October 2014 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Thoreau Institute Obtains Major Collection of Rare Books & Manuscripts

The Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, a research facility that holds the most comprehensive collection of Henry David Thoreau-related material in one place, has acquired what its curator of collections Jeffrey S. Cramer calls "a dream collection, the last truly great Thoreau collection in private hands." The collection was amassed over 45 years by bookseller Kevin Mac Donnell of Mac Donnell Rare Books in Austin, Texas.

The highlights are thrilling: A Walden first edition--"the cleanest copy in existence," says Cramer--plus Thoreau's Aunt Maria's annotated copy of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack, two manuscript leaves from his "Walking" essay, unbound sheets of "Civil Disobedience," two books from Thoreau's personal library, Thoreau family pencils, and unrecorded variant editions. Topping all of those is an extremely rare manuscript leaf from Walden that references Baker Farm (seen below). "That sold it for us," says Cramer. Baker Farm is where the Thoreau Institute is located, so it feels very much "like it's coming back home," he adds.  

Walden ms001 detail.jpgWhen Cramer received a notice from Mac Donnell offering the collection, he was immediately very interested. He flew down to Texas to meet the bookseller and survey the collection. Mac Donnell, Cramer says, hoped it would end up in an institution. "It's a wonderful thing for both of us." Mac Donnell agreed, saying that it is "easier to let it go" back to Massachusetts.

Mac Donnell recently decided to sell the collection, much of which was detailed in a 1999 issue of Firsts magazine, in order to concentrate on other projects. He told us, "I'm focusing on Twain, writing scholarly articles for journals, under contract editing a collection of essays on Twain, etc. My Twain collection numbers over 8,000 items but I still find things. I had not added any exciting Thoreau to that collection in years. My wife has moved her antique glass into the bookcases that housed my Thoreau books so she's pleased!"

The Thoreau Institute Library (a.k.a. The Henley Library, named for its founder, singer and songwriter Don Henley) collects, preserves, and provides access to 60,000 Thoreau-related manuscripts, books, maps, correspondence, art, and the Thoreau Society archives. Its location so near Walden Pond and other literary attractions and archives is a boon for both researchers and tourists. Cramer says the collection will be open in about a month. He is still sorting through the boxes and working on a catalog, a webpage, and some limited photography.

Image: A draft manuscript leaf of Thoreau's Walden, in which he writes, "Oh Baker Farm!" Courtesy of the Walden Woods Project.