The Evolution of Thoreau’s Language in Walden

In our group’s observations of Henry David Thoreau’s manuscripts, we noticed that his use of language developed over time as conveyed through his revisions, specifically those from Versions A to Versions D (1847-1852). So, Emma Annonio and Anne Baranello chose to track revisions over time in Economy, Emma Belson tackled Where I Lived, and Sandy Brahaspat focused on Sounds. After splitting up these three texts, our group came to the conclusion that they seemed to adequately reflect our experiences with social distancing as a new norm while we grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we engaged with these texts and their corresponding revisions, we noticed Thoreau’s evolving use of language over the years, how it influenced his reflections, and his overall experiences of living in isolation. It appears Thoreau used his writing as an outlet of communications to the civilized world. During his revisions, Thoreau was able to critically assess his experiences in Concord by developing his attention to detail, consistent reflection of the language he uses, and consequently, his transition from exhaustive sentences to lucid prose. In developing our timeline, we chose to examine the various ways in which Thoreau’s language changes from initial revisions in Version A to his later revisions in Version D. 

Emma Annonio aptly points out that a clear indication of Thoreau’s attention to detail in his placement and possible revision of the title Walden: Life in the Woods is present on Page 1 of Version A. On this first page, Emma A. notices that Thoreau quickly scrawled this title in the top right corner of the page indicating that it was most likely decided after the book had been written. To the left of this, Thoreau writes in pencil “Where I Have Been. . .,” another possible title for the novel. This shift in language demonstrates how instead of focusing the title on himself, Thoreau ultimately chose to focus on the nature he had lived in for so long; this revision is reflective of how deeply Thoreau respects and admires nature. In Anne’s study of Economy, she notes that one of Thoreau’s distinctive features as an author is his striking diction and attention to detail. He constantly revised, reworded, and removed words that served no purpose. Indeed, something we noticed was that halfway down the paragraph (Economy, p 5a, version A) it’s seen that Thoreau crossed out an entire sentence, “the finest qualities of our nature are as difficult to preserve as the down on a peach.” This is particularly interesting because Thoreau has struck up a wonderful comparison here, and it only adds to the text, rather than detracting from it. It’s very telling of his attention to detail, and reading the book further only continues to prove this. In her study of Thoreau’s Sounds, Sandy also noticed a similar pattern that appears throughout Version A and Version D. She also notes that while Thoreau’s writing style continues to be long-winded, often omitting the use of the period altogether, his ideas become more succinct over the course of his revisions. In Version D, the first paragraph of Sounds is arguably far more shorter than the paragraph written for Version A, and this may have to do with Thoreau’s own writing process of reflecting on what language is actually necessary for the purposes of his text, and what can be dismissed. This seems to be on par with his writing philosophy of questioning and re-evaluating all aspects of his life that appear both around him and within him. 

While our thoughts about Thoreau were based solely on our interactions with the text, other aspects of this project like the practicability of collaborating on the assignment, was especially daunting and took some time acclimating to. However, once we figured out how to use Slack as a standard method of communication with each other, the project became more manageable. While using Slack was most efficient for communicating with the general class, keeping in contact with the specific group members proved to be challenging because of the extenuating circumstances that resulted from our ongoing battle with the COVID-19 pandemic. We were able to partially overcome this challenge by using email, direct messaging, and frequent zoom calls as more direct forms of communication. After we overcame our communicative difficulties, we had to learn how to navigate the manuscript pages. Although it was tedious at first, our group applied the skills we learned from our digital humanities class by using Command F to find certain words from the manuscript versions and comparing that to the plain text files of Walden. By doing this, we were able to create a rough index of phrases that corresponded to certain paragraphs of the Fluid Text of Walden and were better able to locate the chapters we needed.  Having said that, once we were able to navigate the manuscript pages and decide on what specific page we wanted to encode, our group faced another challenge. We were a bit concerned about having to divide up the work for the TEI file and collaborate on it simultaneously, while considering the potential ramifications that would prevent the file from validating. Luckily, we were introduced to the Oxygen XML Editing software and used our resources to fork, clone, sync, and push our files to Github. Once we downloaded the software, our group found the Oxygen XML Editor software was particularly helpful in preventing any line errors that would invalidate the TEI file. So, after developing our encoding skills and familiarizing ourselves with using Github collaboratively, we were better equipped to complete the TEI assignment and fulfill the requirements of our final project. 

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