Henry David Thoreau
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Indexing a Classic:
Thoreau's fully annotated Walden, 2004

By Randall Conrad


Reprinted by permission from Key Words, the quarterly bulletin
of the American Society of Indexers, vol. 12, No.4, Oct.-Dec. 2004, 137-42.

� 2004 ASI.

Like him or not, most Americans know a thing or two about Henry David Thoreau. "The man in the street knows that Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live and went to jail," his biographer wrote, "but has a vague notion that he spent one half of his life doing the one and the other half the other." [note 1] In real time, the American philosopher and naturalist spent exactly two years, two months and two days (1845-1847) living in relative solitude at Walden Pond on the outskirts of his native Concord, Massachusetts. In between two of those 794 days, Thoreau spent only one night, albeit a historic one, in jail rather than pay taxes which he said supported slavery and unjust war.

Not surprisingly, the sesquicentennial of Thoreau's masterwork this year is still ushering in a tide of Thoreau studies and a wave of "anniversary Waldens" aimed at diverse readerships. For those who know Walden well, the ultimate version is the massive "fully annotated" edition newly available from Yale University Press. [note 2] The editor, Jeffrey S. Cramer, is curator of collections at the world's most concentrated collection of Thoreau studies, the Henley Library of the Thoreau Institute - 8,000 books and a wide archive that includes the correspondence and files of generations of scholars, preserved in a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled library in Walden Woods.

By late spring of this year, Cramer's editorial labors were finally in press at Yale, under the guidance of manuscript editor Phillip King. To index the 400-page work, Cramer sought someone experienced with Walden and Thoreau studies. So when the author of these lines - freelance editor, indexer, Thoreau scholar and Thoreau Institute habitu� - received an e-mail inquiring about availability to do the back-of-the-book index for the mother of all Waldens, you could have measured the response time in nanoseconds.

That's the short part of the story. It took me rather longer to visualize what a 21st-century index to this idiosyncratic 19th-century text needed to be, and to arrive at an efficient solution after a few false starts. I would discover, as if for the first time, what it might mean to index a classic.

The index, it was agreed, must cover Cramer's extensive explanatory notes - laid out in the margins of the page, concurrently with the text - on a par with the text itself, as distinct from the customary practice of selective entries using a differentiating device such as "241n." Users of this authoritative version, already familiar with Thoreau's work, would want the benefit of thoroughly searching the highly detailed editorial apparatus. [note 3]

In the end, I was allowed 3,200 lines (double the length originally envisioned) and extra time.

All you indexers reading this, pause with me a moment to give thanks for the Olympian patience of editors - the serene tolerance, at any rate, of the two gentlemen associated with the Yale Walden.

And please remain seated as I tell you that, in a spirit of Thoreauvian simplification, I used only index cards and pencils to accomplish the entire task.

I mean, don't they actually recommend this bracing exercise in Indexing 101?

By adding a pound or two of graphite powder and wood shavings to the world's waste stream, I was, in my way, celebrating the sesquicentennial. [note 4] The old-fashioned labor did bring me closer to Thoreau's text, and to the spirit in which he worked. Maybe even closer materially, considering that Thoreau and his father were innovative pencil manufacturers, the originators of today's Number Two and its kin. [note 5] ("pencil and graphite business, Thoreaus', 20, 42, 67, 68, 251.")

Thoreau's sojourn in Walden Woods bore literary fruit, notably of course Walden, that wry essay in individualist philosophy and social comment, but also a great deal of other work. True enough, Thoreau had withdrawn to the local woodlots to be close to nature and meditate, but his burning preoccupation was to get a lot of important writing done. Day after day during those 26 months, Thoreau sat at the green wooden table he had brought from home, consuming pens, pencils, ink and paper over what he called "some private business."

He wrote and revised his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, kept up a voluminous daily journal that was now in its eighth year, wrote his impressions of a trip to Maine and a bold climb up Katahdin, wrote several essays, conceived "Civil Disobedience," and composed the first draft of Walden itself (as he said, "the bulk of these pages").

Long after he left his pond-side house, Thoreau's original draft grew twice as long and infinitely deeper. For years off and on, living in the village, rarely traveling, and visiting Walden nearly every day for hours, Thoreau brought his manuscript through a succession of painstaking revisions. Having hit upon the idea of organizing the narrative around the cycle of a single year's seasons, Thoreau rearranged passages, added new material, and enhanced every page with poetic quotation, wordplay, jokes, fables, parables, allusions to history and myth, and references drawn from his wide reading in literature, philosophy, science, travel, and religious scripture.

Seven drafts later, Walden finally appeared in August of 1854. It was the second and last book-length work Thoreau would publish in his lifetime, and a classic of world literature, never out of print since its author's death. (He died at 44 from tuberculosis, incurable in those days.)

He made Walden Pond, "earth's eye," the centerpiece of Walden, and the play of images on that lake's mirroring surface aptly symbolizes Thoreau's shifting uses of reality as a writer -- one source of the book's enduring fascination and, I dare add, its resistance to taxonomic practices. ("art: multi-layered for sense, truth, and beauty, 2, 315-16.")

Symbolic Realism

Part autobiography, part jeremiad, part invocation and divination, Walden is not your ordinary work of nonfiction, awaiting an ordinary index. Not as long as Thoreau held to his goal: "I would so state facts that they shall be significant, shall be myths or mythologies." As a writer, Thoreau sought to guide us to a world of higher truths, and used realities as the signposts: "All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy." ("analogy, 13; basis of Thoreau's art, xxiii.")

It follows from Thoreau's analogic tendency throughout Walden that, just when you believe he's been describing everyday realities, some trick of style may hint that this may have been about something else at the same time. Realities in Walden play hide-and-seek, just like the waterfowl that teases Thoreau one afternoon on Walden Pond in a famous passage as real as it is symbolic ("loon: Thoreau chases a, 224-26; wild laughter of, 224, 226").

There's the rub for the indexer. When is Thoreau's reference real, and when is it oblique, jocular, an idle throwaway? True, some throwaways are obvious enough, and we learned to spurn them in Indexing 101. For example, in recommending inward exploration over globetrotting, Thoreau advises, "It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar." Neither of Walden's two previous indexers fell for that one, and neither did I. [note 6] So you will have no "Zanzibar, cats in"; no "Zanzibar" at all.

Some instances, though, are more challenging. What should the indexer do about the question Thoreau asks in a passage on the spread of education, using place names to stand for universities? "Shall the world be confined to one Paris or one Oxford forever?" Of my two predecessors, one omitted them as if they were more Zanzibars; the other, however, specified: Oxford University (England) and Paris, University of. I mimicked option two.

Being and Nothingness

Besides consulting Walden's previous indexes for precedents, I used this touchstone: if even a casual item is explained in an editorial note, it becomes substantial enough to merit an entry. This proved helpful in the case of such Thoreauvian devices as the mock sermon, the knowing wink, and the tongue-in-cheek litany. For example, on the topic of fuel as a necessary of life, Thoreau wrote:

It is now many years that men have resorted to the forest for fuel and the materials of the arts: the New Englander and the New Hollander, the Parisian and the Celt, the farmer and Robinhood, Goody Blake and Harry Gill.

Besides inspiring a straightforward main entry with cross-references ("wood, enduring value of, 241. See also fuel; fire; trees"), Thoreau's sentence had prompted editorial annotations identifying his facetious literary references, and your indexer accordingly produced these additional entries:

"Goody Blake and Harry Gill" (Wordsworth), 241 [note 7]

Robinhood, 241

As to that New Hollander (native Australian), he does enjoy a more substantive presence (in another chapter) which I duly indexed. But in this fuel passage, I considered him and his fellows as generic as New Zanzibarians, and denied them entry.


Hard Realities

Thoreau's variable-density realities had disturbed Walden's first indexer to some extent, as I judged from occasional entries at the back of the Princeton Edition that had an undertone of existentialist resignation:

Nebuchadnezzar, name not on bricks, 241

Reality, 98; not appearance, 95

Yet substantives in Walden are not all evanescent. More than his peers, Thoreau portrayed some of the hard social realities in the surrounding culture of antebellum Concord and America.

During his years at the pond, famine in the British Isles began to drive waves of Irish immigrants to New England shores, and Thoreau devoted dispassionate, sometimes unfriendly, pages to the new laborers whom he saw "living in sties" with their families along the new railroad their labor had built.

He observed the displaced Penobscot and Wampanoag selling their wares from door to door ("Indian(s), native American [...]; "strolling" (itinerant) in Concord, 20; basket-seller, 20") and he reflected on industrial degradation in Massachusetts's new textile mills: "the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched."

Above all, Thoreau inveighed against slavery. One branch of the underground railroad, the slaves' clandestine northward route, passed through Concord, where Thoreau and his abolitionist family concealed and assisted fugitives on the road to freedom. He pointedly refers in Walden to one of the runaways "whom I helped to forward to the northstar" ("...helps runaway slave, 147"). In the chapter "Former Inhabitants," Thoreau offers poignant vignettes of men and women of color who lived marginal existences in Walden Woods in earlier times.

Rethinking Walden

 A modern index, I felt, would have to accommodate this documentary side of Walden no less than its art.

For this to happen, moreover, a good index needed rethinking in terms of contemporary cultural sensitivities, of Thoreau's modern status as a founder of ecology, and of current scholarship around Thoreau's spiritual life, metaphysics, ideas about art, and more.

A modern index also would offer entries dedicated to Walden's most famous passages. Previous indexers had been content to list Thoreau's eighteen chapter titles, yet modern scholars also think in terms of Walden's set-pieces in their own right, such as the loon on the lake, the battle of the ants, the thawing "sand foliage," and the several original stories, parables, and fables woven into the narrative.

Earlier indexers had gotten along using loose categories, obsolete nomenclature (Irish, Irishman, Irishmen in one index -- occupying separate lines, imagine!), and hit-or-miss subentries (under "Indians" for example, "Mucclase, 168; Puri, 112," but no Penobscot).

And so I became systematic, creating more uniform entries such as the following (numerals omitted):

African Americans and Africans, __; see also anti-slavery; slaves and slavery; Underground Railroad in Concord; and particular names

Indian(s), native American, __; "strolling" (itinerant) in Concord; basket-seller; tents of; house-building of; Algonquin; Mucclasse (Muklasa); Penobscot; Wampanoag

Irish immigrants in Concord, __; railroad workers; menial laborers; shanties and unhealthy conditions of. See also particular names

New Hollander (native Australian),

Puri (native Brazilians), expressions of time,

Saving Closet Space

Religious references needed to be organized in the same spirit. Thoreau, who worshipped at an altar of his own devising, was as familiar with many sacred writings of Asia as he was with the King James Bible - perhaps more so, he claimed. As a result, he seasoned Walden with the wisdom of the Vedas and, to a lesser extent, Confucian parable. Unfortunately, prior indexes allowed only haphazard access to these enriching perspectives. So I provided this at-a-glance entry (numerals omitted):

Asian belief systems,

Confucian: Analects; Doctrine of the Mean; Great Learning; Mencius; Thseng-tseu

Hindu: Vedas; Brahma and Brahminism; Bhagavad-Gita; Harivansa; Menu (Manu); "Laws of Menu" (by Thoreau); Vishnu Purana; Sankhya Karika; Hitopadesa

Zoroastrian: Zoroaster;  Zendavestas; let the farm-hand commune with Z.

Yes, I confess, I was feeling unWellisch when I provided these classifications among my entries. But I meant well, and I tried to compensate. I replicated those sub-entries as main entries too, sometimes slightly expanded ("Sankhya Karika of Iswara Krishna, 94"). And I made entries for related material: "Kieou-pe-yu, sends messenger to Khoung-tseu (Confucian parable), 93." [note 8]

Once I had tasted the fruit of classification, I realized that this was like installing space-saver units in the bedroom closet. The entries "trees" and "plants," with a couple of dozen subentries apiece, saved me over 25% in precious lineage, while "birds" (statistically the most frequent natural reference in Walden) freed up some 33% of the space that the individual species would have occupied if each were a main entry -- and you can still find your "loon" on his own, with his own subentries.

Nor was this all. Besides fauna, flora, natural history, and multiple cultures, Walden teems with double entendres, literary references, historical and classical allusions, and names, names, names ("Theseus, 28, 37, 77; Thessaly, 219, 281;" etc.) The classically educated Thoreau, who brought only Homer with him to Walden, freely alludes to the great books the reader is presumed to know, often intending parody ("Trojan War, ... used in ant-war description, 219-20").

In this last example, I was quite aware of departing from tradition by indulging the term "used in." I saw that the indexer would have to take a step back sometimes, and treat Thoreau's art and style as subject matter in their own right. I saw... but wait!

Suddenly, everything that was bothering me -- the generic New Hollander, the "not appearance" of reality, the puns, the endless parade of spear-carriers from Homer, Hesiod, and Virgil -- swirled together in a single epiphany. Suddenly (but past my original deadline), the taxonomic spirits vouchsafed me a vision: I saw that I would fit everything, absolutely everything, into those 2,300 lines.

My predecessors, bless them, had indexed Walden for the general reader, but I would be wrong to follow their model. After all, this edition's specialized users know perfectly well that Walden teems with puns, parables, parodies, set-pieces, autobiography, and literary devices. As indexer, I simply had to include these elements as so much material. (I was abetted, of course, by the initial mandate to index the notes on a par with the text.)

Like the sorcerer's apprentice, I summoned the genii of classification to my aid. Did I hear the editor hoping that every last classical reference would fit in the index? Very well, problem solved. If I lined them all up as subentries within two main entries ("ancient authors and authorities -- references" and "classical myth and legend -- allusions and references"), everybody from Aeschylus to Zeus himself was guaranteed a seat. I didn't have to worry whether the allusion was substantive or trivial, and I gained a whopping 50% in saved lineage. And I could spare more lines to assure individual entries for Homer and his translators Chapman and Pope, Achilles and his friend Patroclus, Hercules ("...labors trifling compared with Concordians', 2-3"), and others with substantive claims.

In a similar spirit, it occurred to me, why not attempt to index some of those puns? They are part of Thoreau's poetics, adding new dimensions to the text. A couple of instances would turn up in routine subentries, for example, "Christianity, traditional..., as an 'improved method of agri-culture,' 36." (The italics and hyphen are Thoreau's. Get it? "agree-culture.") One problem, though: How to be selective? Walden is so loaded with verbal play that more puns are being excavated with each passing year. [note 9] Problem solved! I just used my rule of thumb: if it got a note, it got indexed. My space-saving entry "puns and wordplay -- annotated" compressed 41 word-jokes into a mere 17 lines. Those 41 puns, out of Thoreau's many hundreds, had prompted editorial explication, and so deserved induction.

Walden is part autobiography, and the customary entries used in biographies were put to use. I created three for Henry, spanning 80 lines with a certain succinctness. Besides the obligatory "Thoreau, Henry David, Other Works," I wanted an entry that would accommodate the book's autobiographical aspects. Within "Thoreau, Henry David, Self-portrayal in Walden," I managed to encompass Thoreau's self-depictions (both acts and ideas) in a more or less chronological string of subentries ("...meditates, 108-10; helps runaway slave, 147; values chastity, decries sensuality, 212-14..."). [note 10]

Next, your intrepid indexer undertook "Thoreau, Henry David, Themes in Walden," and fashioned a rather pleasing daisy-chain using only 14 subentries: "alertness and waking"; "books and classics"; "growth and maturation"; "higher laws and spiritual life"; "living in nature"; "morning"; "present moment"; "rebirth and renewal"; "simplicity"; "solitude and society"; "spring"; "time and eternity"; "truth"; and "wildness."

With my T's shipshape, could the equally populous W's be far behind?

In the company of "Walden house, Thoreau's," "Walden Pond," "Walden sojourn, Thoreau's," and "Walden Woods," I enjoyed assembling the self-referential "Walden (the book)." This entry was truly the place to revel in the indexing of a classic - and, in the last four subentries, the place to include Thoreau's most famous parables and tales (numerals omitted): "...art of, (see also analogy); writing of; audience for; lecture version of (1847); publication of (1854); as heroic book; reading; universality of; parable of basket-seller; lost hound, horse, and dove; artist of Kouroo; strong and beautiful bug."

The Walden Experience

Working in a public library reading room amid the surprisingly audible voices of librarians and the ebb and flow of patrons, poring over Walden, word by word, pencil in hand, alert (I hoped) to new associations, I came to believe that indexing this classic was a privileged experience. It made me a silent, solitary reader of scripture; it showed me my own reflection even as I peered beyond it, looking deep into waters I scarcely knew.

But the clock had not stopped. By the time I reached Walden's penultimate pages, tragically behind all deadline, I was ready to believe Thoreau was mocking me with his concluding parable, "the artist of Kouroo":

When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system..., a world with full and fair proportions; in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places. And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain.

When I put the finishing stroke to my index, behold, it was exactly 2,300 lines, and I had built a new system with full and fair proportions. So it seemed in my overheated brain, at any rate. Whether the lapse of time involved had been an illusion, only my serene and patient editors may say.

Such was one indexer's life in the woods. Have I told you any new techniques, ideas, or tips in the above tale? Probably not; my grand adventure merely allowed me to rediscover solutions as ancient as taxonomy itself, though each one, as I hit upon it, seemed as fresh and original as the light that dawns over Marblehead, north of Boston.

Time will tell if the index to Yale's anniversary Walden will aid seekers as I hope it will. In a recent Thoreau Society Bulletin, which came out after the index was finished, a researcher asks if anyone has a lead on "the possibility that Bill Wheeler [an alcoholic cripple in Thoreau's Concord] may at one time have lived in a hollow tree." [note 11] Maybe my sixth sense told me to include the entry, "trees, hollow, dwellers in, 302, 321," although I can already predict it won't answer the question. As the indexer of a classic, you will never know when one author's symbol is another one's reality.

NOTES. To learn more about the art and science of book-indexing, visit the web pages of The American Indexing Society and of Seth Maislin, master indexer.

[note 1] Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau [1965], Princeton Univ. Press, 1993, xii. [return to text]

[note 2] Henry D. Thoreau, Walden, A Fully Annotated Edition by Jeffrey S. Cramer, Yale Univ. Press, 2004. [return to text]

[note 3] This marginal "running endnote" layout was also used by Philip Van Doren Stern in his Annotated Walden... Together with "Civil Disobedience," New York, Clarkson N. Potter, 1970, and by Walter Harding, ed., Walden: An Annotated Edition, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1995. [return to text]

[note 4] Besides using pencils, cards, and a battery-run pencil sharpener, I did perform the list-building on a Macintosh PowerBook, but only using MS Word. [return to text]

[note 5] On Thoreau's place in manufacturing history, see Henry Petroski, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, Knopf, 1999, ch. 8. [return to text]

[note 6] Walden has had two indexes. Paul O. Williams provided the first, for the authoritative "Princeton Edition" of Thoreau's complete works (Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley, Princeton Univ. Press, 1971). Indexers please note: Williams received an indexing credit in the TOC, which endures in the 2004 paperback reissue. The second index was compiled around the same time by Philip Van Doren Stern for his annotated edition (note 3).
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[return to text]

[note 7] With a "flip" [corresponding index entry] to Wordsworth, William. In the poem, Harry refuses to give Goody firewood. [return to text]

[note 8] Fortunately, I knew I had Linda Fetters on my side: "I think it is preferable to make classified entries rather than leaving the reader guessing whether he or she has found all the relevant information that might otherwise be scattered throughout the index." (Linda K. Fetters, Handbook of Indexing Techniques, 2nd ed., Corpus Christi: Fimco, 1999, 31. [return to text]

[note 9] See, for instance, Randall Conrad, "...Results of the First Annual Thoreau Pun Survey," Thoreau Society Bulletin 231 (spring 2000), 6-7; and Michael West, Transcendental Wordplay: America's Romantic Punsters and the Search for the Language of Nature, Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2000, esp. ch. 6, 12, 13, 14. [return to text]

[note 10] I chose "self-portrayal" over "autobiography" because the degree and authenticity of the latter concept in Walden are flashpoints of current scholarly debate. [return to text]

[note 11] Yes, Thoreau specialists worry about such things. "Notes and Queries," Thoreau Society Bulletin 247 (spring 2004), 12. If you have any thoughts about Wheeler and hollow trees, e-mail Tim French: [email protected]

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