2008-06-12

Unique Thoreau letter discovered

A unique letter written by the American author Thoreau to his colleague Emerson has been in the National Library's collections for over sixty years without anyone knowing about it.

A long-lost letter from American author and social critic Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) has been found among the National Library's collections. The letter was written by Thoreau and sent to his friend and colleague Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) in June 1843. Thoreau is best known for his book Walden, and for his ideas on civil disobedience. Thoreau and Emerson were seminal figures in the American transcendental movement, and are considered to be two of the major American intellectuals and authors of the 1800s.

Unusual deluxe edition

The letter was recently discovered by National Library employees in connection with a request to borrow Thoreau's collected works, The Writings in 20 Volumes, which were printed in Boston in 1906. The works were requested by American literary scholar and researcher Steven Hartman of Växjö University, whose doctoral work was based on Thoreau.

Upon retrieving the series of volumes, the staff found that not only was it a numbered deluxe edition in lavish leather binding, it was also what is known as a "manuscript edition." This meant that the publisher had bound a handwritten original manuscript in the author's own hand into the first volume. This type of bookbinding was a pure marketing ploy on the part of the publisher, a way of elevating the status of the volume.

Unknown letter

I was astonished when I saw that it was a manuscript edition, because they are so rare, and the library catalog had made no mention of the fact, says Steven Hartman.

When the National Library staff went to lend the book they did in fact find a handwritten manuscript page at the front of the first volume. Upon perusing the rest of the volumes, the librarians found yet another manuscript from Thoreau, a letter to Emerson. It was at the front of the seventh volume of the series. The paper was extremely fragile, with the result that it was digitized so that Hartman could have access to it.

How it ended up there is uncertain

Then I was even more astonished, says Hartman. From what we know of manuscript editions it is fairly clear that the bookbinder did not bind the letter into the volume; in fact there are some indications that the letter was inserted into the book considerably later, although who might have done so is unclear. Hartman will discuss the matter in an upcoming article in the Thoreau Society Bulletin. He also notes that at the time the letter was discovered, all of Thoreau's known letters to Emerson had been found save three. Now there are only two letters unaccounted for.

Thoreau describes New York

The letter was sent from Staten Island in New York, where Thoreau happened to be living and working as a tutor to Emerson's nephews.

It is of interest because it was written during a period when Thoreau was being introduced to many leading authors and intellectuals, says Steven Hartman. It was right at the start of his career, and he had just begun writing essays and poetry. In the letter Thoreau describes his meeting with theologian and Swedenborgian Henry James the Elder, who was the father of the author Henry James the Younger and the philosopher William James.

Thoreau goes on to give his impressions of the city of New York and a number of other prominent people he had met. The letter is also of interest because Thoreau and Emerson corresponded relatively little. They lived so close to one another in Concord, Massachusetts over the course of their 25-year friendship that they were able to communicate verbally.
With the permission of the Concord Free Public Library

This isn't just any letter; it offers a rare insight into their relationship during the period when Thoreau was still Emerson's protégé. It is also the only one of Thoreau's private letters that is in a public collection outside of the USA, says Hartman.

The letter is published

The contents of the letter were previously known, and were in fact reproduced in print in The Atlantic Monthly in 1892 and in The Writings in 20 Volumes from 1906. Steven Hartman compared the printed version of the letter with the newly discovered original, and found a number of major and minor discrepancies. The discovery will thus be of great value to the editors of the Princeton University Press, who are currently working on a new standard edition of Thoreau's collected works, which will include three volumes of Thoreau's correspondence.

May have belonged to Hollywood director

The question now is this: how could the letter have been at the National Library for sixty years without anyone being aware of it? It is uncertain whether the existence of the letter was ever known to the library staff, or if it was forgotten following its acquisition. The series of volumes was purchased from an antiques dealer in London in 1947, and according to the ex libris, one of its previous owners appears to have been the Irish film director Herbert Brenon (1880–1958). During his career in Hollywood, which began in 1914, Brenon directed over one hundred feature films, many based on literary works. He ended his career directing propaganda films in England during the Second World War, and died in Los Angeles in 1958.

We cannot be certain that it was the director Brenon who owned the books just because his name is listed in the ex libris. But if it was, we have to wonder why the volumes were left in London ten years before his death in California, says Steven Hartman, who is considering researching the matter further.

Contact person: Sara Bengtzon, e-mail: firstname.lastname@kb.se

National Library