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Crow's Toes (February 01, 1856)

The Journal

Once viewed as simply the incubator for Walden and other well-known works, Thoreau’s Journal is now read as a compelling work in its own right. Yet this interest in the work has not extended to the material text, in part due to the obstacles to studying the manuscripts of the Journal, the bulk of which are kept at the Pierpont Morgan Library. (There is no print or digitized facsimile—yet.) The Journal presents many challenges, not the least of which is its sheer size: it is extant in forty-seven volumes, and is estimated to total around two million words.

In the past thirty years, as scholars have come to appreciate the Journal for some of the same reasons that it was once dismissed—its contradictions, its resistance to categorization, its multiplicity—they have mainly been preoccupied—understandably so—with the content of the Journal and much less so with the physical volumes themselves. We foreground Thoreau’s drawings in the Journal not only because they are intrinsically fascinating and for what they reveal about Thoreau’s composing and thinking processes, but because they deserve a place in the history of drawing as a way of knowing in the arts and sciences, especially in the development of field notes as a genre.

Selected Images from Thoreau's Journals

Hen Hawk: “The tail-coverts of the young hen hawk . . . are white very handsomely barred or watered with dark brown in an irregular manner somewhat as above—the bars on opposite sides of the midrib—alternating in an agreeable manner” 11 November 1858 (Volume XXV; NNPM MA 1302.31) (courtesy of the Morgan Library, and as featured on the Library exhibits page, "This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal")

Leaf Crystal: “On the ice at Walden are very beautiful great leaf crystals” 1 January 1856 (Volume XIX; NNPM MA 1302.25) [detail] (courtesy of the Morgan Library)
Getting it right: Thoreau crosses out his first drawing of the leaf-like ice, and is more careful the second time around. (The blue canceling line is H.G.O. Blake’s.) (courtesy of the Morgan Library)

Remarkable Moth:“I found a remarkable moth lying flat on the still water as if asleep” 8 July 1852 (Volume XI; NNPM MA 1302.17) [detail] (courtesy of the Morgan Library)It is impossible to capture in a printed edition how words and drawings sometimes become entangled in the Journal. Which came first—text or moth?


Weasel or Mink: “we saw a mink a slender black . . . very like a weasel in form” 2 December 1852 (Volume XII; NNPM MA 1302.18) [detail] (courtesy of the Morgan Library)

The Drawings

In any book, the presence of rubrics, illuminations, and drawings invites us to think about the process of making a book, and about the bounded space of the page and its design. Thoreau did not think of himself as a graphic designer, of course, but every decision to add a drawing at this or that point in the Journal constituted a conscious manipulation of word and image. As Thoreau experimented with thinking through and with drawings, he was also experimenting with the form and content of his Journal.

Anthropologist Michael Taussig reminds us of the various connotations of drawing as not only a “depicting,” but also what he calls a “hauling, an unraveling,” a “being impelled toward something or somebody” (I Swear I Saw This, 2011). Taussig is not talking about drawings that we might admire in an art gallery (though his description is fitting enough). Rather, he has in mind the kind of drawing that anyone might make—that Thoreau did make—if trying to capture an object or scene before it becomes lost to change or to memory, a drawing that might augment or even substitute for words, intended (but not always) to convey to another an immediate sense of the thing. To draw is first to be moved, and then to move. Thoreau was so urged. He writes:

It is remarkable how suggestive the slightest drawing as a memento of things seen. For a few years past I have been accustomed to make a rude sketch in my journal of plants, ice, and various natural phenomena, and though the fullest accompanying description may fail to recall my experience, these rude outline drawings do not fail to carry me back to that time and scene. It is as if I saw the same thing again, and I may attempt to describe it in words if I choose.(10 December 1856)

A few months and another season later, he writes: “No pages in my Journal are so suggestive as those which contain a rude sketch” (25 April 1857). Rude here means “inexpert, unlearned.” And outline drawing is a technical but resonant term: an outline drawing simply divides a subject from the space that it occupies by focusing on form. Thoreau “unravels” what he observes—he takes a thing apart (fox tracks in the snow, an oak leaf, a water bug) when he draws in order to put it back together again so that he may “see” it. Revisiting one of his drawings is powerful enough to impel him into a full sensory experience of where he was and what he was looking at. (Thoreau’s drawing is Proust’s madeleine.) Memory resides in the hand, the wrist, and the eye, and is transferred to the page. Drawing is kinetically mimetic.