Exploring How Diction Informs Perspective in Thoreau’s Walden

The COVID-19 pandemic, and our transition to remote learning because of it, caught us all by surprise. No one was prepared to make such drastic lifestyle changes in how we live, work, and learn. And yet, even though this transition came with many challenges, our group’s final project turned out to be one challenge we could successfully overcome through communication, teamwork, digital collaboration, and the spirit of optimistic determination that we gained from studying Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Read on to learn how our group (Kira Baran, Lauren Beers, Justin Colleran, Abigail Henry, and Joshua Mora) approached the task of analyzing revisions within Walden, and in doing so, gained unique insights into Thoreau’s life and work.

Our Task and Mission

Our group decided to compare revisions made across two of Thoreau’s original manuscript drafts: Version E (p. 55-56 on the Huntington Library Website), and Version F (p. 50). The specific passage we tackled appears as paragraph 5c on the fluid text website, and would eventually be included in the chapter “The Ponds” within Walden.

We strove to analyze the handwritten revisions Thoreau made on these manuscript pages both on a micro (or “close-reading”) level, as well as how these revisions compare/contrast across these versions on a macro (or “meta-reading”) level. We chose this specific passage because we feel that its intricate revisions give insight into Thoreau’s attention to nuance and detail. His concern for precision informs not only his descriptions of the pond, but also carries into his every-day perspective on writing and life as a whole. Within the human experience, whether it be admiring various hues of pond water or interacting with people during a turbulent time period like we are currently experiencing, angle and perspective are everything. Even the most seemingly minor of revisions carry an effect on how readers interpret Walden both line-by-line, and as a whole work. And this is exactly why precision and accuracy are important when it comes to diction.

Our Perspectives and Insights on Thoreau’s Revisions

When attempting to analyze a writer’s manuscripts, there are many elements to consider. We made sure to keep in mind Thoreau’s intent during our construction of the timeline, so that we could properly examine what he was trying to say with the word choices and revisions he was making. Although it is nearly impossible for a reader to interpret something exactly how the author intends, there are certain ways we can get fairly close. For example, when Thoreau switches one word for another in a revision, we can take this as a sign that the new word did a better job at helping the reader achieve the correct interpretation.

Take this revision from our selected passage, for instance: “of an alabaster whiteness, still more unnatural” had been changed from “of an alabaster whiteness, equally unnatural.” By revising comparatives like “equally” and “more,” Thoreau presumably strives for accuracy and precision when comparing how one’s angle/viewpoint/perspective can influence one’s perceptions and, in turn, their evaluations. Again, be it the color of water in a pond, or a serious matter of discourse when interacting with another person, viewpoint matters, since looks can be deceiving. As Thoreau knew well, in order to communicate an intended message to a reader who possesses a different viewpoint than oneself, it is very useful to be able to communicate with precision. Precision aids the active listening (and reading!) process. To convey meaning effectively is to communicate as accurately as possible.

Ultimately then, through this project, we learned that a writer’s revision process can be treated as a physical manifestation of their thought process. It is a window that allows us to infer a potential intended message of a text. To see what we mean, check out other examples in our timeline below!:

Our Process for Creating Our Timeline and TEI File

Overall, the technical aspects behind the TimeLineJS portion of the project were fairly straightforward. The process was very easy to follow and didn’t cause us to pull the hair out of our heads. The one thing we did find kind of annoying about creating the timeline was trying to figure out how to include what specific point of the year we were talking about. For example, when wanting to write “Late 1852,” it would not allow us to preview the timeline because it didn’t recognize the word “Late.” In the end, we decided to use just the years. Another aspect that was slightly disappointing was the lack of customization. On the website, it really only allows you to change the fonts and what slide the presentation starts on. It would be nice for our timeline to have more of an identity or personality, rather than just black and white backgrounds.

Surprisingly, our GitHub workflow worked out well, too. It was a bit nerve-wracking at first, as any small mistake on someone’s part could have caused chaos in our project repository. Not to mention, we were also all new to this part of GitHub, and remote learning didn’t exactly help. However, by communicating with each other through Slack about who-did-what-when-and-how, we were able to avoid any complications.

As for the TEI file, its creation was not too complicated. Since we were given the template file to use as a guide, it made encoding the manuscript text much simpler. Once we spent time learning to use the basic markup commands, it just came down to being consistent throughout the file, lest a single error invalidate the entire file (similar to how a single word invalidated our timeline). Honestly, the most difficult part of making the TEI file came from trying to decipher Thoreau’s handwriting. From a distance, it could be easily mistaken for a bunch of nonsense scribbles, or overly elaborate calligraphy. The fluid text version of Walden lent us a huge hand in figuring out what the (almost illegible) manuscript said, especially when it came to penciled-in revisions.

Looking at the handwritten revisions on the manuscript pages with our own eyes, and comparing them to the revisions on the fluid text version, however, did present what was probably our most unusual challenge when it came to encoding revisions on our TEI file. The fluid text version notes that, on the Version F page, “. . . the body of the bather” was revised to “the body of one bathing in it.” However, by just looking at the handwriting, it was difficult to tell these revisions for certain. Thoreau didn’t fully cross out “bather”; instead, he seamlessly transformed the “e” into an “i” and added “ng” over the “r,” (instead of adding it above or off to the side like most of his revisions). He wrote it as if it was a typo rather than a revision. “One” is also squeezed into the margin without a caret, which made it even more difficult to determine if this should be counted as a typo or a deliberate revision that was made after the fact. This presented a challenge for encoding the TEI file, because adding a revision within a word (“bather” to “bathing”) is not common to come across.

Our Takeaways

Through the unexpected journey that has been this entire project (and course and semester), each of us has come away with a newfound appreciation for Walden. Having to work from self-isolation (or social distancing or quarantine or whatever you’d like to call it) was a new experience for everyone. Remote instruction forced us to jump into the role of self-starters. Online collaboration meant becoming reliable team members. It forced us to use Slack as a communicative platform, since we had to allocate project tasks between us without being able to physically meet in person.

From studying Walden, we were able to relate to Henry David Thoreau’s experiences on a uniquely personal level. We learned from his determination, adaptability, and resourcefulness. And, from the specific passage we analyzed, we learned that, sometimes, all it takes is an open mind and an altered angle or viewpoint to be able to gain a new, appreciative perspective on our surroundings. Being stuck at home for the past couple months, we can now appreciate the small part we played in converting Thoreau’s writing to a digitized version, which makes his writing more universally accessible, readable, and legible.

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