The Skeptic: 3 February 1852


Audio: Read by Sabrina de Silva

Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837 and returned to campus throughout his life to make use of the university’s fine library and to chat with Thaddeus William Harris, the librarian and entomologist with whom he enjoyed a lifelong friendship. The occasional trek from his home in Concord, Massachusetts, into Boston and Cambridge (sixteen miles away) took an emotional toll on him, as this entry reveals. At the time he wrote it, he was thirty-four and busy—working as a land surveyor, revising his second book, Walden, collecting botanical data, assisting escaped slaves who were passing through Concord, and keeping track of it all in his journal.

I have been to the Libraries (yesterday) at Cambridge & Boston. It would seem as if all things compelled us to originality. How happens it that I find not in the country, in the field & wood the works even of like minded naturalists & poets– Those who have expressed the purest & deepest love of nature – have not recorded it on the bark of the trees with the lichens – they have left no memento of it there – but if I would read their books I must go to the city – so strange & repulsive both to them & to me – & deal with men & institutions with whom I have no sympathy. When I have just been there on this errand, it seems too great a price to pay, for access even to the works of Homer or Chaucer – or Linnaeus. Greece & Asia Minor should henceforth bear Iliads & Odysseys as their trees lichens. But no! If the works of nature are in any sense collected in the forest – the works of man are to a still greater extent collected in the city. I have sometimes imagined a library i.e. a collection of the works of true poets philosophers naturalists &c deposited not in a brick or marble edifice in a crowded & dusty city – guarded by cold-blooded & methodical officials – & preyed on by bookworms – In which you own no share, and are not likely to – but rather far away in the depths of a primitive forest – like the ruins of central America – where you can trace a series of crumbling alcoves – the older books protecting the more modern from the elements – partially buried by the luxuriance of nature – which the heroic student could reach only after adventures in the wilderness, amid wild beasts & wild men– That to my imagination seems a fitter place for these interesting relics, which owe no small part of their interest to their antiquity – and whose occasion is nature – than the well preserved edifice – with its well preserved officials on the side of a city’s square–

Henry David Thoreau’s journal for 12 January–28 March 1852. MA 1302.15. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909. (The quoted passage begins about half-way down the manuscript page.)