Remembering Ron Clapper

Today marks one year since the passing of Ronald Earl Clapper, whose 1967 UCLA dissertation “The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text” is the basis of Digital Thoreau’s Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition.

From its first appearance, Ron’s genetic text of Walden has provided the Thoreau scholarly community with a tool of incalculable benefit. It’s been widely cited in books and articles, especially those seeking to understand Thoreau’s most important work through the lens of its long and complicated evolution. As correctly noted in this tribute on the website of California State University Fullerton, where he held a faculty appointment beginning in 1974, Ron’s dissertation has been “universally acknowledged as an indispensable and foundational resource—one scholar has referred to it as a ‘bible’—for serious Thoreau scholarship.”

Ron himself was an indispensable resource to the CSUF community. As the tribute goes on to explain,

… Clapper soon became the coordinator of the liberal studies program, a position he held from 1975–99. Recognized for his superb curricular, administrative and advisory skills in this role, Clapper’s many awards over the years culminated in the Faculty of the Year Award for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Following his long service as coordinator, Clapper continued to teach in liberal studies until his retirement in 2011.

Clapper was a tireless champion of the notion that a good education should cultivate understanding of the historical and thematic interconnections of the arts and humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. He opened unique and enduring opportunities for faculty from across these disciples to collaborate in the construction and maintenance of a strong and vital interdisciplinary program, including the development of innovative team-taught classes. As an instructor, Clapper inspired countless students to take up this interdisciplinary approach, teaching classes ranging from large lecture formats to small senior seminars. Following his retirement, Clapper continued his active support of the Department of Liberal Studies, most notably in his organizational assistance and financial sponsorship of an annual interdisciplinary conference and the Jane Hipolito Scholarship for Liberal Studies students.

My first contact with Ron came when I tracked him down in hopes of obtaining permission to use his dissertation as the basis for a project—at that point only roughly formulated—to create an edition of the Walden drafts that would place them side-by-side on a screen. A few emails and phone calls later, I understood just how excited he was by the prospect of reaching a wider audience with his scholarship through the internet. In fact, he explained, he had recently transformed his print dissertation into an electronic version in Microsoft Word, inspired by requests to put a version of his dissertation online, the first of which had come from the late Bradley P. Dean, who had himself worked extensively with Thoreau’s manuscripts. Ron enthusiastically shared his Word files, generously giving Digital Thoreau unrestricted permission to use them for our envisioned fluid-text edition.

In the summer of 2013, I had the privilege of meeting Ron at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, together with Beth Witherell, Editor-in-Chief of the The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, published by Princeton University Press. We looked together at HM 924, which constitutes the bulk of Thoreau’s manuscript drafts of Walden, and discussed ongoing progress with the fluid-text edition. At that point, Ron had already been playing a crucial role in helping the Digital Thoreau project team develop the encoding strategy for the fluid text. For several years afterwards, he and Beth kindly made themselves available to share their perspectives not only on Thoreau and his revision process, but on the special challenges and rewards involved in doing manuscript work, with my students at SUNY Geneseo. (Beth, a member of the Digital Thoreau editorial team, is a regular visitor in my classes to this day.)

The September following that summer meeting, Ron, at my request, emailed me a brief account of how he came to write about the genesis of Walden. In the very lightly edited excerpt from the email below, he carries the narrative beyond “The Development of Walden” to give his own description of the dissertation’s digital afterlife, up to and including our collaboration to produce the fluid-text edition:

I began developing the genetic text of Walden almost by accident. When I was a graduate student in one of Leon Howard’s seminars at UCLA, he suggested that I compare Thoreau’s published version of “Life Without Principle” with the passages in his Journal to determine if some of the inconsistencies in the published version were the result of their having been written at different times in Thoreau’s life. While studying Thoreau’s Journals, I discovered that passages of Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden, that were written several years after he had left the pond were very different from passages he wrote while living at the pond. Since J. Lyndon Shanley had recently discovered that the Walden manuscript was divided into seven distinct stages based on differences in the paper, ink, and handwriting, and the manuscript was in the Los Angeles area at the Huntington Library in San Marino, I quickly applied Leon’s method for “Life Without Principle” to Walden.

While there was a distinct first version of Walden, which Shanley published in The Making of Walden, the other six stages did not form complete versions in themselves. 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. My challenge was to create a genetic text that would allow scholars and students to understand the changes Thoreau made to his manuscript from versions B through G. I 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. (It would be nice to still have that marked version of Walden, but, unfortunately, it was lost in my move from California to Virginia in 1967 or in my return to California in 1973.) I then, in the form of footnotes, recorded all the substantive variants in the various manuscript versions of that paragraph.

As much as I was indebted to Lyn Shanley for discovering the seven manuscript stages of Walden, I strongly disagreed with his conclusion in The Making of Walden (1957) 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 element and create a new strain; it was absorbed by and used according to the nature of the original piece” (p. 6). It did change, significantly, in the material he wrote from 1950-54 (Versions D-G). I discussed this with him during lunches while he was visiting the Huntington. Robert Sattelmeyer supported my claims in his important essay, “The Remaking of Walden” and Robert Milder in his important book, Reimagining Thoreau. …

As all Thoreau scholars know, Walter Harding is very special to us all and his generous comment in The New Thoreau Handbook (1980) meant more to me than anything that has been said since: “Since Shanley made his studies, Ronald Clapper has investigated the Huntington manuscripts further. His doctoral dissertation,”The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text” (1967) is one of the most important doctoral dissertations of recent years. No serious student of Walden can afford to ignore it” (p. 50). I must in all honesty add that in spite of my disagreement with Lyn Shanley on the development of Walden, I enjoyed the conversations I had with him at the Huntington, which he acknowledged in the Princeton edition of Walden, and know that the genetic text would not have been possible without his bringing order to the Walden manuscript. His views about the development of the Walden manuscript in no way diminishes his importance in preparing the way for Sattelmeyer, Milder, and others who have drawn on the genetic text for a better interpretations of how Walden developed. One of the joys of scholarship is the way in which we draw and build upon one another’s work. I drew from Shanley, Sattelmeyer and Milder drew from me, and, I think, all Thoreau criticism has benefitted from this.

When I had decided on the genetic text of Walden for my dissertation I went to Leon Howard and asked him if he could recommend a first-rate typist who would be up to this difficult task. He knew just the person and put me in touch with Marina. This became truly a collaboration. I would bring her my work from the last few days I spent at the Huntington in San Marino (which is east of Los Angeles, between Pasadena and San Gabriel, where I live) to her sp[a]cious working apartment in West Los Angeles (near UCLA and Santa Monica) and pick up what she had previously typed, which was always flawless.

I received a summer grant while at the University of Virginia to revise the genetic text along with a graduate student who soon learned Thoreau’s handwriting so well that he could check my work against the microfilm copy of the Walden manuscript that the Huntington gave me when I left the Huntington itself to accept my new job in the English department of the University of Virginia. 

After six years in Charlottesville, Virginia, enjoying the novelty of its fall colors and snow in the winter but dreading the thunderstorms and humidity of its summers, I was anxious to return to my native southern California and its delightful Mediterranean climate. That opportunity came when California State University, Fullerton was looking for someone to coordinate its newly established Liberal Studies program.

The state of California had just eliminated its Education major and now required that those who teach in elementary school must compete a subject-matter B. A. before being eligible to enter a credential program. Each campus of the California State University developed a Liberal Studies degree program that included individual courses in natural science and mathematics, social science, humanities and arts, and language and literature. Since most of these courses were merely selected from various departments of the university, they bore little relation to one another. The Fullerton faculty, however, decided to take this opportunity to create a truly interdisciplinary (not merely a multidisciplinary) program and developed a group of interdisciplinary core courses, drawing from the two leading models of the time, the one associated with the University of Chicago and the other associated with Columbia University.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was embarking on a career similar to the one Thoreau pursued after Walden. As Laura Dassow Walls describes Thoreau in Seeing New Worlds, he is a “theorist” at the “crossroads of disciplines,” mediating between the disciplinary economies of ‘literature’ and ‘science’ through particular linguistic and conceptual structures, in an effort to see them as fundamentally coincident” (p. 8). 

In the meantime, the revision of the genetic text that I had made while at the University of Virginia needed another great typist like Marina. (Word processing was still at least a decade away.) I found her in Karen, who was assigned one summer to the Liberal Studies office. Although I do not remember the details of it, some agency concerned with providing jobs for senior citizens assigned a typist to Liberal Studies at no cost to the university. … While Karen, with her wonderful energy and pleasant personality, was anxious to work for us, there seemed very little for her to do. It was then that I knew I had found my typist. Karen was an extremely fast and accurate typist and once I turned the genetic text over to her, the job was done brilliantly and she seemed to enjoy every minute of it.

After serving as coordinator of Liberal Studies from 1975-1999, I turned to full-time teaching and watched the program develop into a department as it hired some of the best young faculty with interdisciplinary interests to emerge from graduate programs in the first decade of the twentieth-first century, and, especially during the summers, I returned to the Walden manuscript by creating it as a word processing document in Microsoft Word, which is the form I submitted to SUNY Geneseo.

I had received a couple of inquiries about putting the genetic text on line, the first from the late Bradley Dean in 2005, so that is what prompted me to create a Microsoft Word version of the text. I had just finished all but the “Conclusion” when I retired in August 2011, at exactly the time Paul Schacht contacted me. He tried to reach me by phone but my office had just been turned over to a colleague and my phone was disconnected. Fortunately, since I was given Emeritus status, my e-mail remained the same, and Paul reached me that way and we arranged for a phone conversation at my home. I knew from that conversation that Paul had a vision to successfully complete this project. Once I got to know Joe Easterly, I knew the project was in great technical hands. One of the greatest benefits of working with Paul, Joe, and Paul’s wonderful students was sharing some time with Beth Witherell, the editor-in-chief of the Princeton edition of Thoreau’s works. Her support of this project has been essential. And finally, it is most appropriate that this project be centered at SUNY Geneseo, where it will be a part of the Harding legacy. 

After reading the memorial to Ron on the CSFU website, written by April Bullock, Professor of Liberal Studies and Environmental Studies and chair of the Department of Liberal Studies, I reached out to Dr. Bullock to express my condolences. “We held a memorial celebration of [Ron’s] life in October on campus in the Arboretum,” she wrote in her reply, “which seemed a fitting place. Colleagues and former students shared stories about Ron and some lovely food and drink. Several of us sailed out from Newport Beach to scatter Ron’s remains in the ocean. A seagull circled and we tossed roses in the water. It was very moving.”

Earlier this month, on April 11, the liberal studies department’s commons room was officially renamed “Clapper Commons” at a ceremony in which colleagues and students shared memories of a scholar and friend who leaves an enduring legacy.

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