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Monday, August 9, 2010

Henry David Thoreau:
August 9, 1854: “ ‘Walden’ published.”

Henry David Thoreau published only two books during his lifetime: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (James Munroe and Company, 1849) and Walden, or, A Life in the Woods (Ticknor and Fields, 1854). Thoreau began A Week when he went to live at Walden Pond in 1845. Intended to be a memorial to his older brother John, who had died of lockjaw three years earlier, the book was based on a boat trip they had made together in 1839. On the website dedicated to the writings of Thoreau at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Elizabeth Witherell and Elizabeth Dubrulle describe how the creation of A Week ended up overlapping with Walden:
At Walden, Thoreau worked diligently on A Week, but he also explored Walden Woods and recorded his observations on nature in his Journal. He entertained visitors and made regular trips to town; friends and neighbors began to inquire about his life at the pond. What did he do all day? How did he make a living? Did he get lonely? What if he got sick? He began collecting material to write lectures for his curious townsmen, and he delivered two at the Concord Lyceum, on February 10 and 17, 1847. By the time he left the pond on September 6, 1847, he had combined his lectures on life at Walden with more notes from his journal to produce the first draft of a book which he hoped to publish shortly after A Week.
Unfortunately, A Week sold only two hundred copies during the first years after publication. In a Journal entry of October 28, 1853 (PDF) Thoreau describes receiving from the publisher “in a wagon” 706 copies of its printing of 1,000.
They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. . . I now have a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself. . . . Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever.
Thoreau would revise Walden seven times before it was published on August 9, 1854. His Journal entry for the historic day (PDF) is brief:
Aug. 9. Wednesday. —To Boston.
“Walden” published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing.
His friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson captures a less Stoic post-publication Thoreau in a letter to a friend: “He is walking up & down Concord, firm-looking, but in a tremble of great expectations.” Walden fared much better than A Week. By the end of the year 1,744 copies of the 2,000-copy first printing were sold and reviews were mostly favorable, even as far away as England. Reviewing Walden for The Westminster Review, George Eliot wrote “. . . we have a bit of pure American life (not the ‘go-ahead’ species, but its opposite pole), animated by that energetic, yet calm spirit of innovation, that practical as well as theoretic independence of formulae, which is peculiar to some of the finer American minds. . . . There is plenty of sturdy sense mingled with his unworldliness.”

Related LOA works: Henry David Thoreau: A Week, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod; Henry David Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems

1 comment:

  1. It certainly took some time, but what a masterpiece that has been handed down generation to generation to make it to us!


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