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UCSB Library Receives Thoreau Collection



The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the Davidson Library’s Thoreau Edition a grant of $245,000 last month, giving UCSB a 28-volume trove of writings from the famed author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

The Thoreau Edition consists of a vast collection of letters, journals and writings collected over the course of the admired transcendentalist’s life. After being displayed at various institutions nationwide, the project has finally settled at UCSB.

Thoreau Edition Editor in chief Elizabeth Witherell originally worked on the project at UCSB in 1983, relocated it to Northern Illinois University and returned to UCSB in 2005. Witherell said the ambitious undertaking demanded sustained dedication and passion to reach the goal.

“The Thoreau Edition is a multi-year, multi-volume research and editorial project to produce a new edition of all of Thoreau’s writing for publication, his journal — which is a 47 manuscript production — and his letters, three volumes,” Witherell said, “The method that we use is to go back to the most authentic version that reflects Thoreau’s intentions.”

The team additionally prepares all texts with commentary for future editorial decisions as well as annotations to help readers better interpret the meaning behind Thoreau’s words.

According to Witherell, the project delves deeper into the writer’s personal character than many of his published works, revealing a side of Thoreau unknown to most.

“In writings for publication, all writers create a voice and personae,” Witherell said. “The narrator of Walden, the narrator who speaks to you, is a constructed narrator. It’s not Thoreau himself. In his journal you get closer to what his personality probably was like. You see the things that he chooses to be interested in. You get him being irritated at one point with the trivialities of politics, you get him making fun of himself, you get him writing terrible puns to the Emerson family.”

At this point, much of the project’s work is dedicated to three volumes documenting Thoreau’s written letters and correspondences from 1834 to 1862.

Graduate English student Thomas Roche, who edits and annotates the project, said Thoreau’s range of references covers topics from architecture to botany and belies an unrepresented aspect of Thoreau’s personality.

“As I’ve worked on the Journal, I’ve been impressed by Thoreau’s curiosity and by the precision of his observations about a wide variety of subjects,” said Roche.

Fourth-year English major Ian Geiger also participates in the project and said the group is currently scanning facsimiles of Thoreau’s Journals to eventually be placed on the library’s website for public access.

Witherell plans to have most of the work ready for final editing and publishing by the time the grant expires in 2014.

“The biggest challenge is keeping this thing funded,” Witherell said. “To move the project ahead more quickly would just require more money than I’ve been able to garner.”

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