A. L. Burt Company’s Walden

I often rummage through the shelves at my parents’ house, looking for books that I can use in my classroom. Sometimes books I’ve given to them as gifts return home with me after a few years to be recycled for my students. On a recent trip, however, my dad conjured a box of books that I’d never come across while at the house. They were old editions, many from the first half of the 1900s. They weren’t titles to be added to my classroom, but rather books that someone might take the simple pleasure in owning and setting upon the shelf.

The best book, the one that I took immediately, was a copy of Thoreau’s Walden. It had been pulled from the shelves of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, and not only did it have a library sticker on the back of the front cover, but it also had the university’s name on the title page—not inked—but embossed. The book had some definite wear and repair. The back had almost the entire “Date Due” label ripped from the last page, leaving me only a hint of the past readers.  After a close examination, the latest due date appears to be Oct 19, 1971, but I imagine there were a few more readers that were snatched away from me, by someone’s desire to make the book their own by erasing its past readership. That bothers me, because I like that sense of history, stamped into a book, and knowing that people had read this book, or at the very least, checked it out of the library.

Usually, the most interesting pages of an old book are the frontispiece and the title page, and this book certainly doesn’t let the reader down. The title page of the book reveals the publisher as the A. L. Burt Company, and the book appears to be part of a collection called Burt’s Library of the World’s Best Books. How nice, for Thoreau, to have his book collected as one of the world’s best books! Unfortunately, there is no publication date, but after some internet sleuthing, I thought this copy might be dated from 1902 or 1903. The actual date might be more recent, though, because the end of the book advertises other titles in the series for sale at $1.25 rather than $1.00, which I’d read was the first price issued for these books. One might easily imagine the price going up over time, but I’ve also read that Burt may have lowered prices during the Great Depression, which would date the book much later.

Two other things strike me from the title page. First, the book doesn’t include the original subtitle: “or, Life in the Woods.” To me that’s good, because before Thoreau passed away, he asked that this be struck from the title of the book.  It was simply to be called Walden. Thoreau didn’t provide a reason, but many books had similar subtitles from about this time period.  What’s interesting, however, is that this version of the book has a different subtitle, A Story of Life in the Woods. It may not be the original, but it’s nearly identical, which may indicate the publisher wanted to distinguish the contents of the book more clearly.

They take one more step, too, in my opinion toward pushing Thoreau into a neat box, making him a kind of travel writer. Under the author’s name, they’ve included other titles by Thoreau: Excursions in the Field and Forest, A Yankee in Canada, and The Maine Woods. I especially, like how the publisher included “etc., etc.” after the last title, and I’m wondering what that etcetera may reference. I imagine, perhaps, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, though maybe they didn’t want to mention Thoreau’s failed literary adventure.

There’s still more, though. The publishers excerpted a few lines of William Wordsworth on the title page. As often the case, the lines are just credited to the author without citing their original location, but a quick search provided the poem “Hart-leap Well” as their source. As to their author, the Burt Company didn’t provide a first name. Instead, it’s just “Wordsworth,” though the poet need hardly any more introduction just like our great American poets such as Whitman and Dickinson. Nevertheless, here are the lines from “Hart-leap Well”:

The Being that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves
Maintains a deep and reverential care
For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.

Perhaps, in another post, I might reflect on the choice of these words, their Transcendental nature, but for now I’m reminded of two images from Walden, the mouse and the woodchuck. Indeed, when Thoreau writes of the mouse running up his pantleg and across his writing desk, we may sense that “deep and reverential care,” but there’s also Thoreau, killing and eating the woodchuck that ravaged his beans. Perhaps, this creature’s offense to Thoreau was simply too much and even Wordsworth might have approved that night’s repast.

The book also includes a frontispiece that’s not a woodcut. I’m a bit jaded when it comes to the use of woodcuts to illustrate Thoreau. I own a Penguin copy from 1943 with woodcuts by Ethelbert White and a more recent book called The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau with woodcuts by Michael McCurdy. These are beautiful, indeed, but the frontispiece for this Burt Company book is much more detailed than the earthy, simple lines of wood engravings. The drawing depicts Thoreau at work in his bean field. And unfortunately, no artist is credited with the artwork. But there’s also something strange, to me, with this choice. The drawing portrays, rightly I imagine, Thoreau’s bean field almost without trees, and we can read about the Thoreau pulling the stumps from the ground. Good enough, but I think it odd, that on the very next page the Burt Company subtitled Walden with A Story of Life in the Woods. Would one expect to come along a man at work on his beans in the woods? Probably not, and at least for me, the juxtaposition of these two images of Thoreau creates a kind of tension.

Here, yes, I imagine the title pages creating a kind of story in themselves. Just as I’ve outlined above, there seems to be a conflict imbedded here. It’s the same feeling I get from those lines quoted from Wordsworth’s poem. Perhaps, it’s the feeling of half-truth. Of not quite getting the man that asked to have his subtitle struck from his famous book. No, Thoreau didn’t give us a reason for that choice. We have only conjecture, but as Emerson writes in Self-Reliance, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” Granted, these are things only a seasoned reader might take away from this copy of the book, but I think, the seasoned reader, too, is always at work defending the portrayal of their most often misunderstood hero from Walden.  

Certainly, if there are any readers with more information about this edition of Walden, I welcome your commentary. For instance, I’d love to the know the artis who drew the frontispiece as well as a firm date of publication.

4 Replies to “A. L. Burt Company’s Walden”

  1. An interesting post, thanks for this. When I saw the image of a man tending his field I assumed it was a photograph for a brief moment but I suppose it is a drawing or a painting. The leaves in the shrub on the left look more painted than drawn. There may be a signature in the lower right corner, somewhat stylized and illegible. About the faint vertical object far in the background, just to the left of center, is that a pencil-mark somebody made in the book? It goes straight up and then zigzags to the left.


  2. I’m sorry I don’t have more info on this book. But, it had me thinking about buying pocket books in the early seventies and paying as little as $0.99 a copy. My late brother Ben and I were avid readers and always shared our purchases with each other and continued to do so until he passed away this year.

    Sadly I could not share any more of the books that I’ve read with him now, and one I particularly enjoyed and finished reading this week was “Dragon Teeth” by Michael Crichton. It’s a great read because of the real characters and places in the story and the interaction with the main fictional character that the story revolves around. In a nutshell, it’s about a college student who embarks on a dangerous journey to the badlands with a professor of palaeontology.

    If you have not read it, I feel certain that you and your students will enjoy it.

    Best regards, Bill



  3. Good piece, Aaron. Like you I find one of the pleasures of buying books second-hand is getting an insight into the physical copy’s history. One reason I buy books from a charity shops whenever I can, and donate them too!


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