Amherst Magazine

Excursions

By Henry D. Thoreau. Edited by Joseph J. Moldenhauer ’56. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. 672 pp. $65 hardcover.

Reviewed by Robert DeMaria Jr. ’70

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It has been said that writers don’t make books; books are made by editors, publishers, printers, binders, paper makers and others involved in the production. The latest volume in the Princeton Edition of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau exemplifies this clever remark while unselfishly giving pride of place in every way to the writer and his words. The first 289 pages of Excursions are all Thoreau: no footnotes, no superior numbers referenced to endnotes, no introductions, nothing but text.

Occupying the next 360 pages is the “Editorial Appendix.” This comprises an index, notes on illustrations, acknowledgments, short titles, library symbols, a historical introduction to the nine pieces of Thoreau’s writing contained in the volume, a textual introduction and then, for each piece, a head note, textual notes and several tables summarizing the editor’s textual decisions in presenting the absolutely unimpeded text in the first section. To what can one compare this book? It is like a house in which you enter a series of the most perfectly finished rooms, but which also contains, out back and out of sight, all the discarded materials that might have come into the rooms and all the machinery that made the rooms and their furniture—a well-organized warehouse and tool shed, substantially larger than the house.

In addition to being a collection of some of Thoreau’s most delightful essays, this book is a model of scholarly editing, complete with instructions. Moldenhauer, who has edited several other volumes in the Princeton Thoreau, has built the text by consulting “all surviving authorial manuscripts,” the “printed forms, set from copy prepared by Thoreau” and “external data” such as Thoreau’s letters, the sources of his quotations and even “the editorial practices of the publications in which the essays were initially printed; and information about the Ticknor and Fields volumes in which the essays were first collected.”

Moldenhauer presents much of this data in his various notes and tables, but what he makes of it is a text that comes as close as one can hope to what Thoreau intended to write. This is what is called an “eclectic” or “critical” text, and Moldenhauer’s is a critical text par excellence. In constructing such a document, an editor, using all the materials at his command, chooses the readings over which the author seems to have exercised the greatest control and then emends apparently unintentional errors and unauthorized publishers’ or printers’ impositions on the authorial work. Moreover, he shows all the choices the author made, so that the reader can follow in his editorial footsteps or review the raw data. In doing all of this, Moldenhauer has been so thorough, so precise and so explicit that his book is perhaps the best primer I have ever seen on the subject of constructing a critical text.

I suppose it is only fair to give a little of the credit to Thoreau. The essays, so perfectly presented, come from various stages of Thoreau’s all-too-brief life of writing. The first piece, “Natural History of Massachusetts,” was solicited by Emerson and first published in the Dial in July 1842, when Thoreau turned 25. The last, “Wild Apples,” first took shape as a lecture that Thoreau gave in 1860; he prepared the piece for publication in the Atlantic in 1862, the year of his death.
Perhaps the most surprising essay in the volume is “A Yankee in Canada,” Thoreau’s record of a trip to Montreal and Quebec. Thoreau had enough intensity of perception to turn his back yard into a foreign land, and he has an easy time of it in Canada. The surprising aspect of the essay is its attention to the human rather than the natural landscape. For example, Thoreau’s careful and imaginative description of the walls of Quebec City seems fresh in comparison to his more familiar nature writings, though it shares their metaphysical bent.

The most famous of the essays is surely “Walking.” This piece is the source of the famous quotation “in Wildness is the preservation of the world.” It’s nice to know definitively how it should read: it’s not “Wilderness,” as the Cato Journal and many Web sites have it, but the slightly archaic, perhaps Elizabethan “Wildness.”
It’s also nice to know how the quotation should be capitalized: Moldenhauer’s exhaustive textual apparatus indicates that Thoreau inked in the capital W in “Wildness” on the manuscript used for setting his essay in type for the Atlantic. He did not, however, change the lowercase “w” in “world,” as the Yale Book of Quotations imagines. Thoreau wasn’t just capitalizing nouns, as writers and compositors did in England until around 1750; he was putting emphasis on that one word, “Wildness.”

Each of these discrete textual fine points means something in itself, and taken all together, they mean a great deal. Because of Moldenhauer’s hard work, we know, in so far as it can be known, that when we read his text, we are reading Thoreau. The text is pure Thoreau, but Moldenhauer deserves a world of credit for making it what it is.

DeMaria is the Henry Noble MacCracken Professor of English at Vassar College. He has written or edited many books, including Johnson on the English Language (1995), which is Volume 18 in the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson.