"A written word is the choicest of relics."
When Henry David Thoreau died in 1862 he had published only two books (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden) and a few essays and poems. This limited publication record belies the volume of manuscript material he left behind at his death: his legacy amounted to thousands of pages, including essays and drafts of essays that he clearly intended to publish; a number of commonplace books into which he copied excerpts from his reading; hundreds of pages of notes and charts recording his observations of the natural phenomena of Concord; letters; and forty-seven manuscript volumes containing his Journal, which he kept almost daily from October 1837 until November 1861.
Because he left behind such a trove of manuscript material, most of which was preserved in his Concord family home at the time of his death, his sister Sophia and friends, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Franklin B. Sanborn, and William Ellery Channing (1817-1901), 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, these books are inaccurate and incomplete, but they did establish Thoreau's literary reputation in the last quarter of the 19th century. Early twentieth-century editions of Thoreau's writings, such as the twenty-volume "Walden" edition published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1906, were based on the earlier printings.
In 1965, the establishment of the National Endowment for the Humanities made it possible to plan new, complete, accurate, annotated, and easily available editions of a number of American authors, including Thoreau. A group of Thoreau scholars headed by Walter Harding and supported by NEH joined forces with Princeton University Press to create The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau.
To produce a definitive edition, Thoreau manuscripts had to be located and copied, and many of them had to be transcribed. By now, we know the location of the bulk of the manuscript material, and for many years project editors and staff have been working with photocopies, as well as traveling to collections that hold the originals. Most of the transcription for the literary material; the correspondence, and the Journal has been completed.
An unusual circumstance in the publication of part of the 1906 edition resulted in the scattering of several hundred single leaves of Thoreau's manuscripts: these leaves were tipped in to the first volumes of each of over six hundred special sets, called the Manuscript Edition. For over thirty years, we have been tracking down these sets and the leaves of manuscript associated with them, and we continue to seek them.
Four major research libraries have the largest collections of Thoreau's manuscripts:
Links to letters to and from Thoreau that are included in these digital collections can be found at Correspondence 1-3.
Revised March 2017, March 2019
For a more complete listing of repositories and their Thoreau manuscript holdings, see The Literary Manuscripts of Henry David Thoreau by William L. Howarth (Ohio State University Press, 1974). Elizabeth Witherell traced the history of the surviving manuscripts in her essay "The Availability of Thoreau's Texts and Manuscripts from 1862 to the Present," in Thoreau's World and Ours, edited by Edmund A. Schofield and Robert C. Baron (Golden, CO: North American Press, 1993).
In preparing our edition of Thoreau's work, information about the location
of his manuscripts is crucial. If you know of manuscript pages or Manuscript
Edition sets that you think we may not have been informed of, please e-mail
Elizabeth Witherell or call her at
Take a look at our sample of Thoreau's Handwriting