By DONNA URSCHEL
Henry David Thoreau in the last 12 years of his life spent a great deal of time reading, annotating and drawing maps. Some map scholars consider Thoreau, the 19th-century author and philosopher, to be one of the earliest historians of cartography.
Thoreau’s little-known cartographic interests are garnering special attention these days, thanks to John Hessler, senior reference librarian in the Library’s Geography and Map Division and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Hessler, in his spare time during the past 10 years, has been poring over the 4,000 pages of unpublished notes that Thoreau jotted down while researching and reading about the indigenous peoples of the Northeast. Some clues in these notes—regarding how Thoreau copied maps made by important explorers of early America—led Hessler to recently discover two of Thoreau’s maps in the collections of the Geography and Map Division.
Hessler presented his findings at the New York Times/Mattson Lecture in the newly renovated Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine. He also published “Thoreau’s Cartographic Explorations: Two New Manuscript Maps from the Collections of the Library of Congress” in the October 2009 issue of the quarterly Thoreau Society Bulletin.
According to Hessler, Thoreau, the author of “Walden” and other classics of American transcendental literature, left behind his literary activities and developed an interest in looking at things in a more geographic and empirical way, being influenced in his later years by the work of Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin.
In 1849, at the age of 31, Thoreau started to work as a land surveyor and evolved into one of the best operating in the region around his hometown of Concord, Mass. “This work gave Thoreau the ability to look at maps critically and to understand not only their mathematical limits but also their broader cultural meaning,” said Hessler.
From about 1850 to 1862, Thoreau studied Native Americans in the Northeast, wanting to see how their lives and environment changed when they came into contact with early European explorers. Thoreau borrowed the earliest exploration narratives of the New World from the Harvard Library and took detailed notes on the names of places and on plants and animals. He also copied some of the earliest maps of America. Hessler said he paid particular attention to the cartographic works of important figures from the 16th and 17th centuries, including Abraham Ortelius, Cornelius Wytfliet, John Smith and Samuel Champlain.
Thoreau took more than 4,000 pages of notes, which are not only unpublished but are mostly unknown even to Thoreau specialists, according to Hessler. The notes are organized in two sets. One is called the Canadian notebook with 110 pages that concentrate on cartography. The other is the Indian notebook, nearly 3,500 pages, which discusses the tribes and their lives, with only dispersed references to cartographic matters. Both notebooks are held by the Morgan Library in New York City.
On the flyleaf of the Canadian notebook, written upside down, is the phrase “I have copied maps made ac. to …” The phrase is followed by a list of seven maps. Hessler said the whereabouts of five of the seven copied maps were known. Three were sketched on small pieces of paper, folded and contained among the miscellaneous notes of the Canadian notebook. The other two are part of the collection of Thoreau’s land surveys and papers in the Concord Free Public Library in Massachusetts.
The last two maps listed were of Nouvelle France and drawn by Champlain in 1612 and 1632. Hessler was interested in finding out whether these copies survived. He remembered hearing that the Geography and Map Division in the 1970s had acquired two unidentified manuscript maps that might have belonged to Thoreau.
Hessler looked up the maps in the Library’s collection and found they were indeed copies of Champlain’s Nouvelle France. One of the maps was accompanied by four pages of notes and both contained annotations in red. The notes are in Thoreau’s hand, according to Hessler, and resemble in form and content Thoreau’s writing on maps found in the Canadian notebook. With further study, Hessler was able to confirm that these copies were the work of Thoreau.
“Without the list on the flyleaf, it would have been difficult to make this attribution,” said Hessler, who has spent hours in the Morgan Library transcribing Thoreau’s notes. Hessler also possesses a photocopy of the Canadian notebook that was made in the 1960s.
The study of Thoreau’s geographic work is important to Hessler and other map scholars. “We’re looking here at our discipline as it was practiced in the past, and it is particularly revealing to see Thoreau deal with some of the same problems in the historiography of cartography that we do now,” he said.
“From what Thoreau wrote in those notebooks, as dry and factual as they are, we get a sense of a transition, an empirical turn, that not only occurs in his thought, but also through those notes we can begin to see the foundations of modern geography and environmental history as they developed in the mid-19th century,” said Hessler.
Thoreau, who died at age 44, is a major figure in American literary history, too, and any discovery adds to the scholarship that surrounds Thoreau.
There may be more discoveries ahead. “I’ve worked on Thoreau off and on for 10 years,” said Hessler. “And I’ll keep working on him.”
For a podcast of Hessler’s lecture at the Osher Map Library, visit http://blogs.usm.maine.edu/publicaffairs/archives/category/audio-showcase.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.