The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau Dunshee Ambrotype of Thoreau, 1861 (Courtesy Concord Museum)
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"Young maples, Walden Pond, Thoreau's Cove, June 11, 1901" (Courtesy Concord Free Pubic Library)
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Since his death in 1862, Henry David Thoreau has become one of the few American authors whose fame and influence have assumed truly international dimensions. His master work, Walden (1854), has appeared in more than two hundred editions, over forty of them in foreign languages. His political and antislavery essays, "Resistance to Civil Government," "A Plea for Captain John Brown," and "Life without Principle," have stirred the efforts of fellow reformers from Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. Thoreau's pioneering studies in natural history, "The Succession of Forest Trees" and "Autumnal Tints," opened paths for later generations of scientists and environmental activists. His narratives of New England travel and history, "A Yankee in Canada," The Maine Woods, and Cape Cod, are savored by latter-day Yankees, a ubiquitous lot no longer bounded by regional lines.

Master of an intricate, nuanced prose style, Thoreau has been hailed as a prophet, artist, and philosopher by readers as diverse as his interests. To some he seems liberal, to others conservative; by turns he appears visionary, practical, solitary, communal, simple yet profoundly complex. In an age dominated by corporate enterprise, Thoreau survives as an individual's individual, a man speaking to men and women of widely differing convictions who, as F. O. Matthiessen once noted, "have in common only the intensity of their devotion to life." Yet despite Thoreau's wide appeal, until the 1970s no reader could obtain a definitive text of his writings, a text demonstrably faithful to his professed intentions or habitual practices.

At the end of his life Thoreau had published only two books (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden) and a handful of essays; in his last months he succeeded in preparing only a small group of additional essays for The Atlantic Monthly. Because he left behind a great cache of unpublished papers, his relatives and friends were able to produce several books during the 1860s (Excursions, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, A Yankee in Canada, and Letters to Various Persons). Edited by well-intentioned amateurs, the texts of these posthumous books are both inaccurate and incomplete.

Collected editions of Thoreau's writings, in 1893 and 1906, reprint the incomplete texts; the 1906 edition adds to Thoreau's canon a truncated and unannotated text of his Journal. The twenty-volume 1906 set of Thoreau's writings, the only edition that attempts completeness, represents about half of the material now available. It excludes Thoreau's college writings, and it lacks seventeen of his later essays. Over half of his poems and translations are excluded, as are one book-length project ("The Dispersion of Seeds") and most of his correspondence, which now numbers about seven hundred items. Most significantly, the 1906 edition excludes 40 percent of the Journal for 1837-1842, 80 percent for 1843-1850, and 20 percent for 1850-1861.

Even more recent editions of Thoreau's works are incomplete, e.g., Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1943, 1964) and The Correspondence of Henry D. Thoreau, edited by Walter Harding and Carl Bode (New York: New York University Press, 1958). The need for a complete, definitive, annotated, and easily available edition of Thoreau's writings was recognized in 1966 by the establishment of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. The Thoreau Edition was directed by Walter Harding at the State University of New York, College at Geneseo, from 1966 until 1972. In 1973, a Textual Center was established at Princeton University under the direction of William L. Howarth. From 1980 to 1983, Elizabeth Witherell was Editor-in-Chief at Princeton; in July 1983, she moved the Textual Center to the University of California, Santa Barbara. In July 1999, Witherell moved the project to Northern Illinois University, and in June 2005 she moved it back to the University of California, Santa Barbara.

When completed, The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau will comprise thirty volumes, with the following titles: Walden, The Maine Woods, Reform Papers, Early Essays and Miscellanies, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Translations, Cape Cod, Excursions, Correspondence (3 vols.), Poems, Nature Essays (2 vols.), Journal (16 vols.). All of these texts differ from their predecessors in fundamental ways, either because they contain previously unpublished manuscript material or because they correct and augment texts already in the Thoreau canon. These volumes also attract both the general reader and the scholar: they present not only a great deal of new Thoreau text, but also fresh information about Thoreau's intentions and methods of composition, as well as biographical details and many of Thoreau's drawings and charts. Fourteen volumes have been published: Walden (1971), The Maine Woods (1972), Reform Papers (1973), Early Essays and Miscellanies (1975), A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1980), Journal 1: 1837-1844 (1981), Journal 2: 1842-1848 (1984), Translations (1986), Cape Cod (1988), Journal 3: 1848-1851 (1990), Journal 4: 1851-1852 (1992), Journal 5: 1852-1853 (1997), Journal 6: 1853 (2000), and Journal 8: 1854 (2002).

In fall 2001, the project added a new component that makes available on this Web site unedited transcript of Journal manuscripts from September 1854 through November 1861, before the edited volumes appear in print. The Online Journal Transcript is not meant to substitute for the edited texts, but it will aid readers and researchers who wish to have a more accurate version of the Journal documents from this period than is provided by the 1906 edition.

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Walden, Princeton University Press has released a paperback series of five Thoreau Edition texts with new introductions: Cape Cod (introduced by Robert Pinsky), The Higher Law: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience and Reform (introduced by Howard Zinn), The Maine Woods (introduced by Paul Theroux), Walden (introduced by John Updike), and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (introduced by John McPhee).