Saturday, February 26, 2005


Life in the Woods

The Boston Globe reviews Donald Linebaugh's The Man Who Found Thoreau: Roland W. Robbins and the Rise of Historical Archaeology in America:

The 100th anniversary, in 1945, of Henry David Thoreau's sojourn at Walden Pond kindled interest in identifying the exact location of his cabin. And that interest, writes Donald W. Linebaugh in "The Man Who Found Thoreau," prompted Roland W. Robbins, a self-described "Thoreau Yankee," to undertake the search.

Robbins, a high school graduate from a local working-class family, brought little more to the task than "an intuitive knowledge of the world around him" and "his everyday skills as a handyman," writes Linebaugh, director of the archeological research program at the University of Kentucky. But over two seasons of digging, Robbins found first the chimney foundation and later the cellar hole of Thoreau's cabin -- and, Linebaugh suggests, spurred the development in New England of the historical archeology already underway at Williamsburg and Jamestown.

I'm looking forward to reading Linebaugh's book, and I certainly wouldn't want to take away from what sound like Robbins's considerable achievements. But that review, at least, is going to leave many people with the idea that nobody had "found" Thoreau before. Not true. I have in front of me a very handsome old volume -- creamy paper, haunting black and white photos, and pastoral gold-stamped blue cover -- titled Through The Year With Thoreau, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1917. In it, author Herbert W. Gleason explains:

During the fifteen years succeeding, the writer has made frequent pilgrimages to Concord, under all conditions of season and weather, searching out places and objects described by Thoreau, treading his footsteps so far as they were discoverable, and bringing back photographs of all that was most interesting.... It seems, but it is fact, that during all these fifteen years of frequent rambling among the fields and woods of Concord the writer has never yet met with a single other person bent on a similar errand....

There was a peculiar fascination in hunting down localities to which Thoreau had given names after an arbitrary method of his own, and without any regard whatever for their possible recognition by other people. Ripple Lake, Cardinal Shore, Bittern Cliff, Owl-Nest Swamp, Arethua Meadow, Curly-Pate Hill, Purple Utricularia Bay, Bidens Brook, Hubbard's Close,-- these and many similar names are capitalized and otherwise dignified in his journal records as if he were speaking of London or Paris or New York.

But Gleason does find them, along with the site of the cabin -- which indeed was already well known and marked by a pile of rocks. The most amusing revelation of Gleason's book is that when he meets elderly residents of Concord who still remember the writer, they remain entirely unimpressed by him. They regarded Thoreau as a lazy bastard.

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