Thursday, August 4, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Thoreau's Journal

“A perfectly healthy sentence is extremely rare.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

I don't mind repeating the statement, "If a man is worth knowing at all he is worth knowing well." And one of the best ways to know people well is through their letters (Van Gogh) and journals, especially when they have been dead for some time. In fact, journals are possibly the most intimate way to know a person, because when you meet "in person" you seldom get to the deep things in one encounter. If at a party, art opening, a lecture or passing on the street you only exchange niceties, and perhaps encounter the spirit of the person. Even then it is the spirit of the person for only that moment in time.

A journal gives you years of intimate insights as you follow the flow of a person's thoughts as it weaves its way around circumstances, experiences, the most nebulous and the most mundane fragments of a life.

It's been my pleasure to read a number of writers' journals over the years. Thomas Mann and Andre Gide were both Nobel prize winning authors and one can glean much, much, much from a writer's journals and notebooks. If you're serious about a writing career I would recommend Gide's especially. All four volumes.

I myself have endless journal entries with which I stained dozens of notebooks over a period of thirty years. Unlike Gide, or Mann, or in this case Thoreau, the "good stuff" would probably amount to a very thin book in contrast with the volume recently edited and assembled by by Damion Searls. And Searls' version of Thoreau's Journal, while a hefty volume itself, is but one tenth of the original 7,000 pages of material.

To a journal writer like myself, this is quite an output, considering that his journal work lasted only 24 years. Then again, he didn't punch a time clock from eight to five like most of us.

Thoreau's life and world were not like ours. There was no Internet. And though the industrial age was flexing its muscles he stepped back from there, retreating to space where he could become acquainted with, even intimate with the natural world. But he was not a monastic. At Emerson's house in 1857 he met John Brown, who led the raid on Harper's Ferry, one of the powder keg events preceding the Civil War. This fateful meeting caused Thoreau to take up the abolitionist banner. And though Walden is his most well-known book, his book on civil disobedience and the obligation to follow one's conscience was probably his most influential.

As nearly all journal writers do from time to time, Thoreau made entries on the process of journal writing. “We should not endeavor coolly to analyze our thoughts, but, keeping the pen even and parallel with the current, make an accurate transcript of them. Impulse is, after all, the best linguist, and for his logic, if not conformable to Aristotle, it cannot fail to be most convincing.”

I've often considered journal writing a place to hone the skill of capturing nebulous and ethereal ideas and transforming them into concrete words. Or like a man with a butterfly net whose specialty is ultimately pinning these beautiful "finds" in boxes so others can appreciate them.

This excerpt from an Amazon.com reviewer of the book explains how this particular volume was assembled. "The primary objective was to have it read as a representative version of the full journal rather than as a collection of excerpts. The editor therefore tried to balance material among the seasons and months, including keeping one of each month relatively unabridged. Another goal was to make it readable, so there is very little in the way of notes. Entries were chosen by personal preference, not historical importance. As you read, the date appears on the left page and Thoreau's age on the right so you always know where you are both in time and in his life."

Here are some of the headings for various entries:
Composition
The Loss of a Tooth
Rivers
The Dream Valley
Drifting
Aeschylus

His fragment on poetry includes this beautiful thought. “No definition of poetry is adequate unless it be poetry itself.”

Here's another excerpt, which I recently shared on my Facebook page. “Men see God in the ripple but not in the miles of still water. Of all the two-thousand miles that the St. Lawrence flows – pilgrims go only to Niagara.”

What's impressive, and surprising even, is how good the writing is. Like other writers, he used his journal to polish his craft. He appreciated the value of a good sentence, and the two million words he penned were selected, chosen, not simply thrown down to fill space in a notebook.

You can read what others have to say about this book at Amazon.com or go for the overview of his life at Wikipedia. Either way you'll be rewarded. Or you can download it to your Kindle or Nook and take it with you on your next trip.

As you embrace the day, take time to stop and smell the roses.

THIS BLOG POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN JANUARY 2012

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