Digital Thoreau Explores Geneseo’s Ties with the 19th-century Philosopher.
In 2014, the college launched Digital Thoreau (digitalthoreau.org), a digital humanities project featuring the writings of Henry David Thoreau (American, 1817-1862). The project encourages and enhances the study of Thoreau’s classic work, “Walden,” and promotes worldwide, online discussion of the text among scholars, students and general readers.
The project has revolutionized how “Walden” — which is considered to be one of the greatest works of nature and philosophy of living in the 19th and 20th centuries — is interpreted, by allowing readers to fluidly track the narrative revisions the author made in seven manuscript versions, which were made available by the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. Thoreau wrote “Walden” over a nine-year span, from about 1845 until its publication in 1854.
“It’s incredibly exciting and satisfying to have these open-source tools available to anyone,” said Paul Schacht, professor of English and director of Digital Thoreau. “It’s a collaborative work by Thoreau scholars, software coding experts, and Geneseo librarians and students.”
Digital Thoreau comprises three projects: “Walden: A Fluid Text Edition,” “The Readers’ Thoreau,” and “The Days of Walter Harding, Thoreau Scholar.” It is the only online community of its kind dedicated to Thoreau.
Digital Thoreau is a natural extension of the scholarship done at Geneseo. The late Walter Harding, Distinguished Teaching Professor English at Geneseo, was arguably the most influential scholar of Thoreau in the 20th century. Harding taught at Geneseo from 1956 to 1982, wrote seven books on Thoreau, including “The Days of Henry Thoreau,” which remains the definitive biography, and was the inaugural editor of “The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau.” In 1941, he helped found the Thoreau Society, which is the most significant Thoreau association in the world.
Digital Thoreau features The Readers’ Thoreau online community, which allows readers to join conversations and comment in the margins of the “Walden” versions and “Resistance to Civil Government.” More than a dozen colleges and high schools have utilized the site to organize courses. Readers can also find relevant Thoreau scholarship. More than 1,500 users visited the Readers Thoreau over a recent three-month period. Users included an Iranian scholar who translated “Walden” into Farsi, and a scholar translating it into a regional language in the state of Maharashtra in India, says Schacht.
“I believe Harding would be pleased with this project,” said Schacht. “Harding liked the quantitative aspects of the study of literature, like counting the number of times Thoreau used certain expressions. Thoreau himself was wary of any invention that would distract from focusing on the essential facts of life, but he also was fascinated by any invention that could make life better. I think Digital Thoreau accomplishes that.”