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Book Review: Thoreau's Collected Essays & Poems

Henry D. Thoreau, Collected Essays and Poems. Elizabeth Hall Witherell, editor. New York: Library of America: 2001. ISBN 1-883011-95-7. 703 pp., $35.00 hardcover.

Reviewed by Randall Conrad. Reprinted by permission of the Thoreau Society Bulletin (no. 238, winter 2002).

The Library of America (that narrow red-white-blue ribbon on the jacket seems timely this year, rather than timeless) offers authoritative, durable editions of American classics with minimal editorial commentary. The series brought out a volume of Henry Thoreau's major prose works in 1985 under the able hand of Robert F. Sayre, and now we have Thoreau's Collected Essays and Poems in a single volume assembled by Elizabeth Witherell, past president of the Thoreau Society and chief editor of the Princeton Edition.

It is an insightful experience to be able to read through Thoreau's 27 essays in plain chronological order rather than segregated into the traditional categories - social reform, travel, natural history, etc. Reading "Slavery in Massachusetts" immediately following the mystic idealism of "Love" and "Chastity & Sensuality" discloses the profound kinship between Thoreau's purist standards in regard to body and spirit, and the moral absolutism that made an uncompromising abolitionist of the man who never joined an antislavery organization.

Chronologically, Thoreau's three tributes to that other pure abolitionist John Brown are flanked in this edition by his finest late writings on nature and science, "Autumnal Tints" on the near side and "The Succession of Forest Trees," "Wild Apples" and "Huckleberries" (his final essays) on the other. It is plain that Thoreau's high-minded and controversial social vision was rooted in the same rich seedbed as the late nature writings, those visionary admixtures of science and sensuality.

As to Thoreau's poetry, Witherell, a lifelong expert, establishes a canon of 203 works ranging from the young classicist's careful conceits to eccentric-looking couplets extracted from journal entries as late as 1860. Whether Thoreau's poetic output gains as much as his prose from raw chronological order rather than editorial arrangement is debatable. It is hard to make much of the seven-word "All things decay / & so must our sleigh" without the context of Thoreau's haunting meditation on March that is its matrix (Journal, March 25, 1860). On the other hand, when for example "Sic Vita" is shorn of its customary anecdotal context (flung through Lucy Brown's window with a bunch of violets, etc.), we read it more closely for its own sake, feeling empathy with the rootless blossoms as they droop and wither, then detachment as we ponder Thoreau's cyclical vision: death makes room for new life.

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010