Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Field Book (Pet Book Report One)

I have chosen as my ‘Pet-Book,’ Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Field Book. The book consists mostly of descriptions of Higginson’s observations of natural phenomena in New England, as well reminiscences and theoretical meditations (as, for example when he muses on why the Adirondacks are more attractive than Mt. Katahdin). At times it looks like a journal, consisting of dated entries and prose in paragraphs. At other points, he divides the pages up into tables, where he records numerical data concerning the birds, flowers, insects and nests he has observed. The pages of the book are thin (made, I think, of pulp paper), and are sewn together; the spine has partially broken away, revealing the binding. On the inside of the front cover, there is one small tipped-in page, with writing I have not yet been able to decipher. The binding is black leather and on the front cover, in the centre, there is an off-white impress (made of card), on which is hand-written in black ink, “Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Field Book 1860-1862 Living in Worcester.”

The first date within the range given on the cover (1860-62) in the book itself appears on the third page at the head of a journal-style entry. On pages 1 and 2 however, there are also several passages of writing. On the first page there is an introductory note signed by Higginson, and dated 1885, written in purple ink (unlike the rest of the book which is written in black ink and pencil): in that note he explains that the book was written in two very important years of his life (from the end of 1860, through 1861 and into 1862), because it was just before the beginning of the war. In spite of his insistence on these dates in that note, and the similar dating of the title on the front cover, there are the beginnings of unfinished entries on both pages 1 and 2, in black ink and pencil, dated to 1845 and 1850, as well as another note from 1885. As such, it seems that Higginson had started writing something like a journal (or field book) well before 1860, but had not continued with it. The entries of the “1860-62 Field Book” run from page 3 to 189. After that, there is a series of blank pages; but, on page 200 Higginson begins again, with 11 pages of text copied out of Henry David Thoreau’s Journal. He introduces these quotations with a prefatory note on page 189, dated 1864. Perhaps then, a fully inclusive date for the journal would be 1845-1885, or – in order to account for only the extended pieces of writing – 1860-1864.

I chose Higginson’s Field Book in part because I am interested in the way the various genres at play in the book affect its layout and appearance. The Journal mode, like that of other transcendentalists requires first-person introspective prose, written dated (daily) entries. This genre is at work especially early on in the book, but it is eventually disrupted by the demand of scientific writing for a numerical (even, statistical) record of observations. Continuous prose is superseded by lists, tables and taxonomic trees. Whereas the daily entries span one page at a time, moving left to right and then top to bottom (before proceeding to the top left corner of the next page), the numerical tables span both verso and recto, with large blank spaces left in the bottom of columns, presumably with the expectation that he might have needed to return to the page, to record more data.

I am also particularly interested in the uses of the book. In his note concerning the quotations from Thoreau, he remarks on the Journal’s “resemblance to this,” and notes that Thoreau “used this material for printed work precisely as I do, re-noting with pencil before transcribing: then crossing out the passage” (201).   Throughout the book, there are pencil annotations and revisions. Occasionally they appear in the margins and sometimes in the spaces between lines. He has also revised some portions of the Field Book in ink simply by writing over the top of other words. However, I haven’t found many portions, crossed out in pencil, and in some cases there are passages which Higginson has used in later published works, in revised forms, which he has not crossed out at all. I want to look into the ways that Higginson’s use of the book changed over time. I am also interested in the possibility that the book may have circulated among friends or family (in the way that Thoreau’s Journal manuscripts did).  Higginson’s claim that he uses the book primarily as source material for other later works also raises some interesting questions related to the Mckenzie’s discussion of “misreading” and his argument that “every reader rewrites its texts” (25). In the Field Book we have the author rewriting the text, in the form of marginal notes, full revisions, and interpretative prefatory notes, so that the book, in itself, presents a variety of re-writings and re-readings, some of which exist in tension with one another.

I have also found two pressed flowers in the Field Book: as well as identifying them, I am really interested in looking into where they might have been picked, and whether Higginson physically brought his book with him on excursions. I want to look into the relationship between the different kinds of record-keeping in the book: prose descriptions, numerical tables and physical specimens all share the same space and I want to explore the various kinds of knowledge which these different genres and media facilitate. On some pages there are also large rectangular blank spaces, around which the writing is organized, as though something (perhaps another pressed flower) was expected to be tipped in or attached there, or had been attached at one point, but subsequently lost.

Will Bond


“Field Book,” MS Am 1162.4. In: Thomas Wentworth Higginson Papers, 1856-1911 (MS Am 1162-1162.9). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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