We bookish sorts can't always stop at having one edition of a certain book, so it might not surprise you to know that I have two copies of Henry David Thoreau's Walden.
One copy is a Modern Library edition (1937) that contains not only Walden, but Thoreau's Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walking, and Civil Disobedience.
The other volume contains only Walden and I bought it simply because I liked the cover with its autumn leaves and examples of early penmanship:
Even though these two editions sit on my shelves, I have yet to read Thoreau's account of his two years, two months, and two days spent in a tiny cabin on the banks of Walden Pond.
But, as August 9th of this year will mark the 160th anniversary of the publication of this classic, it seems a fitting time to finally hunker down and find out just what went on during those years in the woods.
In preparation for this occasion, I just finished reading Michael Sims's biography of this strange and brilliant fellow in The Adventures of Henry Thoreau (2014). The book looks at Thoreau's life growing up in Concord, Massachusetts, his wanderings in the forests and fields and his excursions on the waterways in the area, and his fascination with the tales of the native Americans who once hunted and lived on the very land that he now walked. I learned about his friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other literary movers and shakers of the time. And, I found out that the first word in his first journal was Solitude.
Although Thoreau graduated from Harvard and taught school for a while he never really could settle down to a steady profession. He helped his father in the family pencil manufacturing business, did some tutoring, and took on a few odd jobs. Over the years, he became an abolitionist, spent a night in jail for refusing, on principle, to pay a state tax, wrote bad poetry, and kept on writing in his journals.
By the time Thoreau died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-four, Mr. Sims writes, "he had written two million words in this private storehouse, filling seven thousand pages in forty-seven volumes between October 1837 and November 1861."
The tale presented here is based on information gathered from letters and diaries of Thoreau's family and friends and the author has put together an informed look at the young man's searching for self and solitude. Mr. Sims has an intriguing way of bringing the reader into the time and place of Thoreau's world with historical details, sights, and sounds of that era. Reading this biography has certainly introduced me to this quirky fellow journal keeper.
And although I am certainly not off to build a cabin in the woods, I will open to the first pages of Walden and pretend. Care to join me?