and some not, such as the Canada trip, the Cape Cod excursion, and, associated with this, the Indian notebooks. See Linck Johnson, “Into History.”↩︎
  33. Evidently, the text through which the sandbank draft is interlineated on F. 4 was added to the “Ktaadn” essay Thoreau sent to Horace Greeley on March 31, 1848. See Journal 2:384–85, 464, and Appendix I.↩︎
  34. In raw quantitative terms, 1100 of what would finally amount to 1551 words, or 99% of the exact language of the first paragraph, 31% of the second, 76% of the third, and 20% of the fourth.↩︎
  35. In Thorson’s comprehensive technical summary, Thoreau’s description includes “the thermally driven phase change from ice to liquid; the capillary tension of water; granular liquefaction; the control of slurry viscosity in causing either lobation or channelization; its shear strength as a function of water content; the flow rate as driven by slope; and the conditions fostering meandering” (Walden’s Shore 283).↩︎
  36. Since Thoreau frequently revised in pencil, for obvious reasons Princeton editors regard pencil text by definition as later revision not “current Journal.” Initially Thoreau numbered all the segments in pencil; but one—13—was subsequently cancelled and renumbered in ink as 14′ and 14''.↩︎
  37. As Linck Johnson notes, “when Emerson returned to Concord in late July [1848], he apparently found Thoreau preparing not one but two books for publication. Confident that he had A Week well in hand, Thoreau had begun to revise Walden with an eye to both lectures and early book publication” (A Week, “Historical Introduction” 467).↩︎
  38. Linck Johnson, A Week, “Historical Introduction” 470.↩︎
  39. Fink observes that if Walden “had been published shortly, as he hoped it would be (and as, in fact, it might have been), this series of lectures and the attendant publicity”—for they “were reviewed quite regularly, and often at considerable length, in the local papers”—would have “substantially enhanced public interest in Walden” (194).↩︎
  40. As late as March 2, 1854, for example, three weeks before he received the first batch of page proofs from the publisher, Thoreau noticed that what he had earlier described as “hollow” canals or “arteries” in the streaming sand were “rather meandering channels with remarkably distinct sharp edges” (Journal 8:25).↩︎
  41. For post-core additions, all of them incorporated into versions F and G (late 1853–1854), see Journal 4:230–32 (December 31, 1851); Journal 4:293–94 (January 26, 1852); Journal 4:383 (March 10, 1852); Journal 4:388–89 (March 12, 1852); Journal 7:268 (February 5, 1854); Journal 7:276 (February 8, 1854); Journal 8:25–26 (March 2, 1854); and Journal 8:30 (March 5, 1854).↩︎
  42. The single exception to on-site observation is a sentence written in fall 1850, based on the memory of having seen “the deep cut . . . excited to productiveness by a rain in mid-summer,” appearing “as if it were a cave, with all its stalactites turned wrong side out ward” (Journal 3:119).↩︎
  43. This continuity is also underscored by the fact that, contemporaneously with the core sandbank draft, among late additions Thoreau made to A Week was the commentary on science and “the life of the naturalist,” in the final chapter. Not coincidentally, the same methodological principles he advocates there also inform the Journal description and analysis of the sand foliage (A Week, 362–64).↩︎
  44. Lightman 343–50; Leach.↩︎
  45. [Francis Bowen], “A Theory of Creation.” On Vestiges and issues of evolution and creation in Thoreau’s sandbank, see Sattelmeyer, Thoreau’s Reading 80–90; Gatta 133–42; and Peyser.↩︎
  46. Secord, Victorian Sensation.↩︎
  47. Walls misreads Thoreau’s September 28, 1851, commentary on Hugh Miller’s reissued Old Red Sandstone (1851) as a dismissal of Vestiges whereas he is faulting Miller’s conception of beauty rather than Chambers’s theory (Journal 4:106–7; Walls, Henry David Thoreau 565–66 n38). See also Sattelmeyer, Thoreau’s Reading 86–90.↩︎
  48. For brief overviews of the midcentury debate in connection with, respectively, the Transcendentalists and Thoreau in particular, see Rossi, “Evolutionary Theory” and “Evolution.”↩︎
  49. In the Princeton text (Journal 2:579) “But there lies the blood vessels forming & the lungs” is treated as an alternate, enclosed in editorial brackets, and the entire segment that Thoreau labeled “12” is rendered as separate from the interlined text that follows on the next page (“The thawing mass a stream of softened clay . . .”). In my reading, after Thoreau wrote and then canceled “clusters of graceful sprays overlying each other” (which he ultimately placed in segment “8”), he wrote “But there lies the blood vessels forming & the lungs a little silvery stream glancing like lightning, and swallowed up in the sands— It seemed so artful.” He then saw how to reformulate this idea. But having exhausted space at the bottom of the page, he squeezed the beginning of the reformulation (“Here you may see how blood vessels are formed—first there pushes forward from”) into the only remaining available space, beneath the canceled “clusters of graceful sprays,” continuing the sentence on the next page: “the thawing mass a stream of softened clay or sand . . .” See panel above, “The core sandbank passage,” Vol. 6, pages 3 and 4 (images 1010 and 1011) for the passage marked “12” and the continuation of Thoreau’s reformulation. ↩︎
  50. [Chambers], Explanations, 189–98. On the construction and reception of Crosse’s experiments in connection with the social and professional scientific threats posed by materialism, see Secord, “Extraordinary Experiment,” to which I am much indebted here. Transcendentalist interest in the controversy may be gauged by the fact that, during his second trip to England, Emerson met twice with Chambers, whom he strongly suspected of being the author of Vestiges, and dined with Andrew Crosse, whom he identified in a letter to William Emerson by the mites that bore his name: “(Acarus Crossii in the Vestiges)” (Letters 4:19; JMN 10:221; Letters 4:71).↩︎
  51. For the inclusion of Brewster’s review in American editions, see Appendix C [220, 228] in Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Other Evolutionary Writings, edited by Secord.↩︎
  52. As Crosse reported, “I confess that I was not a little surprised, and am so still, and quite as much as I was, when the acari [mites] made their first appearance. . . . It was a matter of chance. I was looking for siliceous formations, and animal matter appeared instead” (362).↩︎
  53. “Miss Martineau’s last book is not so bad as the timidity which fears its influence. . . . Nothing is so much to be feared as fear— Atheism may be popular with God himself. What shall we say of these timid folk who carry the principle of thinking nothing & doing nothing and being nothing to such an extreme—” (Journal 4:51). ↩︎

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