Category Archives: Historic Preservation

Remembering Jim Harrison

by Scott Berkley

In his biographical sketch of Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson excused his friend and protégé’s fixation on local matters at the same time that he made a good case for Thoreau’s Concord-adoration. “I think his fancy for referring everything to the meridian of Concord did not grow out of any ignorance or depreciation of other longitudes or latitudes,” wrote Emerson, “but was rather a playful expression of his conviction of the indifferency of all places, and that the best place for each is where he stands.”

One of the places where Thoreau stood.

One of the places where Thoreau stood.

What Emerson calls the “indifferency” of place, however, we might see as the deep and abiding respect of the writer for local material and what it means. Thoreau, one of the great exemplars of writing from where one stands, has descendants in the poetry of place scattered across our fifty states. One of the greatest was the novelist and poet Jim Harrison, who passed away in late March after many years of wandering his beloved home ranges, first in the upper Midwest and later in the Arizona desert.

As all the obituaries that sprang up after Harrison’s passing have noted, he was prolific enough to make a new reader wonder where to start. Among more than twenty books of fiction, his 2004 novel True North stands out in my mind as a particularly Thoreauvian engagement with the Great Lakes and the land surrounding them: from the back woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; to the cities of Marquette, Sault Sainte Marie, and Duluth; stretching down along the Ohio River all the way to lake-less Indiana. Of course, it being Harrison, it is also a romp through a spread of pleasures both gustatory and sexual – matters that would have been too worldly for the nineteenth-century concerns of Mr. Thoreau.

Yet as in any of his novels, food and sex bolster True North just as much as Harrison’s carefully-honed prose style, making it an unusually sensitive meditation on the landscape and on the way we become ourselves in a world of knowing and unknowing, ancestors and descendants, ordered thinking and chaotic doing. David Burkett III, Harrison’s half-blundering, half-tragic protagonist, wrestles with the self much as young Henry did when first arriving at Walden Pond from the schools of Concord and Cambridge:

… I had high school and college courses in many aspects of the natural sciences but they didn’t enable me to put together the whole picture of what I was seeing around me. It had long been obvious to me that I wanted to know too much, perhaps more than anyone was capable of … I learned in my anthropology course that people prayed in every single culture. But where did the urge to know everything come from?

One can see David thinking all this while rowing a boat downriver, much like Henry Thoreau out floating on the Pond at the moment in Walden that he realizes, “my head is hands and feet.” David loves to row – and we imagine Harrison did, too –because it gives him a view of the past without allowing him to fixate on the future. As David comes to know his Midwestern landscape in search of his family’s history running an extractive logging operation, we realize his “project” is in conversation with Thoreau’s own sense of how to know a place anew, more deeply than ever before.

April water at Walden

April water at Walden

I wonder often what Henry Thoreau would have written had he survived his illnesses and lived to be sixty or seventy. It is unlikely that he would have become the sort of novelist and raconteur that Harrison still was in his seventies, but undoubtedly he would have kept his custom of spending several daily hours in the act of sauntering, encircling Concord with his footsteps over and over. An older David Burkett, late in True North, goes out on foot in the desert mesas of southern Arizona. After falling repeatedly in the steep and rocky terrain, he learns how different the place is from the forests and marshes of Michigan. “I was a flatlander, simple as that,” he admits. “One day I ran across a biologist disassembling a pack rat nest and midden and he said it took years to learn a new landscape.”

Constantly attuned and devoted to the act of learning the landscape through the saunterer’s vision, Thoreau and his words will endure in part because we come to know Concord so intimately through his. Who but Jim Harrison could have been the deviant saunterer of the upper Midwest, a place that we now know through his words and thus through his eyes.

Scott Berkley is a Middlebury College senior and AMC hutman; he’s writing a thesis on Wallace Stevens and looking forward to summer at Galehead Hut in the White Mountains.

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A Long-Ago Auction

By Corinne H. Smith

Thoreau Farm and The Thoreau Society recently held their annual online fundraising auction. Coincidentally, news of a long-ago auction with Thoreau ties came my way at the same time.

In my job at a used bookstore, I handled an auction catalogue from April 14, 1920. It was a nondescript tan paperback that was missing its cover. The title page described the auction collection as “The Complete Writings of Distinguished American, English and French Authors in Finely Bound Library Editions: The Magnificent Library of Colonel Jacob Ruppert of New York City.” As I turned a few pages, I saw 175 listings of classic books and large book sets by many famous authors: Dickens, Shakespeare, and Trollope, to name just a few. Some entries included staged photographs that showed off the leather bindings, lavish gilt decorations on the covers and the inside flyleaves. This did indeed look like a magnificent library, and one where the books had hardly been handled. They may never have been read.

I was intrigued. Who was Jacob Ruppert, and how had he amassed this collection? After searching for more information, I learned that he was probably the American businessman and National Guard colonel who was also the owner of the New York Yankees from 1915 until his death in 1939. Ruppert therefore had the money to buy such fine volumes. Why had he decided to auction them off in 1920? This was a question left unanswered. Maybe he was merely downsizing to gain some ready cash.

The lots were listed in alphabetical order by author name. Automatically I turned to the Ts and looked for Thoreau. Bingo! Ruppert had owned a manuscript edition copy of “The Writings of Henry David Thoreau,” the 20-volume set published by Houghton Mifflin and Company in 1906. This meant that an original piece of handwritten manuscript was also included. Only 600 of these numbered manuscript sets were released. Ruppert’s was #319.

ruppertthoreau

The person who had once owned this catalogue must have gone to the auction. He or she wrote the winning bid prices in the margins. This Thoreau set sold for $425. My next questions were: Who had bought it? And where was it now?

ruppertthoreau2

I contacted Elizabeth Witherell, editor-in-chief of the Princeton editions project that continues to update the Writings volumes. Beth is based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I figured if anyone had a list of the whereabouts of the 600 manuscript editions, she would. She did. And her most current list contained no entry for #319. The Ruppert auction item was new information.

The manuscript edition list that Beth sent me included details of the libraries, private collectors, and booksellers who have been known to own these special copies of the 1906 set. It even quoted the text from the original manuscript pages, when it was known. It included details of archives where some of the handwritten pages are now found. Sadly, some have been lost or destroyed. One of Beth’s questions for me was if the Ruppert auction catalogue described exactly which Thoreau manuscript page accompanied the set. I had to tell her that unfortunately, it did not. This remains another mystery.

I sent messages to a few other special libraries that own copies of Ruppert’s 1920 auction catalogue. None of them had further annotations or details on who bought the items at the sale. All we know is that the new owner paid $425. The books could be anywhere now.

Several sets of the 1906 Writings manuscript edition are on the market today. Asking prices range from $12,000 to $19,000. More than a century after their publication, we have to wonder: What would Jacob Ruppert think? And, what would Henry Thoreau think?

[If you own one of the manuscript sets or know the location of one, and you would like to make sure it is informally registered on the master list, please e-mail Corinne at corinnehsmith@gmail.com.]

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Choose

Watching a Wendell Castle Documentary at the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC

The real facts of a poet’s life would be of more use to us than any work of his art. Thoreau, Journal 10/26/57.

Whenever I encounter someone who has chosen to live or think outside the usual lines prescribed by society, Henry Thoreau comes to mind. That’s not, I realize, much of a stretch; Thoreau cast himself as outsider again and again, in part to offer those inside the lines a different perspective, another set of images to consider when it came to deciding how best to imagine and live a life.

Such a resonance was especially strong a few weeks ago, when I visited an exhibition at Museum of Arts and Design in New York. It was a snowy, late afternoon, and I had just walked along the fringe of Central Park, watching the large flakes kiss themselves as they reached the water in a chain of ponds; I was feeling especially lucky at this walk, albeit a little wet and cold.

With friends, I entered the museum, shook off some soggy snow and then took the elevator to the top floor to see the furniture designs and sculptures of Wendell Castle, an artist my friends knew of from Rochester, New York. Castle’s work has an organic, layered flair to it, and he favors rich woods. I’ve included a few photos from and the link to his website, so you can have a look. But what linked him in my mind to Thoreau was a clip from a documentary about Castle’s life.

A Castle piece from the exhibit.

A Castle piece from the exhibit.

In a section about his childhood and how he came to art, which is another way to say how he came to know himself, Castle reflected on some of a child’s usual routes – sports and school.

Here’s a short poem that incorporates some of what Castle had to say; it imagines the moment described in the documentary from his point of view, actually from 2 points of view, the first as a child, the second the adult subject of the film.

Choose

“I’ve got Ray.” “Okay,
I’ve got Chuck.” Chuck’s face
unscrews – he’s not slipped
to me – one from last, yes,
but not what comes next:
“You take Castle.” “Naw,
we got enough, you take him.”
I am about to be returned when
they decide, “Castle, you’re the sub,
when someone has to go,”
and they turn to the field,
their glove-hands hanging like
outsized claws, their throwing hands
free to punch and jostle, to
touch as boys will, as they step
over the lime lines that shape
a geometry of childhood.

I turn
again to go, then look out
at the camera documenting me,
its convex lens unblinking,
and draw my own lines, say,
“So I learned
to choose
myself and Art
was the field
where that
happened.”

I like to think of Henry Thoreau choosing himself too, as it seems, artists do – when he chose to write; when he went to Walden; when he returned. When he went out each day to walk his own lines across the near world.

link to Castle website and more about the artist and his work:  http://wendellcastlecollection.com/index.cfm/do/WCC.wendell_castle_modern_designer_furniture

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