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New Thoreau Exhibition Opens at the Morgan on June 2nd

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) occupies a lofty place in American cultural history. He spent two years in a cabin by Walden Pond and a single night in jail, and out of those experiences grew two of this country’s most influential works: his book Walden and the essay known as “Civil Disobedience.” But his lifelong journal—more voluminous by far than his published writings—reveals a fuller, more intimate picture of a man of wide-ranging interests and a profound commitment to living responsibly and passionately. Now, in a major new exhibition entitled This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal opening June 2 at the Morgan Library & Museum, nearly one hundred items have been brought together in the most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to the author. Marking the 200th anniversary of his birth and organized in partnership with the Concord Museum in Thoreau’s hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, the show centers on the journal he kept throughout his life and its importance in understanding the essential Thoreau. More than twenty of Thoreau’s journal notebooks are shown along with letters and manuscripts, books from his library, pressed plants from his herbarium, and important personal artifacts. Also featured are the only two photographs for which he sat during his lifetime, shown together for the first time. [Benjamin D. Maxham (1821–1889), Henry D. Thoreau, Daguerreotype, Worcester, Massachusetts, June 18, 1856. Berg Collection, New York Public Library.]  The exhibition runs through September 10.

“For the first time, the surviving personal artifacts—from Thoreau’s simple green desk to his beloved flute— will temporarily be on view outside of his hometown of Concord,” explained Margaret Burke, Executive Director of the Concord Museum. “Two centuries after his birth, we believe that much can be learned from Thoreau and his perception of the world. Throughout 2017, the Concord Museum is celebrating his Bicentennial with programs, events, gallery talks, and special exhibitions. We are particularly proud of our collaboration with the Morgan Library and that the exhibition will also be on view at the Concord Museum beginning September 29.”

The Morgan holds almost all of Thoreau’s surviving journal—forty simple volumes filled with the observations and reflections of a lifetime. Throughout the exhibition, his notebooks are paired with resonant objects—his flute with a journal entry about the importance of listening, his spyglass with an observation about birds he saw while peering through it, a bundle of nails from his cabin by Walden Pond alongside a notebook he used while living there.  At the center of the gallery stands the simple green desk on which he wrote the thousands of pages of his journal over the course of a quarter century, convinced that a closely examined life would yield infinite riches.

Thoreau’s journal begins and ends in Concord — the Massachusetts town where he spent most of his forty-four years. It was there that he opened his first notebook in 1837 and closed his final one in 1861, as he began to grow weary with tuberculosis. One of the most frequently quoted lines from Thoreau’s journal, dated December 5, 1856, reflects his profound connection with his native place: “I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world – & in the very nick of time, too.”  Concord—less than twenty miles from Boston—was an intellectually vibrant place. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s dynamic neighbor, led discussions about the future of American society. Antislavery activists Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass passed through town (and through the Thoreau family house) with urgent calls for reform. The exhibition features intimate records of Thoreau’s relationships with many of his Concord contemporaries, from a diary of fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne to a heartbreaking letter from Louisa May Alcott describing how friends laid
Thoreau’s body to rest beneath a wreath of flowers in 1862. She predicted that “though his life seemed too short, it would blossom & bear fruit for as long after he was gone.”

Thoreau entered Harvard College in 1833 at age sixteen and followed a traditional course of study based on rote memorization, recitation, and repetition. Though he is said to have complained that Harvard taught “all the branches” of learning but “none of the roots,” college was a transformative experience for him. His immersion in classical and modern languages, literature, and natural history set the course for a lifetime of self-directed reading and study. The exhibition features playful correspondence from Thoreau’s college classmates as well as student essays that contain hints of the big ideas that would continue to engage him, from the importance of simplicity to the value of independent thought. It was just after graduation that Thoreau began to keep a journal of his observations and reflections. His earliest surviving journal is on view, open to an entry that served as a guiding principle for his lifelong practice:

My desire is to know what I have lived, that I may know how to live henceforth.” Throughout his life Thoreau found various ways to, in his words, “get a living”—working as a teacher, schoolmaster, handyman, lecturer, writer, pencil maker, and, most regularly, as a surveyor. At the same time, he aimed to reverse the usual balance. How could he work less and live more? Shortly after he turned forty, he wrote a journal entry, dated October 29, 1857, concluding that he had chosen the professions best suited to his temperament. “I have aspired to practice in succession all the honest arts of life,” he wrote, “that I may gather all their fruits.

Thoreau read voraciously and in several languages, often with pen in hand, copying extracts into the same type of notebook in which he kept his journal. The exhibition includes a blank book he began using in college to copy selections from his reading. He devoted sixteen full pages to The Laws of Manu, an English translation of a classical Hindu text that influenced him profoundly. It is shown alongside Thoreau’s own copy of the Bhagavad-Gítá, another of his most cherished texts. Also on view are selections from Thoreau’s extensive self-directed study of indigenous North American cultures—a project that comprised some three thousand handwritten pages in a dozen notebooks.

For Thoreau and many of his Concord contemporaries, a journal was the perfect venue in which to cultivate a dynamic, direct relationship with nature rather than relying only on books, teachers, elders, and religious authorities. He also famously committed himself to living responsibly and focused his thinking and writing on consumerism, materialism, individualism, spirituality, and what we now call environmentalism. Thoreau was a passionate abolitionist and sometimes provided assistance to African Americans who had escaped from slavery as they made their way to Canada via the Underground Railroad. He wrote almost nothing about these illegal activities in his journal. What he did express—at length—was his fury with a government that sanctioned an institution as heinous as slavery. In 1846, Thoreau spent a night in jail for failure to pay a tax in protest against state-sanctioned slavery. Out of that experience he developed his most influential essay, Resistance to Civil Government (later published as “Civil Disobedience”), which is shown in its first printed appearance alongside the lock salvaged from Thoreau’s jail cell. In the years that followed, Thoreau became the most outspoken public apologist for the militant abolitionist John Brown and turned again to his journal to rail against a government “that pretends to be Christian & crucifies a million Christs every day.” Many of these journal entries made their way, in revised form, into his fiery public speeches and published essays.

As a young man, Thoreau wrote poetry, but he found his voice in prose. He published two books during his lifetime: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which did not cause much of a stir, and Walden, which most certainly did.  Both of these works and others had their beginnings in his journal. In lectures and published works, Thoreau developed a first-person public voice designed to provoke, tease, stimulate, challenge, and, sometimes, entertain. In his private writings, he let his words flow more naturally, expressing surprise, anger, frustration, awe, joy, and even ecstasy. In his early notebooks, he often extracted pages and repurposed the text. Later, though, he left the volumes intact. Over time, the journal became his most essential work of art.

Walden, published in 1854, would make Thoreau an American legend—a first edition copy is on view. The title page illustration is based on Sophia Thoreau’s drawing of the cabin where her brother Henry lived for two years, two months, and two days on the shores of Concord’s Walden Pond. In writing the book he pulled heavily from his journal entries. It was toward the end of his
composition process that he added the iconic first paragraph, a draft of which is on view:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in
the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on
the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living
by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At
present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.

Thoreau walked for hours every day and in all seasons and used his journal to record, in great detail, what he observed. As he grew older, his engagement with the natural world intensified and he spent years logging descriptions of natural phenomena. The exhibition features pressed plants from his herbarium and examples of the detailed phenological tables he drew up late in his life, pulling extensive data on plant flowering from past journal entries. “I have the habit of attention to such excess that my senses get no rest,” he wrote in 1852. But he reminded himself that observation was not all about effort: “Go not to the object, let it come to you.”

Did Thoreau intend his journal to be read by the public? He repurposed and revised many passages during his lifetime and shared them in lectures and published writings.  At the same time, the enterprise was deeply personal. “Says I to my-self should be the motto of my Journal,” he wrote in 1851. On view in the exhibition is his final entry, made in November 1861 after a violent rainstorm. He was paying attention, as he had done all his life, to ordinary details and seeing what conclusions he could draw. The second half of the notebook is empty. He died six months later.

 

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