Category Archives: Historic Preservation

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.


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?


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]

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Historic Preservation, Literature, Living Deliberately, News and Events, The Roost


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.


“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

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:

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Historic Preservation, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden

The New Walden, Part Two

By Corinne H. Smith

Last month, as described in a story posted here on February 15th, graphic designer Matt Steel launched his Kickstarter campaign to publish a New Walden. His intent was twofold: to adapt Thoreau’s original text with updated language; and to use design to present a more readable and more attractive book. He knew his approach could be misunderstood at first and could also be seen as controversial. Although he got good press and immediate contributors during the first week, he also got a lot of quick, negative feedback.

“I felt I couldn’t ignore it,” Matt said. “And it came from people from all over, from readers and writers of all ages. Not just from The Thoreau Society members and academics. It became clear to me that adaptation was NOT the best way to keep this book evergreen.” He agreed that perhaps he had been a bit overzealous with his initial plan.

As a result, Matt has revised the goals of his project. He will NOT change Thoreau’s words. He will still design a beautiful, easier-to-read version of “Walden.” “Even people who were against the idea of adaptation, thought my design was beautiful,” he said. The font he is using is a tribute to Thoreau too, and one that calls upon the family’s roots. “It’s more Huguenot, with a French boldness,” he explains.

Matt will additionally focus on including annotations intended to help lay readers understand some of the now-uncommon references. The notes won’t be as scholarly as the ones found in the three previous annotated Waldens. And he won’t use footnotes, either. Each description will appear in the margin adjacent to the text it applies to. “Superscripts seem biblical or encyclopedic,” Matt said. With proper note placement, no one will have to search for answers. He sees the value of this edition in its overall design and readability.

To Matt’s knowledge, no other Kickstarter campaign has changed its course in mid-campaign. How did his early backers react to the news? “70% said they would stick with us if we made the change,” he said. “About 40% still preferred the idea of the adaptation.” He went along with the majority decision. He hopes that some of the people who were at first put off by the project will come back and become part of it. To date, only about 25% of the dollars have been committed. His fundraising drive is scheduled to end on March 17, 2016.

What will happen if the New Walden isn’t fully funded? “I’ll have to think of the next step,” said Matt. “I won’t be done with Henry. But I may take a break to reflect and refocus. I continue to admire Thoreau’s complexities and his ability to consider both sides of an issue.” He’ll keep “Walden” and Thoreau close in his life, no matter what the outcome turns out to be.

You can visit Matt’s Kickstarter page and see his updated video and description at:

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