Bureaucracy: Excursions

Thoreau, Henry David. Excursions. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863.


Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American author, poet, philosopher, historian, naturalist, and transcendentalist. Published in the year following Thoreau’s death, Excursions is an anthology of the writer’s travelogues and essays, most reprinted from the Atlantic Monthly, to which Thoreau was a frequent contributor. The text shown here, “Natural History of Massachusetts,” was one of Thoreau’s earliest published essays, first appearing in April 1842 in Emerson’s literary magazine The Dial.  Thoreau wrote the “Natural History” at Emerson’s urging. The essay is no traditional natural history, however, for it reviews state-sponsored natural histories of Massachusetts. Thoreau employed their classificatory systems, maps, and statistical studies as a foundation for his own reading of nature. Yet instead of collecting facts and classifying the birds, fish, and animals he observed, Thoreau sought to understand nature through sensory experience. Thus, he studies botany not just by observing plants but also by analyzing the “crystalline frost” (65) that appeared on his window during the winter, in order to comprehend the “law” that unites both of these “creatures” (66-67). “Natural History” reflects Thoreau’s growing interest in and support for transcendentalists like Emerson, who argued that science should not be a dry and dead focus on natural particulars only but should seek to comprehend and transcribe the truth in nature “by taking up facts into the spirit” (Walls 37). In his writings, Thoreau sought to locate himself within the whole of nature by using particular observations of Massachusetts to position himself in a larger, global context. For example, on page 51 (shown here), he writes that the muskrat “cabins” he observes resemble the “barrows of Asia.”  Locating himself in the natural world of Massachusetts provides a foundation for Thoreau to position himself in the world.

Thoreau was educated at Harvard University in the 1830s, where he studied natural philosophy, a field that at the time included mechanics, astronomy, optics, electricity, and zoology. Shortly after his graduation and under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau came to repudiate natural philosophy’s focus on individual facts, quantitative methods, and classificatory systems. Instead, like other transcendentalists Thoreau sought to understand not individual parts or phenomenon but their relation to one another. Thoreau worked briefly as a schoolteacher after his graduation, but he was dismissed for refusing to cane his students, a common and accepted form of punishment at the time. At Emerson’s urging, he began to write “Natural History of Massachusetts” to provide material for Emerson’s magazine The Dial.  He later worked as an engineer and carpenter, and he assisted with his family’s pencil factory before undertaking his famous experiment in “wilderness living” in 1845, which he documented in Walden. Thoreau maintained an interest in natural history throughout his life, and toward the end of his career (and after his bitter split with Emerson), he manifested an increasing interest in the particulars of natural history—identifying plant species, measuring stream depths, and so on—that he had dismissed earlier in his career.

This edition of Excursions was published by Ticknor and Fields, a Boston-based publisher notable for its publications of authors such as Thoreau and Emerson as well as many now canonical nineteenth-century authors, from Charles Dickens and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others. The firm eventually became known as a “preeminent publisher of belles lettres” (Winship 7). Ticknor and Fields contributed to the mid-nineteenth-century growth of the American book trade, which made it possible to publish American books in America rather than sending them to Britain and which resulted in a centralized book trade located in large East Coast cities. Thus, if the content in Excursions located Thoreau in Massachusetts and its natural productions, the publication context for the book located Thoreau in American literary history as one of its significant authors.

Find Excursions in the UNT Libraries Catalog.