THE QUOTABLE THOREAU by Jeffrey S. Cramer, ed., Reviewed by Rochelle Johnson
 

THE QUOTABLE THOREAU
Ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer
(Princeton, 2011) xlvi + 492 pp.
Reviewed by Rochelle Johnson on 2012-01-13.

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"My work is writing," wrote Henry David Thoreau in October of 1856. This thick volume affirms that claim, which may have been offered in self-assurance, or perhaps even in hope. With more than two thousand quotations on more than one hundred and fifty topics, The Quotable Thoreau offers scholars and general readers alike a compilation of Thoreau's thoughts on subjects ranging from Imagination to Time, from Cities to Wildness, from Good and Evil to Marriage and Sex. It also draws from sources that move well beyond the expected titles such as Walden. Readers may quibble with Cramer's choices of which category best fits a quotation, but he has nonetheless compiled an extraordinary record of this celebrated American author's life in language. In editing this sizeable volume, he has done us all an immense favor.

That said, Cramer's edition is the latest entry in a long list of volumes featuring quotations from Thoreau's writings. By my count, no fewer than twenty volumes of such quotations have appeared in the last few decades. Some of these volumes aim to attract general readers with non-academic topics such as pets (Bonds of Affection: Thoreau on Dogs and Cats, ed. Wesley T. Mott [2005]), mountains (Elevating Ourselves: Thoreau on Mountains, ed. J. Parker Huber [1999]), and writing (Thoreau on Writing, ed. Eva M. Burkett and Joyce S. Steward [1989] and Thoreau's Comments on the Art of Writing, ed. Richard Dillman [1987]). Alternatively, these topic-oriented volumes gather his words on concepts as indefinite as "nature and the mystery of essence" (Thoreau and the Art of Life, ed. Roderick MacIver [2010]).

To catch the eye of the general reader, many such volumes feature forewords by luminaries, including popular writers such as Jonathan Kozol (for Uncommon Learning: Thoreau on Education, ed. Martin Bickman [1999]) and David James Duncan (for Thoreau on Water: Reflecting Heaven, ed. Robert Lawrence France [2001]), as well as world-renowned scientists such as Edward O. Wilson (for Material Faith: Thoreau on Science, ed. Laura Dassow Walls [1999]). Some volumes center on a specific geographical region (Thoreau's New England, ed. Stephen Gorman [2007]), while others highlight an activity (Wood-notes Wild: Walking with Thoreau, ed. Mary Kullberg [1995]). One of the oldest of such collections foregrounds Thoreau's environmentalism: in 1962, the Sierra Club issued a volume of his comments on nature with a foreword by nature writer Joseph Wood Krutch and photographs by Eliot Porter (In Wildness is the Preservation of the World). Not surprisingly, others have re-visited the "green" Thoreau more recently in collections such as A Yearning toward Wildness, ed. Tim Homan (1991) and The Green Thoreau, ed. Carol Spenard Larusso (1992). The volumes of Thoreau's collected words also include Kindle editions, Google versions, on-line-only texts, and many that have gone out of print.

Some of these volumes clearly aim to support a particular interpretation of Thoreau's life and labors. One editor even resets his prose as lines of poetry. Introducing All Nature is My Bride: Passages from the Journals Arranged as Poetry (1975), William M. White dismisses Thoreau's verse as "rigid" and weak, and argues instead that his true "poetry" lies hidden in the prose of his journal. White then unearths the poetry by presenting passages from the journal as if they were verse. His dating of the "poems" follows the 1906 edition of the Journal, but the "poems" themselves are constructed by the editor.

If we turn from editors to publishers of Thoreau's quotable prose, the University of Massachusetts Press stands out for issuing three volumes of quotations in 2005: Bonds of Affection, mentioned above; Daily Observations: Thoreau on the Days of the Year, ed. Steve Grant; and Nature's Panorama: Thoreau on the Seasons, ed. Ronald A. Bosco. But Houghton Mifflin's "Spirit of Thoreau" series includes five differently themed collections: Elevating Ourselves, Material Faith, Thoreau on Water, and Uncommon Learning, all mentioned above, and Thoreau on Land, .ed. J. O. Valentine [2001]). Nevertheless, simply by virtue of its expertly edited "Writings of Henry D. Thoreau" series, Princeton University Press has become the leading publisher of Thoreau's own words--as distinct from scholarship on him.

Published by Princeton, Cramer's volume bears a special kind of authority that other recent collections of Thoreau quotations do not have. While not technically a part of Princeton's "Writings" series, A Quotable Thoreau shares its publisher, and Cramer quotes chiefly from this in-progress Princeton edition. Furthermore, he mines Thoreau's journal and letters as well as his published works, and he makes room not only for sixty-five major subject headings such as "Thoreau Describes Himself," but also for "Miscellaneous Subjects," with ninety-three sub-headings (and forty-two pages of text). Under "Thoreau Describes His Contemporaries" are word-portraits of such figures as Bronson Alcott, John Brown, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman. Then, inverting the topic, the final section includes descriptions of Thoreau written by his contemporaries. Finally, a helpful appendix provides some misquotations and misattributions (of and to Thoreau).

Academic readers will appreciate Cramer's well documented selections, as the majority of similar volumes lack full--or readily accessible--source citations. For instance, Thoreau: A Book of Quotations (ed. Bob Blaisdell [2000 and 2011]) cites the sources for each quotation but not the page numbers; Thoreau on Writing (discussed above) offers titles and page numbers right after each quotation, but provides full citations only in a perplexing appendix. Unlike such volumes, this one fully cites the source of each quotation--including scholarly editions--on the page where it appears.

But the true contribution that Cramer's volume makes to Thoreau studies (and to studies of nineteenth-century literature more generally) appears when it is measured against other scholarly, un-themed volumes such as K. P. Van Englen's Simplify, Simplify (1996; re-issued in paperback in 2012). Like Cramer's Table of Contents, Van Englen's proceeds alphabetically, listing subject-headings for quotations drawn from Thoreau's many works, including the Journal. Also like Cramer, Van Englen fully cites the source of each quotation as well as often cross-referencing it. And like Cramer's volume, Van Englen's also includes something that other recent volumes of un-themed quotations lack: a well-informed introduction. Unlike Cramer, Van Englen relies primarily (though not solely) on the 1906 Houghton Mifflin edition of Thoreau's works rather than on the current Princeton edition of them. But since Van Englen's volume offers selections that cannot be found in Cramer's volume, serious scholars will want to own them both.

Neither volume, however, charts a clear path to every one of the quotations it prints. For instance, in a section called "Emerson, Lidian Jackson" (Ralph Waldo Emerson's second wife), Van Englen includes just one quotation, though a lengthy one: many lines from a May 22, 1832 letter to Lidian in which Thoreau describes his complex but appreciative attitude toward their friendship. The letter includes this memorable remark: "Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes" (52). In Cramer's collection, this sentence appears in a section titled "Friendship" (113), which features forty-five separate quotations drawn from Thoreau's letters, published poems, the Journal, and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. But in Cramer's seemingly full index, the "Emerson, Lidian" entry fails to include the page for this sentence in the "Friendship" section. Van Englen's corresponding section, "Friends and Friendship," includes twelve quotations on the theme but no reference to the line from the 1832 letter to Lidian. (There is no index in Van Englen's volume; the table of contents takes its place.) In sum, not even the best of editors may perfectly manage to gather a man's life in words and then categorize the results for rapid consumption by readers: some indexes and tables of contents never fully serve, and exacting readers will find fault with any system of organization.

As curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, an independent research institution which holds the world's most comprehensive collection of Thoreau-related material, Cramer is well placed to compile this volume. Given also his careful reliance on the Princeton edition of Thoreau's writings, he brings the best of current scholarship to this project. In spite of the dozens of volumes of Thoreau quotations published in recent years--variously categorized, indexed, and illustrated--this vast one is bound to stand the test of time.

Rochelle L. Johnson is Professor of English & Environmental Studies at The College of Idaho, Caldwell, Idaho.


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