Students Work on Statewide Read for Thoreau Bicentennial

Honors College students at the Thoreau Institute library with curator Jeffrey Cramer. Image by Thomas Hersey
Honors College students Lindsay Blount, Kale Connerty and Erin Monahan work at the Thoreau Institute library with curator Jeffrey S. Cramer.

By Katharine Webster

Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher and naturalist, dreamed of a library deep in the forest.

The Walden Woods Project built it, and now a group of Honors College students are volunteering at the Thoreau Institute’s library. The students are creating a toolkit for a statewide reading of Thoreau’s works in 2017, the bicentennial of his birth. They’re also studying Thoreau’s writings with a leading Thoreau scholar, curator Jeffrey S. Cramer, as their mentor.

It all began when Honors College Dean Jim Canning asked adjunct Thomas Hersey, who teaches Honors College Writing II, “If you could teach your dream course, what would it be?”

Hersey, a Thoreau enthusiast who has taken students in the First Year Writing Program on field trips to the Thoreau Institute and the nearby site of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond for years, promptly answered, “A seminar on Thoreau.” Canning gave him the go-ahead for fall 2015 and a dozen students signed up.

Lindsay Blount, a transfer student and senior English literature major with three minors – French, American literature and medieval and Renaissance studies – says she was intimidated by Thoreau before taking the class, her first honors seminar. Now she’s on a first-name basis with the author of “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience.”

“People don’t realize how accessible Henry is,” Blount says. “When I came out here, something just clicked for me.”

“Reading Thoreau was like meeting a new friend,” agrees Erin Monahan, a Lowell resident who grew up reading Thoreau’s friends and contemporaries in Concord: Thoreau’s student Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women,” and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Now Monahan, a senior liberal arts major with concentrations in art history and English literature, is organizing the library’s photographs and other images into a digital archive for the institute’s website. She’s also gaining experience for a future career as a curator and archivist.

“It’s a chance to deepen my own roots and indulge in learning about the history of this area as a whole,” she says. “It’s also driving me more into working in an archival role as an art historian.”

Kale Connerty, a junior, says reading Thoreau led her to change her major from climate science to English, with a minor in climate change and sustainability. Now she is thinking about working as an environmental journalist, writing about climate change in a way that motivates people to do something about it.

“What I like about Thoreau is how he connects ideas about different things and his way of inspiring people,” Connerty says. “That’s something I want to bring to environmental journalism.”

Cramer says that in his discussions with students, he tries to portray Thoreau as a human being with the same kinds of concerns, passions, interests and ideals that many people share today. Thoreau, an ardent abolitionist who assisted escaped slaves on the underground railroad, lived through turbulent times that included the beginning of the Civil War. And his writings about nature have inspired many people in the modern environmental movement.

“Students need to follow their passions and be true to who they really are, instead of getting caught up in what’s prescribed for them,” Cramer says. “I encourage them to live deliberately and think deliberately, like Thoreau did.”

Hersey says he values the field trips to the Thoreau Institute not only for Cramer’s expertise, but because students cross both a physical and intellectual threshold when they walk through the woods from Walden Pond to the library. Along the way, there’s a small hill where a break in the trees offers a view of Mount Monadnock that Thoreau wrote about.

Honors College students visit a replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden Pond. Image by Thomas Hersey
Honors College students visit a replica of Thoreau's cabin at the Walden Pond State Reservation.

“It’s that idea of a library in the woods, of having distance and then coming back to the classroom with a fresh perspective,” he says.

Blount and Connerty are now trying to forge a permanent partnership between the Honors College and the Walden Woods Project. They’re calling it the Concord Merrimack Honors Initiative in honor of Thoreau’s first published work, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.”

“When the class ended, I thought, ‘What do I do now?’” Blount says. “I thought it would be great if we could keep the discussions going.”

She and Connerty asked what they could do to help with the bicentennial and Cramer put them in charge of the statewide reading toolkit for libraries and schools, which includes discussion guides and marketing materials. Canning seeded the project by awarding Blount, Connerty and Monahan each a $1,000 Honors College fellowship for their summer studies. Hersey says other students are applying to do similar work.

Blount and Connerty envision expanding the initiative so honors students can partner with the Walden Woods Project on original research at the library and neighboring sites in Concord on everything from the former slaves who settled in Walden Woods to the other authors who lived in town, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great transcendentalist philosopher and Thoreau’s friend and mentor.

“This is an untapped resource out here,” Blount says. “We’re really looking forward to developing an ongoing partnership with the project.”

The Walden Woods Project was started in Lincoln in 1990 by Eagles co-founder Don Henley to preserve the lands around Walden Pond from commercial development and educate the public about Thoreau’s legacy. The Thoreau Institute library, added in 1998, now contains more than a dozen collections that comprise nearly everything written by or about Thoreau. The project also holds workshops for translators and teachers and hosts educational field trips.

Cramer is the editor of numerous editions of Thoreau’s work, including “Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition” and “The Portable Thoreau.”