By Daniel Wilner
Researchers working to compile and digitally transcribe a collection of Henry David Thoreau’s handwritten works were rewarded for their efforts last month with $220,000 in grant money.
The project, called the Thoreau Edition, has resided at several universities since its inception in 1966, and now calls UCSB its permanent home. It returned to UCSB last year after a six-year hiatus, and has the objective of creating a “definitive” version of Thoreau’s works.
Thoreau (1817-1862) is best known for his book Walden, which recounts his living for two years by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau was a staunch abolitionist as well as an advocate of civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws.
The Thoreau Edition moves with Editor in Chief Elizabeth Witherell and her husband Michael Witherell to whichever university they are employed at: Michael Witherall is currently vice chancellor for research at UCSB. Three graduate students from as far as Illinois and Paris also assist with the project.
“Thanks to new technology, I can hold onto team members,” said Witherell, who has been facilitator of the Thoreau Edition since 1974. “To lose their expertise would’ve cost much more than their salaries. To keep them makes me happy and I think it would’ve made Thoreau happy too.”
The 40-year-and-counting project to edit and assemble all 47 volumes of Thoreau’s handwritten journal entries, writings for publications and correspondence, recently received a $160,000 grant from the National Endowment for Humanities, and another $60,000 from the Barkley Foundation, to be received over the next three years.
Witherell said the money is essential to continuing the work and keeping together a strong team of knowledgeable researchers.
“Funding hasn’t always been consistent, so it’s been hard to keep a steady team,” said Witherell. “Every time I lose a student and editor, I lose someone with experience. Faculty are great, but they’re also teaching, writing books, having babies, you know, all the things that happen to human beings.”
The Thoreau Edition will soon publish the 15th and 16th volumes of the collection, “Excursions” and “Journal 7: 1854-1897.” Witherell said the process is far from quick.
“We’re not only producing the text, but also documenting all the editorial changes that have been made,” Witherell said. “Also, transcription is difficult because it involves deciphering Thoreau’s handwriting… our mission is to be accurate in presenting what Thoreau wrote, as well as our decisions about what not to include.”
The publication of his journals constitutes the most significant contribution to Thoreau scholarship, Witherell said.
“The questions Thoreau explored are questions we all explore: How to live a life of significance, how to support oneself with integrity and create rather than destroy,” Witherell said. “He recognized the fact that we’re part of nature, and need to coexist with it, in order to be physically and spiritually healthy, a point that I think has all the more relevance nowadays.”