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  • Thoreau's Journal or the Workshop of Being
  • François Specq (bio)

The poem is the cry of its occasion,Part of the res itself and not about it.

—Wallace Stevens, "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" (1950)

Henry David Thoreau's Journal, with its huge dimensions and sustained dedication to recording nature over the entire span of his adult life—it ranges from 22 October 1837 to 3 November 1861—was perhaps his most uncompromising enterprise.1 Mostly consisting in daily entries recording the protean sweep of nature in his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, the Journal at first sight is comparatively straightforward: much of it seems to have an obvious quality that is so indisputable that it appears to be part of a "natural" order, thus defying explanation. Many readers also feel challenged by their experience of this work as an open totality that can never achieve synthesis, by its unstructured details and disjunctive mode of composition, which give it the appearance of an informal flux. Because of the difficulties of describing and analyzing the Journal, its apparent failure to achieve a coherent, cohesive literary space, and the seemingly limited range of Thoreau's interests, there was long a temptation to consider it as not only artless but devoid of artistic merit.2

The dedicated reader, however, soon comes to realize that the Journal is more than the sum of its parts, and that Thoreau deliberately limited his formal means in order to focus on what he considered indispensable—thus writing what Wallace Stevens called "the poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice."3 Following this recognition, the literary dimension of Thoreau's Journal has been suggestively and creatively analyzed by a number of critics, starting with Sharon Cameron's [End Page 375] pioneering Writing Nature (1985). Cameron's study was decisive in its acknowledgment of the Journal's intrinsic importance and value, and it shed crucial light on the formal implications of Thoreau's efforts to "writ[e] nature" in a way that "subordinates human presence."4 H. Daniel Peck added an important dimension through his emphasis on the idea that "in the very act of being written, the Journal dramatizes the condition of vital engagement that [Ralph Waldo] Emerson called 'the active soul,'" and he offered an analysis of time patterns in what he described as "a book of memory" keyed to a desire for "spatializing the temporal process."5 Laura Dassow Walls gave yet another twist to our perception of Thoreau's Journal when she described it as a "technology of inscription … by which he would braid together self and nature through language, educing nature into discourse."6 This essay will situate itself in the wake of these classic studies of the Journal, but its focus and emphases will be somewhat different, as my own understanding of the Journal's dynamics is premised on a sense of its being primarily, not an intellectual effort per se, but a living embodiment of Thoreau's aesthetic and philosophical stance, in which the poetic, the phenomenological, and the existential are fused. My reading will more particularly focus on the gravitational pull of Thoreau's thousands of pages, on the centrality of the passage of time rather than mastery of process, on his attunement to the enigma of the visible rather than on his desire for an underlying order or structure in the natural world, on his efforts to forever live at the edge between physical nature and human significance. As he explored the mysterious character of all things, Thoreau fundamentally made his Journal a workshop of being.

Thoreau and the Art of the Journal

Thoreau's Journal focuses almost exclusively on nature, as opposed to many journals that may be analyzed within the genre of the diary, with their broad emphasis on inwardness. Although it covers a wide variety of texts—as diverse as those of Samuel Pepys, Henri-Frédéric Amiel, Søren Kierkegaard, André Gide, or Franz Kafka, for instance—the "private" diary is characterized by its record of more or less intimate matters and personal ramblings, with complex varieties and degrees of self-display and self-concealment.7 With...