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. 

The Merits of Applying Digital Analysis Tools to Literary Studies

As a graduating senior, I have often been asked a variation of the following question: “Why study English?” and my response has always been, and will probably remain: Well, why not study English? One of the most valuable lessons that my time within the English major at Geneseo has taught me is that when it comes to literary studies, the possibilities are boundless. That being said, I’ve also learned that when it comes the digital humanities, those possibilities become tangible. 

As I reflect on the various digital skills I’ve learned in our digital humanities class, Voyant Tools remains the most influential in my studies outside of class, particularly on my independent study on the influences of Lord Byron on the Brontë sisters. While I admit I was a bit wary of using this digital-analysis tool, most of my qualms were related to the unfamiliarity of it all. My experience with Voyant Tools was largely based on frustrating trials and errors. To be quite honest, trying to figure out Voyant felt like trying to decipher Middle English — it was tedious, time consuming, and required many workshops and tutorials. One of the hiccups that I encountered occurred when I tried to upload Jane Eyre in its entirety in addition to Lord Byron’s Corsair. I was considerably overwhelmed by the numbers, that is of course until I took a step back and tried to assess what specific aspects of the literature I really wanted to focus on. 

So, after learning how to split plain text files of Brontë’s works into separate chapters, I endeavoured to also split The Corsair into its three cantos. Finally, I returned to Voyant Tools and uploaded Cantos I in addition to chapters 11 through 27 of Jane Eyre because I wanted to decipher how Byron and Brontë were utilising language in the developments of their heroes. I chose Canto I because it is our first interaction with Conrad and the descriptive language is at its prime; the same can be said for Rochester in Chapters 11 through 27 of Jane Eyre. When I searched the syntax, I typed in the term “cordial” but as I typed the letters “cor,” Voyant suggested “corsair” and noted that it occurred in two instances throughout the texts. Normally, I would have assumed that it was simply reflecting Byron’s work, but I had just finished re-reading the first Cantos while I was stripping the text-file for all numbers, roman numerals, and unnecessary publication information and I did not recall seeing the word appear in the text. So, I searched “corsair” instead to see what the context of the word might be and I was surprised to find that it did not appear in the first Cantos at all, but rather in Chapter 17 of Jane Eyre. This tool launched the exact context of the term in the reader view and I was able to follow on as Miss Ingram argues that a man is “nothing without a spice of the devil in him… he was just the sort of wild, fierce, bandit hero whom I could have consented to gift with my hand” and Rochester sings a “Corsair-song” because Miss Ingram “doats on Corsairs”  (JE, XVII). In all of the scholarly articles that I referenced for connections between Byron and Brontë, most of the critics pointed out the various physical and emotional similarities between Rochester and Conrad, but in my reading of their work, it never caught my attention that Brontë alludes directly to Byron’s Corsair. While I am certain other critics took notice of this allusion before me, this particular moment in my research was eye-opening, it even felt like an epiphany, and my interpretations took a turn in a different direction. 

It is without a doubt that the connection I have to Jane Eyre is largely sentimental and as a result, I have read it every winter for the past eight years and eagerly took advantage of the opportunity to study the text twice the academic level in the Spring 2017 and Fall 2018 semester. Yet, in all those times I engaged with this novel, I never once noticed Brontë’s reference to Byron, but it took this digital analysis tool less than five seconds to uncover it! I was amazed, even as I write about it and reflect on it, I am still in awe about it. This particular instance taught me that when we, as students of English, leap out of our comfort zones and and utilise digital analysis tools; we are bound to find ourselves presented with unforeseen possibilities and challenges in our interactions with literature. Indeed this is what makes studying literature so extraordinarily rewarding and I am glad I recognised the merits of digital humanities before bidding farewell to my beloved discipline.  

The Three Functions of Language

In his book, The Information, James Gleick touches upon the ways in which language serves as the conveyer of information, which I found particularly interesting in relation to how our computers engage with language. That being said, after taking the time to reflect on the various functions of my computer, I am beginning to recognise that there seems to a connection between the ways our computers recognise information, directions, and expressions and the ways in which we, as English speakers, manipulate language to carry out these three functions. 

I was specifically intrigued by Gleick’s argument: “With words we begin to leave traces behind us like breadcrumbs: memories in symbols for others to follow.” (Gleick 31). As an English major, when I think of the English language, I enjoy paying close attention to the function of symbols. At the micro level, I believe symbols begin first as characters (similar to the keys on our keyboard) that are formed into groups, which become words that can represent various definitions. From there, we group these words into unique combinations in order to convey meaningful sentences and functions that we as students of the humanities, later unpack or deconstruct for depth, significance, and meaning. 

Gleick’s observation about symbols in language is a notion that I am currently engaging with in Dr. Lydia Kertz’s Chaucer and His World course. As we read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, our class is encouraged to think about the Middle English text and its respective translations. Oftentimes one word can have various spellings but essentially represent the same idea. Take for instance, the noun tyranny, which appears as tirrannie, tirauni, tireni, and thirannie in the middle english text yet each variation of the word still represents the usual characteristics of a cruel despot. Gleick makes a clever observation when he points out: “words were fugitive, on the fly, expected to vanish again thereafter” (Gleick 53). This concept makes the most sense to me when I think about Chaucer’s pilgrims engaging in storytelling because they are all essentially spinning their own tales and the language they use is fleeting. So it becomes Chaucer’s responsibility as the the writer, to document these tales and decide which variation of a word or symbol he will use to represent the meaning of the story. In a sense, Chaucer as the documenter is also engaging with the informative function of language because these tales teach us as modern readers about the social changes, religious tensions, and various lifestyles of late medieval England.

That being said, when I reconsider the functions and symbols that I manipulate on my keyboard, I realise that I am also engaging with the informative function of language when I use my computer. For instance, when I need information on locating a file on my desktop, I simply use the Command-spacebar combination and I can easily request a search. The same concept can be applied when I use the Command-F combination to locate a particular phrase in a document or webpage. In addition to manipulating my computer’s informative function of language, I am also engaging with the directive functions. For example, when I want to take a screenshot of the entire screen, I simply press Command-Shift-3 and my computer immediately recognises my command. While it is evident that our computers can carry out commands and requests, they can also engage in expressive language as well. In chapter two, Glieck posits that one way of deciphering Marshall McLuhan’s critique of print “would be to say that print offers only a narrow channel of communication. The channel is linear and even fragmented…If the ideal of communication is a meeting of souls, then writing is a sad shadow of the ideal” (Gleick 43). While McLuhan may be justified in his belief that communication ought to be a meeting of souls, I do not necessarily agree that print is the antithesis of this ideal. Communication is not limited to gestures or touch, in fact, when we direct our computers to italicise, bold, or underline certain words or phrases by using combinations like Command-I, Command-B, and Command-U we are engaging in the expressive function of language. The functions that we use not only provide emphasis to the ideas that we want to convey, but it also expresses emotions and attitudes as well.