Revisions in “Higher Laws,” a Section of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

Group 5 – Alyssa Harrington, Danielle Crowley, Madison Jackson, Mitchell Pace, and Noah Lieberman

For our revision timeline, we selected the “Higher Laws” chapter of Walden. This chapter, containing much of Thoreau’s ideology and attitude towards nature, is about the titular “Higher Laws” which govern humanity to a greater degree than societally codified ones. Thoreau proposes to exist above those made by the legal system and government. The chapter serves as a particularly good example for understanding Thoreau’s philosophy as it is dense with his thoughts on the forces compelling mankind as we exist in nature. Throughout the revisions made in the multiple versions of Walden that Thoreau made, “Higher Laws” remained very unchanged until very late versions of the manuscript. With that in mind, what few revisions we can see within his manuscripts are omitted in his final draft.

The lack of revision within this chapter is interesting because it demonstrates the consistency with which Thoreau remained dedicated to the wisdom contained in these passages. With exception to vocabulary used, most of the general ideas Thoreau pushes forward are the same in all versions. This idea shows Thoreaus commitment to the “Higher Laws” that he chooses to follow.

While the majority of this chapter revolves around Thoreau’s own set of rules that he uses to govern himself, there is an interesting development that is made during his time in the wilderness can be observed. In this section of the text, Thoreau comments on his sanity and the state of his mental wellbeing. While writing about his experiences during his prolonged time in isolation, Thoreau discusses the primal and animalistic thoughts he had toward his environment. As he adds to his line, in pencil, “Once or Twice, however, while I lived at the pond, I found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound, with a strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might devour, and no morsel could have been too savage for me”. These lines are a notable revision, in very stark contrast with the language Thoreau otherwise uses to describe his time at Walden Pond. By comparison to the ordinarily serene and pastoral imagery his language conveys when writing about his connection with the land, these lines are brutal and wild. We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. “It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature.” The way Thoreau describes these animal-like urges is very different from the way he describes his guilt and concerns over consumption of animal products. In his final draft he writes, “I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect”. By comparing these lines, our timeline illustrates a certain change of character in Thoreau. In spending time immersed in nature, he becomes more sensitive and feels more toward the living environment around him. The line, “But practically I am only half-converted by my own arguments as I still fish,” displays this shift in character best as it only appears in version A of the chapter’s seventh paragraph. As time goes on and more revisions are made, it seems as though he convinces himself more and more.

We also see examples of Thoreau’s seemingly deteriorating mental health in version E, paragraph one in “Higher Laws,” which is the first place within the chapter where we see significant revision. A complete rewrite of the paragraph is present where Thoreau details another example of his thinking during his immersion in nature. Thoreau writes: “not that I was hungry, but for the wilderness which he represented”. This line follows the description of the beaver crossing in front of Thoreau on his walk home. In this line, it seems as if Thoreau did not want the reader to think of him as a savage and wanted to provide justification – Thoreau was so immersed in Nature at this point in the text he wanted to be a part of it as much as possible. He ends the portion of revisions by noting, “I love the wild not less than the good”. This revision is important because of the way it further demonstrates the mental effects Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond is having on him. As a fluid text, we gain insight into the changes in the man through changes in the text.

Thoreau also changes the use of first person to the use of third person when he is revising this chapter of the manuscript. During his first drafts, Thoreau writes of these “Higher Laws” as they apply to himself and is daily life, as these “laws” are a personal code for Thoreau alone. Later in the revisions, he changes this by changing the use of “I” to the use of “he”. By doing this, Thoreau applies that his “Higher Laws” should be used in a more general sense, applying them to everyone rather than just himself. With this revisions, one can speculate that Thoreau, through his time in the woods, spent a lot of time thinking about how things ought to be and began to feel that these “Higher Laws” he has been using to govern himself are the very ones that should govern all. These are interesting revisions Thoreau makes and they reveal that Thoreau obeys this particular set of “Higher Laws” that he developed and is looking to make them more common throughout society.

Overall, what is profound about looking at “Higher Laws” is just how much one can learn by looking at the many revisions Thoreau made to Walden over the years and by looking at the way in which he made those revisions. In analyzing the text and understanding its fluidity in a developmental context, we can track, revision by revision, the ways in which the author of that text develops themself. Through the process of tracking revision, the human element of the humanities is revealed to us. The changes and developments we undergo as people are reflected within the things we create over time. It’s a profound thing that technology has given us to be ability to witness those stories playing out over the course of a human life and to see the ways our favorite authors change through their work. These revisions give us a deeper context for understanding the feelings, progress, and formation of ideology that Thoreau underwent in his lifetime.

Following changes within Walden, we can see Thoreau’s own advice for living in action, “Live in each season as it passes; breath the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” Henry David Thoreau’s journey of self discovery being preserved in this way for his readers to track and appreciate is something which gives the text a valuable lesson even greater than those contained within its final draft. Walden as a fluid text shows us that our past experiences do not define us. In trying to do what is best and right for the world around us, we learn things which change our perspective and our values. Living in the moment and staying fluid ourselves is the right way to live. Through revision of our ideas and ourselves, we can all change for the better.

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