In the News

Olmstead's 1859 Letter Describing his Vision for Central Park to be Auctioned

Los Angeles - A handwritten letter from renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead to... read more

Works by Tolkien, Drawings, and Photography on View This Winter at the Morgan

New York — The 2019 winter season at the Morgan Library & Museum continues... read more

Sotheby's Geek Week Auctions Total $7.4 Million in NY

New York - Sotheby’s Geek Week auctions concluded Friday in New York with a... read more

The Getty Museum Presents "Spectacular Mysteries: Renaissance Drawings Revealed"

Los Angeles - During the Italian Renaissance—the period from about 1475 to 1600 that... read more

Charles Dickens Handwritten Signed "Christmas Carol" Quote Sold for $23,597 at Auction 

Boston—A Charles Dickens handwritten signed quotation from “A Christmas Carol” sold for $23,597 according... read more

World Records for both Harry Potter & Einstein's "God" Letter at Christie's

New York - Christie’s December 13 sale of Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts realized... read more

Potter & Potter Auctions' December Vintage Travel Poster Sale Takes Off

Chicago — Potter and Potter's December 1st Vintage Travel Poster Sale was first class... read more

52nd California International Antiquarian Book Fair Returns to Oakland, February 8-10, 2019

Oakland, CA - The 52nd California International Antiquarian Book Fair, recognized as one of... read more

Follow us on TwitterLike us on Facebook
Auction Guide
Advertise with Us
2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Fine Books Interview

Archivist in the Forest

“How do you explain Thoreau’s puns without killing the joke?” Interview by Rebecca Rego Barry

Jacket image from the new edition of The Maine Woods

In this issue of Fine Books, we talk to Jeffrey Cramer, editor of a new fully annotated edition of Thoreau’s The Maine Woods (Yale University Press, 2009) and curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods. Cramer has also published Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition and I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau.

FB: Most readers are familiar with Thoreau’s stint at Walden Pond, while few know much about his Maine expeditions. Why were you motivated to edit a new edition of The Maine Woods?

JC: Although it’s not a title that most people are familiar with, it is the Thoreau title, after Walden, which sells the best, and it contains one of his most powerful and frequently anthologized essays, “Ktaadn.” As I plan to do annotated editions of all, or most, of Thoreau’s works, this book was the logical next step. And there were conundrums in the text that I was challenged by, obsessed by, that I wanted to solve if I could—things like: What did Louis Neptune mean when he said he had ‘planted letter’ on the top of Ktaadn? Or what was the literal meaning of the Abenaki words Joe Polis carved on a tree? Or what great British author suggested that ‘savages’ should be ‘civilized off the face of the earth’?

Jeffrey S. Cramer at the Thoreau Institute. Credit: Photographer Ben Barnhart, UMass Magazine, 2004.

FB: Tell me about the process of annotating this book. How long did it take?

JC: It takes about two years, partly due to other commitments, but also because I’m not only annotating the work but I’m carefully looking at the text to present a reliable and accurate edition of Thoreau’s work that does not carry forward errors from previous editions. The hardest part about annotating is striking a balance between what needs to be annotated and what doesn’t. What an 18-year-old reader and what a 60-year-old reader know is different; what a person who grew up in the country or on a farm understands about the land is different from what a person who grew up in a major city knows. How do you explain Thoreau’s puns without killing the joke? And the hardest part of all is reaching that point in time where I simply have to stop and finish the book, knowing that although I may have missed something, if I didn’t stop, I’d go on forever.

FB: Was this edition easier or more difficult to produce than your Walden edition or I to Myself?

JC: With Walden I followed in the footsteps of some great Thoreau scholars whose annotations formed the initial foundation of my work. I would revise or challenge their work, and then add my own layer, bringing to the text a whole new set of questions they did not ask. With I to Myself and The Maine Woods there was less on which to build. This made it both easier and more difficult: easier in that I was not forced into the position of having to challenge the work of scholars that came before me and for whom I had the greatest respect, but harder in that I did not have their guidance to fall back on. I’m not sure which I prefer.

FB: The amount of detail in your annotations and notes is remarkable. Are you naturally a very organized, methodical writer?

JC: I wish I were. In annotating a particular word or phrase I am very methodical in how I go about solving a particular textual mystery, making sure that I’ve covered all the appropriate sources, and that my explanations fit the context of what Thoreau did or could have known. But in choosing what to annotate, I am less so, combing through the text forwards and backwards many times, over and over again, with the hope that by sneaking up on a word or phrase from a different direction I may find something I had previously missed. It’s similar to how I mow the lawn, crossing and re-crossing rather than mowing straight rows.

FB: What is your professional background?

JC: I did my undergraduate work at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. For my curatorial work at the Institute, I have a master’s degree as a trained professional archivist from SUNY-Albany. For my editorial and other literary work, I am an autodidactic independent scholar. As a parent of home-schooled children, I’ve always held that it is the product not the parchment that counts.

Page 1 | 2 | Next
comments powered by Disqus