A Trailblazing Method for Reading 'Walden'

GENESEO, N.Y. – The State University of New York at Geneseo is melding 21st-century technology with 19th-century literature to enhance the study of Henry David Thoreau’s classic work Walden.

Four years ago, the college began working on Digital Thoreau, an effort to digitize writings by the American author, philosopher, and activist and to promote world-wide, online discussion of the writings among scholars, students, and general readers.

Today, Geneseo has revolutionized the reading of Walden by making available an edition of the classic work allowing readers to track the author’s revisions across the seven manuscript versions housed in the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. Thoreau began writing Walden while living in the cabin he built at Walden Pond in Massachusetts (1845-7) and continued revising it until its publication in 1854.

“It’s incredibly exciting and satisfying to see this project come to fruition and to have these open-source tools available to anyone,” said Paul Schacht, professor and chair of SUNY Geneseo’s Department of English and director of Digital Thoreau. “It’s a culmination of dedicated work by Thoreau scholars, computer and software coding experts, Geneseo librarians and students to make this wonderful resource available to those interested in the deliberate examination of Walden.”

For now, Digital Thoreau comprises three projects: Walden: A Fluid Text Edition; The Readers’ Thoreau; and The Days of Walter Harding, Thoreau Scholar. Digital Thoreau’s edition combines the revision information in Ronald E. Clapper’s 1967 doctoral dissertation, The Development of Walden: A Genetic Text, with open-source tools to display the versions in a way that makes Thoreau’s changes easy to follow.

“For many years, I have kept Ron Clapper's genetic text of Walden handy, to connect part of a draft version with Thoreau's work in his journal, to help identify new manuscripts that turn up from time to time, and to help students understand how Thoreau composed this work, which grew with its author over nine years,” said Elizabeth Witherell, editor-in-chief of The Works of Henry D. Thoreau, published by Princeton University Press, and a consultant to Digital Thoreau. “In displaying the full context for each version, Digital Thoreau makes it easy to see the narrative impact of a single change or a series of changes, and so to trace Thoreau's intentions as demonstrated by his revisions. This fluid text edition of Walden also suggests the benefits of seeing other of Thoreau's works in their fluid states, and even of viewing the entire body of his manuscripts as fluid and interactive, representing the integrated, interconnected work of a lifetime.”

The project coincides with a variety of open-source publishing initiatives by Geneseo’s Milne Library.

“Digital Thoreau only encompasses Walden for now, but the plan is to incorporate other Thoreau works in the future,” said Cyril Oberlander, director of Milne Library. “The project superbly illustrates the value of open-access publishing, connecting authors and readers worldwide. The collaboration and substantial support by Milne Library technical services and information technology professionals were outstanding in moving it forward from concept to digital reality.”

Geneseo is a natural home for Digital Thoreau: The late Geneseo faculty member Walter Harding, Distinguished Professor English and University Professor, was arguably the most influential scholar of Thoreau in the 20th century. Harding taught in Geneseo’s English department from 1956 to 1982, wrote seven books on Thoreau, including The Days of Henry Thoreau, which remains the definitive biography, was the inaugural editor of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, and helped found the Thoreau Society in 1941.

Harding’s son, Allen, with the support of his family, first approached Geneseo about working on a digital project to help sustain Thoreau’s legacy, reinforcing the mission of the country’s two main Thoreau preservation organizations: The Thoreau Society, and The Walden Woods Project. Schacht collaborated with Oberlander and with Milne Library’s digital scholarship and electronic resources librarian, Joe Easterly, to develop a plan for the digital edition of Walden.

The three Digital Thoreau projects each fit the needs of a different audience.

  • Walden: A Fluid Text Edition allows the user to track and compare up to seven of Thoreau’s Walden manuscript versions with each other and with a base version, the Princeton University Press edition of the published text.

  • The Readers’ Thoreau combines two social plugins for the popular open-source blogging platform Wordpress – Commons In a Box and CommentPress -- to enable readers to discuss Thoreau in the margins of his texts and in discussion forums, sharing thoughts about his writings in a variety of configurations, such as a group focused on a particular interest or students in a college course.

    “The social features of the project will help connect those with shared interests, just like popular social networking platforms such as Facebook,” said Schacht.  “The goal is to achieve a balance between large-scale participation in engaging with Thoreau and individual readers’ needs to find what is relevant to them.”

    Thanks to funding from a SUNY Innovative Instruction Technology Grant, Christian Wach, the lead developer of CommentPress and a consultant to Digital Thoreau, was able to write new code tightening the integration between the two plugins’ features. Because the code is open-source, all users of both plugins will benefit from the improvements, which enable readers to filter comments so that they see only those they care about and to follow discussion among a "panel of experts" —readers whose knowledge of Thoreau gives their contributions to the discussion added interest and value. The expert commentary has been seeded with the annotations written by Walter Harding for his 1995 edition of Walden.

    “What originally were Harding’s annotations in his book are now part of the social commentary,” said Schacht. “That’s very powerful and appealing.”

  • The Days of Walter Harding, Thoreau Scholar is an ongoing project in which SUNY Geneseo students are using the open-source archiving platform Omeka to digitize materials from Harding's vast trove of Thoreauviana and organize them into online exhibits.

Faculty at Geneseo and other institutions across the nation plan to use the digital edition, including its annotations and annotating feature, as a key teaching and learning tool in classes this spring.

It’s difficult to know what Thoreau or Harding would think about the introduction of sophisticated technology into the study of their thinking and writing, but Schacht believes they both would approve.

“I believe Harding would be pleased with this project,” said Schacht. “Harding liked the quantitative aspects of the study of literature, like counting the number of times Thoreau used certain expressions. Look at his annotation to paragraph 19 of the ‘The Ponds,’ for example, where he identifies a sentence as the shortest one in Walden. Digital Thoreau facilitates this kind of approach. Thoreau himself was wary of any invention that would distract from focusing on the essential facts of life, but he also was fascinated by any invention that could make life better. I think Digital Thoreau accomplishes that.”

Like most work in the burgeoning field known as “digital humanities,” the projects that make up Digital Thoreau have been highly collaborative. The prevalent model in the humanities, notes Schacht, is the solitary scholar poring over archives or interpreting a text.

“That model is still the best one for certain kinds of projects,” he said. “But it’s a rarity in digital ones,” which require a diversity of talents and a distribution of tasks. “There have been times when I’ve felt that the sense of common purpose has been the most gratifying aspect of the whole enterprise. We could never have accomplished these projects without the programming skills of Wach and Syd Bauman, the XML programmer/analyst at Northeastern University; the organizational and technical abilities of Milne Library staff such as project manager Kate Pitcher, information technology professional Corey Ha and publishing services developer Leah Root; the hours of coding by the Milne Library technical services department and by Geneseo students; the expertise of our partners at the Thoreau Society and the Walden Woods Project; and the deft hand of Allen Harding, who, at the end of the day, was responsible for bringing all these people together.”

Students at Geneseo also are involved in an “extreme learning” English department course called “The Thoreau-Harding Project,” focused on constructing a cabin on the Geneseo campus in the spirit of Thoreau and in tribute to Walter Harding. The cabin is to provide an unconventional experience to supplement Thoreau’s readings.

Media Contact:
David Irwin
Director of Media Relations
(585) 245-5516