HENRY DAVID THOREAU is known to most because of his stay at Walden Pond or for his essay “Civil Disobedience.” When I teach his work, I find some students also have an acquaintance with his essays on the abolitionist and insurrectionist John Brown, or his essay-manifesto, “Walking.” There’s good reason these are his best-known works; in them, his oracular and poetic powers are on full display.
But while these texts are the foundation of Thoreau’s literary legacy, a strong case can be made that these were not the most important works to the man himself. From the time he was twenty until his death at forty-four, Thoreau’s daily journals occupied much of his productive life, and in them, we see his evolution as a writer. True, he spent nearly ten years writing, rewriting, and editing Walden, but this pales in comparison to the amount of time he spent writing his journals. In fact, on the day Walden was published, August 9, 1854, we find an almost offhand remark in his journal: “Wednesday.—To Boston. “Walden” published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing.” This apparent disregard for such a monumental event in his life is made all the more significant by the fact that the entries for the days around the publication have long, flowing descriptions of droughts, a nearby meadow, and a wasp sting, as well as observations on the trees and plants he had lately observed.
Of course, anyone who keeps a regular journal most likely spends a significant amount of time writing in it. But Thoreau did not keep a journal in the way we normally understand that endeavor. Instead, his journals are literary evocations of what he considered the essence of his day-to-day existence—evocations that read more like a long daily series of essays, some of which he prepared for publication.
These short essay-entries perhaps helped Thoreau solve a problem inherent to his take on Transcendentalism—a take that simultaneously posits the centrality of unique and individual experience and the existence of transpersonal, perhaps even universal, truths. The journal, as a literary form, resolves this contradiction by taking the actual lived experience of the individual as its subject matter and, in Thoreau’s hands, attempting to discern universal themes in this subject matter. The themes explored in his longer writings were often addressed first in the journals, and many passages from the journals ended up in the longer texts. It was in the journals that Thoreau developed his unique writing style, as well as his ideas. As we will see, he learns this style from the source of all his profoundest insights: nature itself. More specifically, for Thoreau, the labor of the journalist, and of writers in general, was analogous to the work done by the bumblebee. But before we tackle that analogy in depth, it might first be helpful to consider Thoreau’s comments about journaling in the daybooks themselves.
On March 27, 1857, after he had been keeping his journal regularly for nearly twenty years, he explains his journal writing process: “I would fain make two reports in my Journal, first the incidents and observations of to-day; and by to-morrow I review the same and record what was omitted before, which will often be the most significant and poetic part.” In other words, these entries aren’t just a catalogue of each day, but a continued reflection on the events of his life. Thoreau edited, added, and subtracted notes on each day as he saw fit. As John Stilgoe writes in his introduction to an abridged version of the journals, “This Journal is not literally what Thoreau wrote each day: he often wrote up entries days later, from notes, and as the cross-referencing footnotes show, he would also go back years later and make further additions and connections.” He seems to have been perfectly cognizant of the fact that any description of any day would be faulty, lacking, imperfect, and therefore only an essai. He tries time and time again to craft an image of every diurnal turning that is more true than it was before. He adds new words and sentences above older entries. From time to time, he simply crosses out a few words, or entire sentences, in apparent elimination of the inessential aspects of that day’s events. It appears that some passages are rewritten entirely at a later date, in the margin or above the older paragraph. For example, in the entry from January 31, 1855, he writes about some birds that he at first mistook for tree brush. The journal includes at least three different articulations of the event, one after the other.
The first iteration is a relatively straightforward description of the event, including all the information necessary to understand the scene:
As I skated near the shore under Lee’s cliff I saw what I took to be some scrags or knotty stubbs of a dead limb lying on the bank beneath a white oak, close by me. Yet while I looked directly at them I could not but admire their close resemblance to partridges. I had come along with a rapid whirr & suddenly halted right against them, only two rods distant, and as my eyes watered a little from skating against the wind, I was not convinced that they were birds till I had pulled out my glass & deliberately examined them. They sat & stood three of them perfectly still with their heads erect, some darker feathers like ears methinks, increasing their resemblance to scrabs, as where a small limb is broken off.
In the second iteration, which seems to be an amendment or edit of several passages in the first iteration, much of the circumstantial information is excised, leaving us with only the essential similarities between the birds and brush:
I was much surprised at the remarkable stillness they preserved instinctively relying on the resemblance to the ground for their protection, ie withered grass, dry oak leaves, dead scrags, & broken twigs.
In the third and final iteration, we have a complete rewriting of most of the account. This final iteration is both personal and touches on some transpersonal idea:
I thought at first that it was a dead oak limb with a few stub ends or scrabbs sticking up, and for some time after I had noted the resemblance to birds standing only 2 rods off I could not be sure of their character on account of their perfect motionlessness & it was not till I brought my glass to bear on them and saw their eyes distinctly, steadily glaring on me, their necks & every muscle tense with anxiety that I was convinced.
As we will see, this iterative process of journaling is enormously important for Thoreau’s more public writing and editing. He describes his reasoning for this in the following observation, written on March 28, 1857: “Often I can give the truest & most interesting account of any adventure I have had after years have elapsed—for then I am not confused, only the most significant facts surviving in my memory.” Or again, on April 20, 1854: “I find some advantage in describing the experience of a day on the day following. At this distance it is more ideal, like the landscape seen with the head inverted, or reflections in water.” Just as Thoreau’s entries seem less true to him until the incidentals and unnecessary details of each day have been stripped away, he expresses a distaste for certain writers, like Thomas De Quincey, who, as he writes on August 22, 1851, “express themselves with too great fullness and detail.” Thoreau writes that De Quincey’s descriptions of London, just like unedited daily journal entries, with their abundance of information, “do not affect us by an ineffectual earnestness and a reserve of meaning, like a stutterer,” but rather “say all they mean.” When every thought, event, or observation is recounted, in journaling and elsewhere, the mind is unable to filter out extraneous information and grasp what is essential.
Several years later, on March 23, 1853, Thoreau writes that “man cannot afford . . . to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye.” We must “look through and beyond” nature to the essential, lest we be “dissipated by so many observations.” He suggests he should rather “be the magnet in the midst of all this dust and filings,” drawing only the ore of the world to himself, not all the waste and dust contained in the excessive details of everyday life.
Such notes give us tremendous insight into Thoreau’s writing process. He suggests that rather than expressing every incidental observation, every note and detail, every mote of information, “the art of writing” consists in crafting “sentences which suggest far more than they say, which have an atmosphere about them, which do not merely report an old, but make a new, impression.” The art of writing, if Thoreau is right, is the art of allusion and symbolism. A well-constructed sentence, or phrase, or fragment, can spark an endless series of thoughts, impressions, and experiences in the reader; the work of the author is what Mallarmé might call “restrained action,” a kind of seduction on the part of the writer, which does not bog the reader’s mind down with mundane details but rather compels readers to bring the entirety of their existences into the interpretation of the text, making of each finite word an infinite series of references. Journaling, and writing more generally, is not just reportage or the collection of information, but transformation, suggestion, and creation.
SEVERAL WEEKS after his reflections on De Quincey, on September 4, 1851, Thoreau gives another description of the art of writing. He starts by arguing that
It is wise to write on many subjects, to try many themes, that so you may find the right and inspiring one. Be greedy of occasions to express your thought. Improve the opportunity to draw analogies. There are innumerable avenues to a perception of the truth. Improve the suggestion of each object however humble, however slight and transient the provocation. . . . Probe the universe in a myriad points. Be avaricious of these impulses. You must try a thousand themes before you find the right one, as nature makes a thousand acorns to get one oak.
Three days later, he strikes upon an analogy that continues this train of thought when he realizes that his ideal writer is like a bee, searching out “how to live. How to get the most life. How to extract its honey from the flower of the world.” Here, he encourages himself, and us, to alight upon any and all topics, like a bumblebee floating erratically and with gay abandon through a field of wildflowers. “Take each thing in, record it. Drink from every flower, every experience,” he seems to say.
This may at first seem to be in direct contradiction to the desire for austerity, stuttering, and restraint that characterizes Thoreau’s ideal writer, but if we understand the way that bees collect pollen and produce honey, we will see there is, in fact, no contradiction and that these two approaches to writing work together to reveal a single understanding of the art of writing, inspired and informed by the natural world.
Bees collect nectar from whatever flowers they find available. Often this is clover, honeysuckle, or some other abundant wild blossom. They collect this nectar in a special “honey stomach,” located along the digestive tract before the stomach in which they digest food. When bees return to the hive, laden with as much nectar as nearly their entire body weight, they pass the nectar off to other bees that live inside the hive. These indoor bees chew on the nectar and pass the processed nectar off to other bees, which chew it, pass it, and so on, transforming the sugars in the nectar from complex sucrose into simpler sugars like glucose and fructose, and then this liquid is fanned until the nectar has been dehydrated to about 18 percent moisture content. At this point, it is a sticky, sweet concentrate—honey—which is deposited in combs and stored for later use. Each teaspoon of honey takes the entire lives of anywhere from eight to twelve worker bees.
Like a bee, Thoreau’s ideal author does two things: first, she collects as much experience as possible, writes everything down, becomes as laden with life as one can be, flying from blossom to blossom to gather up the raw nectar of existence; and second, through a long process of editing, processing, and eliminating of the vaporous excess, she transforms this experiential nectar into the sweet, concentrated honey of the essential.
Near the end of his life, Thoreau planned a project—a sort of Farmer’s Almanac on steroids—for which he would collect information from his environment throughout the year in an attempt to forecast the annual emergence of every plant and animal in the Concord region. This project never came quite to fruition but does seem to be very nearly achieved in some of Thoreau’s late works on trees, fruits, and seeds. The Dispersion of Seeds, published posthumously, makes an argument for the importance of seeds for the renewal of forests—an idea that was apparently not widespread at the time. Thoreau’s observations of modes of seed dispersion are collected in his journals in the 1850s. A long series of edits turned otherwise mundane observations into insightful descriptions of the beautiful mechanics of natural selection and ecological interdependence. Near the end of the 1850s, Thoreau culled the most “true” descriptions of the workings of nature from ten years of journalizing and began to organize the texts that would be posthumously published on natural history. It seems this work intensified in the last two years of his life, after a cold caught on December 3, 1860, caused his health to decline, forcing him indoors more and more frequently, until his death in May of 1862. These late writings, then, are like the honey concentrated from decades of patient and voracious observation.
Thoreau was always buzzing about, gathering nectar and depositing it in his journal. Returning to the material over the course of a lifetime, he separated the concentrate from the “dust and filings,” the essence from the excess, and left just a small portion of worthy words for the reader. It is safe to say that Thoreau learned from nature not just, as he says in Walden, “higher laws,” but also how to write.