“After years of wondering and having nearly given up on finding Thoreau’s copies of the Champlain maps, a colleague pointed out to me that the Library of Congress had obtained, in the early 1970s, several manuscript maps that were thought to possibly have been drawn by Thoreau. Not expecting much (I knew that the Library had 5.5 million maps in thousands of drawers), I went to the case that contained this group of manuscripts….I could not believe what I was looking at….”
With these words John Hessler, the Senior Cartographic Librarian in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, reveals a Thoreau that was, for most of us, as hidden as those maps. The famous Walden Pond writer as mapmaker? Who knew?
John’s story of the maps—their connection to Cape Cod and their larger significance—is part of the fascinating new material in our Levenger Press book, Henry David Thoreau On Cape Cod: His Journeys and the Lost Maps. A lovingly abridged reprise of Thoreau’s Cape Cod, it’s published together for the first time with the full-color, unbound facsimiles of the Thoreau maps and notes (they are neatly folded and nestled in a pocket inside the back cover).
Mim Harrison, our editor of Levenger Press, had a chance to talk with John about this new way of reading Thoreau. I think you’ll like these highlights of their conversation.
Levenger Press: What was it like to discover Thoreau’s two lost maps?
John Hessler: Thoreau was always an author who meant a great deal to me. I started seriously reading his journals while doing research in the Alps on high-altitude alpine biogeography. His way of describing things, places and landscapes interested me. Later, when I found out he was a mapmaker, I understood more of what attracted me to him. Discovering his maps was, for me, uncovering another layer in the work of an author that I had come to think of as a model for some of my own work. As far as its importance to Thoreau scholarship—any new manuscript is an important discovery. These maps certainly open up new territory for scholars to explore.
LP: How did Thoreau copy Champlain’s maps?
John: One of the things that people do not realize about Thoreau—and this is very much due to his mythic status as an outdoorsman—is that he spent a great deal of time in libraries. As an alum of Harvard College he obtained borrowing privileges, and would often make the short trip from Concord to Cambridge. Most of the maps he drew appear to have been copied from books in the Harvard Library. Some of Thoreau's maps are only rough sketches, but others, like the two Champlain maps in the Levenger book, are more expertly drafted, showing that he certainly had some mapmaking talent.
LP: On the larger of the two maps, Thoreau appears to be correcting Champlain with annotations in red ink. Was Thoreau accurate?
John: Thoreau had a real sense of geographic history. He did not necessarily strive for accuracy, but rather wanted to understand how the geography of particular places changed over time. This is reflected in the lists of the different names of places that he collected in his notebooks, and in the red annotations on the 1612 map by Champlain. We can see in this activity a writer who was really one of the first cartographic historians. Thoreau was using maps to look at what happened in the past, not to define a present.
LP: How were maps used in America in Thoreau’s day? Were they more important than now?
John: Maps, to a certain extent, were not necessarily the wayfinding tools they are now. They tended to describe a territory in order to outline what a particular geographical region looked like, and who ruled over it. The maps that Thoreau used and copied are these types of maps. They show coastlines, important locations, Indian territories and new discoveries. They are nationalistic, calling places by names like “New France” and “New England.” Thoreau was always critical of wayfinding maps, such as the ones he used during his trips to the Maine woods, and typically found them to be inaccurate as directional aids—“labyrinths of error,” as he called them.
LP: You also found four pages of notes about the two Champlain maps as well as others that Thoreau studied. How did you determine the notes were written by Thoreau?
John: Over the years I have spent a great deal of time looking at Thoreau manuscripts and have become quite familiar with his characteristic paleography. As soon as I saw the handwriting, I knew it could only have been his. Knowing it was his and reading it are, however, two different things. His writing is more difficult to interpret than that found on many of the medieval and Renaissance manuscripts I typically work with. It took some time to figure out what he was saying on those four small pages.
LP: The maps and notes have never been published for the general public until now. What do you think they add to the reading experience?
John: Thoreau has become an icon of American letters. Famous figures from very different cultural backgrounds—personalities like Gandhi and Martin Luther King—claim to have been inspired by his writings. He has also become a somewhat mythic figure in the environmental movement. I think that Thoreau’s mapmaking and note-taking show us another side of the man, one less mythic and more like ourselves. He was a person who liked to walk, to observe, to read and to investigate his world: not necessarily to change it, but simply to understand it for himself.
LP: You write in your commentary that all Thoreau’s books are rooted in a place. Do you think that’s because he was harboring mapmaking tendencies all along?
John: I think place was a very important concept in early 19th-century America. We were a young republic, and had not yet come to terms with what this land was and how it would evolve. Things seemed limitless, but limitlessness can result in a feeling of ungroundedness. It can evoke a desire to understand a limited region and to settle down in a place. Thoreau's mapmaking is an extension of this attempt to fully understand a particular place, the northeastern United States.
LP: What do you think Thoreau would make of today’s GPS?
John: One of the things that Thoreau talks about in relation to maps is how once an area is mapped, it loses some of its mystery and becomes much less interesting. In his journals he says this about some of the woodlots and forests that he surveyed around Concord. I think he would find our desire to quantify everything, to leave nothing to chance discovery, to be a loss. It was Thoreau who said, “how little there is on an ordinary map.” What he meant by this is that while a map showed the boundaries, the roads and the buildings, it left out the actual lives of people, the scenery, and all of the things that make human existence interesting. For Thoreau facts were important, but facts, no matter how detailed, could never completely describe the poetics of human history and place.
And now to you, dear reader: Does the idea of finding new ways to read famed writers like Thoreau appeal to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Just click on the Comments link below with your submission. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).