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Thoreau's 'Walden' returns to its source

By Leigh Montgomery / August 6, 2004



On Aug. 9, 1854, the Boston publisher Tick-nor & Fields released the first 2,000 copies of a book in their unassuming trademark binding: simple brown boards, with bindings gilt-stamped "WALDEN: Or Life in the Woods." Henry David Thoreau's account of solitary, "deliberate living" - precisely two years, two months, and two days, or enough to experience all seasons twice - went forward into the world.

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Part autobiographical treatise on taking time to notice the natural surroundings, part manual for simple living, "Walden" has become one of the most loved and enduring of American belles-lettres. One hundred fifty years later it has never been out of print, with the two latest editions this month, timed to the anniversary of this publishing event. One version, by Houghton Mifflin, is an illustrated edition with photographs of the pond in different seasons; another issued by Yale University Press is an edition newly annotated by Jeffrey Cramer, curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, Mass.

Currently on view at the institute is the original "Walden" manuscript in Thoreau's own hand, on loan for the first time in a century from the Huntington Library in California. The pages show Thoreau's many edits, and show visitors how resourceful he was at rewriting as well as living.

The goal of the exhibition is for visitors to rediscover the book, but also highlights the institute's focus on its author as well as those inspired by Thoreau, who was an activist, naturalist, speaker on the lyceum circuit, but foremost a writer.

"People think that Thoreau's life was half spent at Walden Pond and half in jail," Mr. Cramer says. Thoreau's message in his colloquial, descriptive, even humorous prose, Cramer continues, is to "Be awake and aware."

"Walden Comes Home: The Sesquicentennial of an American Classic" is currently on view at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, Lincoln, Mass., through Sept. 13, 2004. For more information go to www.walden.org

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