Peer into the Private Journals of Henry David Thoreau

Henry D. Thoreau, Daguerreotype, Worcester, Massachusetts, June 18, 1856. Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,” came from the pen of no less than Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), one the America’s finest men of letters.

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As a leading member of the Transcendental movement, Thoreau believed in the inherent goodness of people and nature. Seeing society and its institutions as the source of corruption, he believed that self-reliance and independence would purify the mind, body, and soul.

Henry D. Thoreau’s earliest surviving journal notebook, open to entries from November 1837. The Morgan Library & Museum; purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909.

He walked the walk to the fullest extent, moving into the woods to deliberately live alone. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world,” he wrote in “Where I Live, and What For” in his 1854 memoir, Walden.

Walden solidified Thoreau’s legacy and became the cornerstone of a mythological American that both reveals and conceals the truth. It was but one volume in a lifelong body of work that is collected in his journals, which have largely gone unpublished. It is these journals, the private thoughts of a man in conversation with himself, that tell us who he really is for they were never meant for public consumption.

Here, in the space where he could be truly alone in the world, Thoreau is a man in full. In celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth of July 12, The Morgan Library & Museum presents This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal, the most comprehensive exhibition of the man’s life work. Currently on view through September 10, 2017, This Ever New Self features nearly 100 items including more than 20 journals, plus letters, manuscripts, books from his library, pressed plants for him herbarium, and important personal artifacts including the only two photographs for which he ever sat.

The Morgan holds almost all of Thoreau’s surviving journals, forty in all, which are quiet collections of study, thought, and observation. The exhibition includes his earliest surviving journal dating back to November 1837, when he was a mere 20 years old, and continues through his final journal entry dated November 3, 1861, just six months before he died at the age of 44 years old.

Henry D. Thoreau (1817–1862), First edition of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854. The Morgan Library & Museum; bequest of Gordon N. Ray, 1987.

In addition to the journals, the exhibition includes artifacts from his life including the simple desk at which he sat and his goose quill pens, his copy of the Bhagavad-Gita and a first edition of Walden, his walking stick and the steel lock and key from the cell where he spent a night in jail in July 1846, when he refused to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes.

Thoreau refused to give his money to the state on the grounds that he opposed slavery and the Mexican-American War. Against his wishes, someone (most likely his aunt) paid the taxes and he was freed the following day. This experience became the impetus for his lecture turned essay, Civil Disobedience, published in 1849, in which he famously observed, “Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”

Here Thoreau advised, “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

He drew his words from his experiences, many of which he did not record. As a passionate abolitionist, he helped slaves along their path to freedom along the Underground Railroad, providing assistance as they made their way north to Canada. He wrote almost nothing about these activities in his journal, but instead used his writings as a space to call out the oppression and exploitation of the United States government.

As a writer, Thoreau used life as his canvas for examining ideas about the nature of humanity and exploring the ways in which we can best achieve our highest selves. The journal was an essential part of his practice, becoming the space in which he could distill and reflect, refine and purify his words until they were perfect. “Says I to my-self should be the motto of my Journal,” he wrote in 1851, reminding us of the power we have to draw from the deepest wells of our soul.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.