The Walden Manuscript Project

In 2019, with funding obtained by Digital Thoreau through a State University of New York Innovative Instruction Technology Grant, the Huntington Library digitized the portion of the Walden manuscript in its collections, adding the high-resolution images to the institution’s Digital Library. Through the Walden Manuscript Project, Digital Thoreau seeks to increase the manuscript’s value for scholars, teachers, students, and other readers in several ways.

  • We’re building a manuscript search tool that enables you to compare the manuscript to our fluid-text edition of Walden, which tracks Thoreau’s revisions to the text across its seven extant drafts.
  • We’re selecting passages of interest from Walden to construct TEI-encoded revision narratives that explore how understanding particular revisions can provide insight into both Thoreau’s composition process and the meanings of his text.
  • We’re developing open educational resources that draw on the manuscript to help educators and students explore both the relationship between textual materiality and meaning and the practice of digital scholarly editing.

The Walden manuscript

Composition (1846-1854)

In 1845, Thoreau built a small house near the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, on land owned by his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. He moved in on July 4, 1845, and moved back to town on September 6, 1847. The house was his writer’s retreat: there he finished a draft of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and began his second, Walden.

Thoreau continued working on Walden after he left the pond, revising multiple times before the book was finally published in 1854.

The first draft of Walden, which Thoreau worked on between late 1846 and September 1847, is closest to a complete version. From mid-1848 into March 1854, Thoreau developed his book through six more stages. (The final version, which Thoreau sent to the printer piecemeal beginning in March 1854, is no longer extant.) None of the drafts is complete in itself, and from the second draft on, each is made up of some combination of new material, existing material copied onto new leaves, and leaves or portions of leaves moved from earlier drafts into later ones. In other words, the surviving Walden manuscript is a mash-up of seven different phases of Thoreau’s thinking, planning, and writing on almost 700 leaves of various kinds of paper; 628 of these leaves are at the Huntington.

Transmission of Walden and other manuscripts (1862-1918)

Thoreau died on May 6, 1862, leaving all of his manuscripts to his sister Sophia. When she moved to Bangor, Maine, in 1873, she left the manuscripts with Bronson Alcott, in Concord. Until then, the Walden manuscript probably retained the order in which Thoreau had left it.

Sophia learned that while Alcott had the manuscripts he had allowed Franklin Benjamin Sanborn to borrow items, and she must have known that William Ellery Channing, with whom she had fallen out, could have had access to them at Sanborn’s home. In 1875, she asked Alcott to put all the manuscripts in the town library (now the Concord Free Public Library) with Emerson as trustee.

Before she died in October 1876, Sophia decided that, with the exception of Thoreau’s surveys and his surveying field notes, which she gave to the library, the manuscripts should go to Harrison Gray Otis Blake, who had been a disciple, correspondent, and friend of Thoreau’s. In December 1876 Emerson sent two trunks of manuscripts to Blake.

Blake, who lived in Worcester, had the manuscripts until his death in 1898. We know he gave away parts of letters containing Thoreau’s signature as mementos; he could have done this with fragments of the Walden manuscript as well.

Elias Harlow Russell, who cared for Blake in his last years in Worcester, inherited the manuscripts from Blake. Russell then went to court and secured a decree of absolute ownership of this inheritance. To Houghton Mifflin he sold the publishing rights for Thoreau’s Journal, and he made an arrangement for Houghton Mifflin to purchase several hundred loose manuscript leaves, including leaves from the Walden drafts, to be tipped into six hundred volumes of a special set of Thoreau’s complete works (the Manuscript Edition).

In 1904, Russell sold all but the manuscripts of the Journal volumes to the New York dealer George Hellman. Whatever order the manuscripts were in when Hellman acquired them was lost when he sorted them into published and unpublished material and early and late drafts, based on his incomplete understanding of their relationships to Thoreau’s books and essays. He also had some groups of manuscripts bound in leather, misidentifying at least one group (William Howarth, Literary Manuscripts of Henry David Thoreau [Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974, p. xxiv).

Hellman disposed of the manuscripts in three groups. As had been previously arranged through Russell, Houghton Mifflin received 300-400 leaves to tip into the Manuscript Edition sets. William Augustus White, a New York collector, bought almost 400 miscellaneous leaves in late 1904. William Keeney Bixby, a St. Louis collector, bought all the unconsigned manuscripts, including the Walden manuscript, in August 1905 (Howarth, p. xxv).

Bixby hired Sanborn to “examine, identify, and transcribe” the manuscripts he had bought: Sanborn vandalized the manuscripts, marking them in ink, graphite pencil, and colored pencil, and in some cases typing on them. Sanborn persuaded Bixby to finance the 1909 Bibliophile Edition of Walden, to which he added material from the draft manuscript, as well as his own commentary. For the Bibliophile Edition Sanborn marked the Walden manuscript for correspondence with the 1889 Houghton Mifflin edition of Walden.

As for the Journal, Houghton Mifflin kept the manuscript volumes until late 1906, using them to proofread copy for the 1906 edition. In 1907, the manuscript volumes were returned to Russell, who sold them to Hellman. Hellman sold them to Stephen Wakeman, a New York collector, and Wakeman sold them to J. Pierpont Morgan in 1916. They have been at the Morgan Library ever since.

The Walden manuscript at the Huntington

According to the Huntington’s catalog record, Henry E. Huntington purchased Bixby’s collection of Walden drafts in 1918. An unknown number of leaves of the drafts were not part of Bixby’s acquisition: they had been sold either by Russell to Houghton Mifflin or by Hellman to William Augustus White. About 50 of these leaves have turned up since then in the collections of 17 libraries in the United States, and those of a number of private collectors.

cover of volume 1 of HM 924, the manuscript of Walden In the Huntington Library’s collection, the Walden manuscript is labeled HM 924. The manuscript leaves are divided into eight groups created by Thoreau scholar J. Lyndon Shanley, who worked with the manuscript in the 1940s and 1950s. Seven of these — “Draft A” through “Draft G” (Huntington Volumes 1-7) — are dated. The eighth, “Additional Material, separate from drafts,” is undated.

In The Making of Walden, with the Text of the First Edition, Shanley asserts that Sanborn “more than likely” was responsible for the order of the manuscript pages in which he found them at the Huntington (University of Chicago Press, 1957, p. 3).

Shanley, interested in how Thoreau created Walden, realized that the leaves could be rearranged to reveal the stages of the book as Thoreau developed it.

In Making, Shanley notes a “brief, unpublished paper” by Odell Shepard about “some of the revisions he had traced” in the Walden manuscript (p. 2). (PMLA for 1936 lists this paper as “The Manuscripts of Thoreau’s Walden,” delivered at the MLA meeting on December 30, 1936. Unless Shepard had access to photostats, he must have used the originals.) Shanley began his own study with black and white photostats of the whole manuscript, “thinking only that unpublished material in it would be useful for an annotated edition of Walden” (p. 2). Using the photostats, he assembled different versions of “a number of passages,” but until he went to the Huntington to check his transcriptions against the original he had no idea that individual drafts could be identified.

With the manuscript leaves before him at the library, however, Shanley found that he could use “the color and size of paper, ink, and handwriting, and the stationer’s marks” as well as contents to sort the leaves into “seven large groups of leaves and two smaller ones” numbered I to IX (p. 4). He describes the organization of the leaves after he had arranged them: “The manuscript (HM 924) in the Huntington Library is distributed in eight envelopes, and the leaves of group VIII are distributed among the envelopes containing groups I-VII, according to the relations of these leaves to the major groups” (p. 13, n. 24). The roman numerals have been replaced with letters; groups I-VII are now usually known as A-G. An additional group labeled “IX” by Shanley and described by him as containing notes for Walden is also known as “pre-A”; in the Huntington accession scheme it is called “Additional Material, separate from drafts (Huntington Volume 8).”

Only the first group of leaves, Draft A, constitutes a nearly complete version. At each subsequent stage of work, rather than recopying what he had already written Thoreau revised existing text, added new material, and rearranged leaves. Consequently, all of the subsequent groups following A are incomplete, and the contents are often internally discontinuous.

Thus, from the fall of 1846, when Thoreau began drafting a lecture describing his life at the pond, until the summer of 1854, when he wrote a note to the printer at Ticknor and Fields about where in the book to place his map of the pond, Walden was a fluid text not only with respect to its ever-changing language, but even with respect to its ever-shifting arrangement of physical pages. We can only imagine what constituted the shape and size of the work at each of the stages Shanley identified, but tracking Thoreau’s revisions in a significant passage that appears in several drafts allows us a microcosmic, stop-motion view of the process that produced the whole book.

Ronald E. Clapper, whose PhD dissertation “The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text” (UCLA, 1967) is the basis of Digital Thoreau’s fluid-text edition of Walden, is quite possibly the only other scholar to deal with the entire Walden manuscript. By then, use of the manuscript was carefully supervised and Clapper would not have been able to rearrange or mark the leaves.

Using HM 924 to tell the story of Thoreau’s revisions

In his book The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), John Bryant writes that “…editors must be willing to be narrators of revision; that is, they must convert the bewildering array of data in their encoded textual apparatuses into pleasurable revision narratives.” And he continues:

Fluid-text editing is critical editing. … Fluid texts must be edited critically because the means by which we transcribe manuscripts, distinguish authorial and editorial variants, infer versions, and hypothesize revision sequences are all acts of judgment. … a fluid-text edition is not so much an imagined thing as it is an interpretation, a map for reading shifting intentions as revealed through variant sequentialized versions.” (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2002, p. 144)

How best to relate such narratives about Thoreau’s process of composing Walden? One approach would be to start with a diplomatic transcription of each of the manuscript’s 1200-plus surfaces (most of the roughly 600 leaves contain writing on two sides, recto and verso), doing one’s best to represent, precisely, the physical features of the surface and the marks upon it. A layer of annotations could then be added to the fully transcribed manuscript in an effort to tell the story of Thoreau’s revisions in the critical, interpretive manner described by Bryant.

A number of considerations militate against this approach for the Walden manuscript, not the least of which are the size and complexity of the manuscript and the difficulty of reading Thoreau’s handwriting. (See the Introduction to the fluid-text edition and the account of the manuscript’s history, above.) The Digital Thoreau editorial team has instead chosen to transcribe selected individual passages or small collections of related passages that we believe may offer significant insight into Thoreau’s intentions and Walden‘s multiplicity of meanings. In team discussions, we’ve come to call each of these passages or groups of passages a “particle.”

We’ve developed a schema for encoding these particles in TEI in a way that will model physical features of the relevant manuscript surfaces, point readers to the images and image-regions of these surfaces in the Huntington’s digitization of the manuscript, and incorporate a revision narrative directly in the encoding rather than in a separate annotation layer. The current state of our schema development may be found in our GitHub repository.

For one particle that interests us — the epigraph to Walden and associated passages in “Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” — we’ve developed a kind of storyboard in TimelineJS. The transcriptions in the storyboard aren’t encoded in TEI; rather, they’re simple approximations in HTML of what can be viewed directly on the manuscript surfaces. But the storyboard’s combination of images, transcription, and explanation may help to clarify what we mean by a “particle” and our approach to revision narrative as a form of critical interpretation.

Using HM 924 to build open educational resources

The digitized Walden manuscript is a rich resource for educators and students, whether their focus is on the process of literary composition, the relationship between textual materiality and meaning, the theory and practice of scholarly editing, digital methods in the humanities, or Thoreau’s work and life (to suggest a partial list).

Using our manuscript search tool and Walden: A Fluid-Text Edition, students can identify passages in Thoreau’s work that underwent revisions they find interesting, locate the associated images, and build their own revision narratives using TimelineJS or another open-source platform. With or without our TEI schema, they can practice their encoding skills by marking up a page or collection of related pages using the TEI-oriented text editor oXygen or a free, general-purpose one such as Visual Studio Code.

Because the Huntington’s images employ the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), students can easily incorporate them into digital projects without downloading any files or using expensive software for image editing. (We’ve developed a quick guide to working with IIIF images.) Images and image regions can also be embedded in marginal comments in our annotatable Walden at The Readers’ Thoreau.

In October 2020, Digital Thoreau and the group New York Digital Humanities organized a series of virtual workshops on Editing and Encoding in the Undergraduate Classroom. The workshops were all recorded, and the recording below models a few ways that instructors can engage students in dialogue or encoding work using the Walden manuscript.

Our team is working to develop additional instructional materials. We’ll keep you posted on our progress here and on our blog.