- The Journal Box:Thoreau, Archival Media, and the Limits of Nature Writing
"A work of genius is rough-hewn from the first, because it anticipates the lapse of time, and has an ingrained polish, which still appears when fragments are broken off, an essential quality of its substance."—Henry D. Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)
The item described in the Morgan Library's online catalog as "Wooden box said to have been built by Thoreau to house his journals" is little known, if at all, among the generations of readers inspired by Walden (1854) and little discussed among scholars of his life and works.1 The box's absence in Thoreau's cultural afterlife is understandable: as the title given in the Morgan Library catalog admits, it is "said to have been built by Thoreau," but cannot be attributed to him with any certainty. The only extant scholarship on the box, a two-page 1997 Wendell Glick article, confirms that attribution remains a mystery.2 Compounding this mystery is the question of the purpose the box serves in Thoreau's archive today: though it once stored his Journal, the box is currently empty. The box no longer stores and defines the Journal, but represents a phase in the process of archiving Thoreau that has been archived yet again by the Morgan, and all of these archival processes have consequently produced a story, a catalog entry, and scholarly commentary. The question to ask, then, is not "Did Thoreau build the box?" A far better question, with broader interest for literary historians in the [End Page 479] digital age, is "What role do archival processes and media play in building Thoreau, and perhaps authors in general?"
In this essay, I pursue the second question by exploring the resistance between the journal box and its attribution, instead of attempting to prove or disprove the latter. At the outset, I assume that the box demands a lexical supplement—such as its attribution—to have a place and meaning among Thoreau's archived materials. Yet the box resists that supplement, throwing into question the "author-function"3 that the box's attribution lends the mute, anonymous, and, literally empty, archival medium. What the resistance between the box and its attribution brings front and center are the formal and lexical registers constituting archived materials: all documents are prone to some kind of rebinding, encasement in spun-bond polyester, or boxing; and, whatever their resulting physical state, their complementary bibliographic descriptions and historical narratives tend to complement them. The journal box, however, is a storage medium without textual content. Only the story of its construction, which cannot be substantiated, gives it a place in Thoreau's archive, and its emptiness tests the limits of interpretation. Underscoring the role various media play in the life of archived materials, the box demands an interpretive mode that does not rely on the extraction of lexical context any more than it relies on author-functions and their myths.
This essay will demonstrate how the problems raised by the journal box provide Thoreau's readers with an opportunity to focus on how he uses archival methods in his writing process and, in the traces of such methods, to read his writings' cultivated impersonality. Of particular interest is the way the box forces us to attend to the instantiations of formal language found throughout his manuscripts. When I use the term formal language, I refer to the nonlexical symbolic system encoding the visual, material, and stylistic properties of his Journal and other manuscripts, so that they [End Page 480] can be transferred from one format to another. This formal language—a type of "diagrammatic writing"4—structures textual transfer and facilitate the texts' movements from one surface or location to another. While lexical language tells one story about archived materials, such as the box, formal language tells another story about how those materials literally shape what and how we read, bringing materials and their properties in and out of focus. Thus, the box serves as a metaphor as well as material evidence of the interdependence of the formal and the lexical. This interdependence, I...