If you’ve been Concord, you should be Worcestered

I take this title from the eminently quotable Thoreau, who once quipped to his Worcester friend Harrison Gray Otis Blake in April 1857, “Come & be Concord, as I have been Worcestered.” Thoreau had already lectured in Worcester several times and had been visiting the city for over seven years when he wrote to Blake.  

So I say the same thing to readers of this blog: If you saw the recent exhibit of Thoreau’s journals at the Concord Museum, featuring collections from both the Morgan Library & Museum and the Concord Museum, you should visit AAS and Worcester. Even if you didn’t see the exhibit, you should still visit Worcester. After all, Thoreau’s journals did spend thirty years in the city.

After Thoreau died in 1862, his sister Sophia first inherited the manuscripts. She eventually deposited them at the Concord town library where they were under Ralph Waldo Emerson’s trusteeship. After Sophia died in 1876, her will stated that Harrison Gray Otis Blake, the Worcester friend to whom Thoreau wrote in 1857, should receive the two trunks of manuscripts containing the journals. Blake published several volumes of excerpts from the journals, arranged seasonally (one for summer, one for spring, one for autumn, and one for winter). When Blake died in 1898, most of the journals passed to the director of the Worcester State Normal School, Edward Harlow Russell, before Russell eventually sold them to a New York dealer, George S. Hellman.  When Russell owned Thoreau’s journals, he allowed Houghton Mifflin to publish the manuscript edition of Thoreau’s works, with each copy containing an original Thoreau manuscript. Hellman sold the manuscripts to Stephen Wakeman, who in turn sold them to J. P. Morgan. The journals remain at the Morgan today.

When Blake owned the journals, he marked off many sections of Thoreau’s journals in blue pencil, which you’ll see if you read the original journals. Blake also pasted (sometimes inaccurate) dated labels on their covers. Unfortunately, Blake also inaccurately transcribed some passages and often omitted whole passages.

In his effort to universalize Thoreau’s experiences, Blake disregarded the specifics of Thoreau’s local conditions. He omitted Thoreau’s description of his neighbor, the faint warbling of sparrows, and the world that immediately surrounded him. In favor of Thoreau’s general and quotable quotes, Blake erased the specifics of Thoreau’s microcosm and, with them, one could argue, the man himself. So, I say, come, be Worcestered, take a look at some of the original editions of Thoreau’s works (seen above), and be more thoroughly thorough than Blake.

Blake omitted all italicized sections below; passage taken from the 1861 Thoreau journals online.

Mar 18th– Tree sparrows have warbled faintly for a week.

When I pass by a twig of willow, though of the slenderest & d kind, rising above the sedge in some dry hollow early in Dec. or in mid-winter above the snow–my spirits rise as if it were an oasis in the desert– The very name sallow — from the Celtic sal. lis near water suggests that there is some natural sap or blood flowing there. It is a divining wand that has not failed but stands with its root in the fountain.

The fertile willow catkin are these green caterpillar-like ones–commonly an inch or more in length–which develop themselves rapidly after the sterile yellow ones which we had so admired are fallen or effete, arranged around the bare twigs, they often form green wands 8 to 18 inches long–

A single catkin consists of from 25 to 100 little pods–more or less ovate & beaked–each of which is closely packed with cotton, in which are numerous seeds so small that they are scarcely discernable by ordinary eyes. I do not know what they mean who call it the emblem of despairing this love–!

“The willow, worn by forlorn paramour–“! It is rather the emblem of triumphant & never dying love–a sympathy with all nature. It may droop–it is so lithe & supple–but it never weeps. The willow of Babylon–flourishes with us–trailing its slender branches perchance in N.E. streams–& it blooms not the less hopefully–though its other half is not in the new-world at all, & never has been. (Nor were poplars ever the weeping sisters of phaeton–for nothing rejoices them more than the sight of the Sun’s chariot, & little reck they who drives it)

They droop, not to represent Davids tears but rather to rival the crown for Alexander’s head. Ah willow willow–

No wonder its wood was anciently in demand for buckles, for like the whole tree, it is not only soft & pliant, but tough & resilient (as Pliny says?) closing not splitting at the first blow–but closing its wounds at once & refusing to transmit its hurts

I know of one foreign species which introduced itself into Concord–as withe used to be of  a bundle of trees. A gardener–stuck it in the  ground & it lived–& has its descendants–

Herodotus says that the Scythians divined by the help of hollow rods–I do not know any better twigs for this purpose.

How various are the habits of men– Mother says that her father-in Law–Capt. Minott–not only used to roast & cut a long row of little wild apples–reaching in a semicircicle from jam to jam under the andirons on the reddened hearth– (I used to buy many a pound of spanish brown at the stores for mother to redden the jams & hearth with) but he had a quart of new milk regularly placed at the head of his bed which he drank at many draughts in the course of the night– It was so the night he died–& my Grandmother discovered that he was dying, by his not turning over to reach his milk, I asked what he died of, & Mother answered apoplexy–! at which I did not wonder– still this habit may not have caused it–

I have a cousin, also, who regularly eats his bowl of bread & milk just before going to bed–however late– He is a very stirring man.

You cant read any germaine [Blake has “genuine”] history –as that of Herodotus, or the Venerable Bede–without perceiving that our interest depends not on the subject–but on the man, on the manner in which he treats the subject & the importance he gives it. A feeble writer & without genius must have what he thinks a great theme–which we are already interested in through the accounts of others–but a genius–a shakespeare for instance–would make the history of his parish more interesting than another’s history of the world.

Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told–& it depends chiefly on the story-teller or –historian whether that is interesting or not–

You are simply a witness on the stand to tell what you know about your neighbors & neighborhood– Your account of foreign parts which you have never seen should by good sights be less interesting.

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