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Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition
Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition
Henry D. Thoreau
Yale University Press, 2013
480 pp., 39.59

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Science in Focus: Tom Doyle

Painstaking Observation and Passionate Subjectivity

Thoreau's essays in a handsome annotated edition.

At least some of Thoreau's contemporaries were apparently confounded by seeing that "when a pine wood was cut down an oak one sprang up, and vice versa." Jeffrey Cramer, in his introduction to this handsome edition of Thoreau's essays, tells us that even "[m]any natural philosophers and scientists, including Louis Agassiz, professor of zoology and geology at Harvard, had supported" the idea of the spontaneous generation of the organic out of the inorganic to explain such phenomena. Thoreau uses his essay "The Succession of Forest Trees" to relate his "observations," as he calls them, many of them occurring while he was surveying his neighbors' fields. There is a slightly nagging tone to the essay: Thoreau thinks these people should have been able to see for themselves the myriad ways seeds can travel, if only they were more observant ("I have several times shown the proprietor the shortest way out of his wood-lot," he says).

The essays mostly share this approach: Thoreau's incessant attention to details is contrasted with the more ordinary way his neighbors experience the world, and the aim is to prod folks to pay more attention, to notice more, to care more. In the famous "Resistance to Civil Government" Thoreau says, "I pumped my fellow-prisoner as dry as I could, for fear I should never see him again." Nature too is pumped dry as Thoreau tries not to miss anything.

What makes Thoreau so compelling is his abiding concern to reach for the meaning of the details that make up experience. There are abrupt shifts in register here that show Thoreau struggling to find a way to say something about what the experience of particular events means and why these experiences matter. Reading the essays is a fine way to prepare for Walden's grasping for understanding and an account of being in the world that doesn't miss anything.

That Thoreau was an exceptionally patient and careful observer of the natural world was recently confirmed in "A Man for All Seasons," a New York Times Book Review article by Andrea Wulf. Some of the data Thoreau collected about temperature and dates of germination has provided contemporary researchers with key comparative information. This attention to detail is apparent in his essay "Natural History of Massachusetts," where he corrects some errors in official natural history reports the state had issued. But his main reaction is that the reports "imply more labor than enthusiasm." What keeps readers coming back to Thoreau is precisely the enthusiasm he brings to experience, and what makes these essays indispensable is Thoreau's subjectivity: yes, we care that "the moss on the trees takes the form of their leaves," but we care more about what Thoreau made of this, about what he was able to take away from, or more often add to, the observations he made of the natural world.

Thoreau's concentration on the particular makes annotations welcome, and Cramer is helpful. This isn't a collection of the essays for the backpack, but it is useful to have in the study. Cramer gives historical details many will now have forgotten (if they ever knew them), and he traces Thoreau's allusions to his contemporaries and to ancient writers. He also notes correspondences between passages in the essays and in other writings. These offer glimpses of Thoreau's use of his journal and his letters as incubators of ideas that eventually take on recognizable form in the published writings. The notes, brief and set off in the margins, are almost uniformly helpful, but perhaps a few are unnecessary: not many readers will need to be told that a wood-house is a "House or shed for storing wood." Still, Cramer has done all of us a great service in making these essays more accessible.

Tom Doyle is graduate student in philosophy at the University of Minnesota.

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