History of the Walden Manuscript

Composition (1846-1854)

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau built a small house near the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, on land owned by his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. He moved in on July 4, 1845, and moved back to town on September 6, 1847. The house was his writer’s retreat: there he finished a draft of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and began his second, Walden.

Thoreau continued working on Walden after he left the pond, revising multiple times before the book was finally published in 1854. The greater part of his manuscript of the book, comprising roughly 1200 pages, now resides at the Huntington Museum in San Marino, California, where it was recently digitized and made available to the public through a grant awarded by the State University of New York that has also supported the development of this web site.

The first draft of Walden, which Thoreau worked on between late 1846 and September 1847, is closest to a complete version. From mid-1848 into March 1854, Thoreau developed his book through six more stages. (The final version, which Thoreau sent to the printer piecemeal beginning in March 1854, is no longer extant.) None of the drafts is complete in itself, and from the second draft on, each is made up of some combination of new material, existing material copied onto new leaves, and leaves or portions of leaves moved from earlier drafts into later ones. In other words, the surviving Walden manuscript is a mash-up of seven different phases of Thoreau’s thinking, planning, and writing on 628 sheets of various kinds of paper.

Transmission of Walden and other manuscripts (1862 to 1918)

Thoreau died on May 6, 1862, leaving all of his manuscripts to his sister Sophia. When she moved to Bangor, Maine, in 1873, she left the manuscripts with Bronson Alcott, in Concord. Until then, the Walden manuscript probably retained the order in which Thoreau had left it.

Sophia left the manuscripts with Alcott in 1873, 1874, and 1875. She learned that Alcott had allowed Franklin Benjamin Sanborn to borrow items, and she must have known that William Ellery Channing, with whom she had fallen out, could have had access to them at Sanborn’s home. In 1875, she asked Alcott to put all the manuscripts in the town library (now the Concord Free Public Library) with Emerson as trustee.

Before she died in October 1876, Sophia decided that the manuscripts (with the exception of Thoreau’s surveys and his surveying field notes, which she gave to the library) should go to Harrison Gray Otis Blake, who had been a disciple, correspondent, and friend of Thoreau’s. In December 1876 Emerson sent two trunks of manuscripts to Blake.

Blake, who lived in Worcester, had the manuscripts until his death in 1898. We know he gave away parts of letters containing Thoreau’s signature as mementos; he could have done this with fragments of the Walden manuscript as well.

Elias Harlow Russell, who cared for Blake in his last years in Worcester, inherited the manuscripts from Blake. Russell then went to court and secured a decree of absolute ownership of this inheritance. To Houghton MIfflin he sold the publishing rights for Thoreau’s Journal, and he made an arrangement for Houghton Mifflin to purchase several hundred loose manuscript leaves, including leaves from the Walden drafts, to be tipped into six hundred volumes of a special set of Thoreau’s complete works (the Manuscript Edition).

In 1904, Russell sold all but the manuscripts of the Journal volumes to the New York dealer George Hellman. Whatever order the manuscripts were in when Hellman acquired them was lost when he sorted them into published and unpublished material and early and late drafts, based on his incomplete understanding of their relationships to Thoreau’s books and essays. He also had some groups of manuscripts bound in leather, misidentifying at least one group (Howarth, Literary Manuscripts of Henry David Thoreau, xxiv).

Hellman disposed of the manuscripts in three groups. As had been previously arranged through Russell, Houghton Mifflin received between three and four hundred leaves to tip into the Manuscript Edition sets. William Augustus White, a New York collector, bought almost four hundred miscellaneous leaves in late 1904. William Keeney Bixby, a St. Louis collector, bought all the unconsigned manuscripts, including the Walden manuscript, in August 1905 (LMHDT, xxv).

Bixby hired Sanborn to “examine, identify, and transcribe” the manuscripts he had bought: Sanborn vandalized the manuscripts, marking them in ink, graphite pencil, and colored pencil, and in some cases typing on them. Sanborn persuaded Bixby to finance the 1909 Bibliophile Edition of Walden, to which he added material from the draft manuscript, as well as his own commentary. For the Bibliophile Edition Sanborn marked the Walden manuscript for correspondence with the 1889 Houghton Mifflin edition of Walden. J. Lyndon Shanley asserts that Sanborn “more than likely” was responsible for the order of the MS pages in which Shanley found them at the Huntington (The Making of Walden, with the Text of the First Edition [1957], p. 3).

As for the Journal, Houghton Mifflin held onto the manuscript volumes until late 1906, using them to proofread copy for the 1906 edition. In 1907, the manuscript volumes were returned to Russell, who sold them to Hellman. Hellman sold them to Stephen Wakeman, a New York collector, and Wakeman sold them to J. Pierpont Morgan in 1916. They have been at the Morgan Library ever since.

The Walden manuscripts at the Huntington

According to the Huntington’s catalog record, Henry E. Huntington purchased Bixby’s collection of Walden drafts in 1918. An unknown number of leaves of the drafts were not part of Bixby’s acquisition: they had been sold either by Russell to Houghton MIfflin or by Hellman to another collector, William Augustus White. About fifty of these leaves have turned up since then in the collections of seventeen libraries in the United States, and those of a number of private collectors.

It’s not uncommon for libraries to mark manuscripts to indicate ownership and discourage theft. It is not clear what might have been done with these manuscripts at the Huntington in the way of ownership marking.

The current organization of the leaves of the Walden manuscript is the work of the Thoreau scholar J. Lyndon Shanley. The fullest account of Shanley’s work is in his The Making of Walden, with the Text of the First Edition (1957).

In Making, Shanley notes a “brief, unpublished paper” by Odell Shepard about “some of the revisions he had traced” in the Walden manuscript (p. 2). (PMLA for 1936 lists this paper as “The Manuscripts of Thoreau’s Walden,” delivered at the MLA meeting on December 30, 1936. Unless Shepard had access to photostats, he must have used the originals.) Shanley began his own study with black and white photostats of the whole manuscript, “thinking only that unpublished material in it would be useful for an annotated edition of Walden” (p. 2). Using the photostats, he assembled different versions of “a number of passages,” but until he went to the Huntington to check his transcriptions against the original he had no idea that individual drafts could be identified.

With the manuscript leaves before him at the library, however, Shanley found that he could use “the color and size of paper, ink, and handwriting, and the stationer’s marks” as well as contents to sort the leaves into “seven large groups of leaves and two smaller ones” numbered I to IX (p. 4). He describes the organization of the leaves after he had arranged them: “The manuscript (HM 924) in the Huntington Library is distributed in eight envelopes, and the leaves of group VIII are distributed among the envelopes containing groups I-VII, according to the relations of these leaves to the major groups” (p. 13, n. 24). The Huntington replaced roman numerals with letters; groups I-VII are now usually known as A-G. An additional group labeled “IX” by Shanley and described by him as containing notes for Walden is also known as “pre-A”; in the Huntington accession scheme it is called “Additional Material, separate from drafts (Huntington Volume 8).”

Ronald E. Clapper is quite possibly the only other scholar to deal with the entire Walden manuscript; he did so while working at the Huntington in the 1960s on his PhD dissertation at UCLA, “The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text” (1967). Clapper was allowed to work with the originals, but by then use was carefully supervised and he would not have been able to rearrange or mark the manuscripts.

The current catalog record notes that the original is now available by special permission only. Those without permission are required to use the library’s facsimile reproduction.