Pet Book Post Two (Higginson’s Field Book)

Grazia and Stallybrass point out, at the beginning of “The Materiality of the Shakespearian Text,” the reliance of both critics and editors on a belief in “The authentic Shakespeare” (256). Towards the end of the essay, they criticize the way in which the desire for an authentic “’original’ behind the text” (256) influences how Shakespeare’s plays are represented in modern editions. Features including “irregular line and scene division, title pages and other paratextual matter” (256) are standardized in the modern text and the “clean and familiar textual surface allows reading to proceed unencumbered past matter… The standard edition thereby promotes a binarism between surface and depth” (280). The desire for the authentic original beyond the earliest texts corresponds, then, to a desire for a text so apparently clear that it can be passed through.

It is important that “authenticity” in that first quoted phrase (“the authentic Shakespeare”) is aligned with both an original and an originator. We can imagine Shakespeare writing or we can forget the person, and imagine the manuscript. As Grazia and Stallybrass point out, the first option is not any better if we imagine a process of authorial revisions because – among other things – such an image continues to erase or forget the other agents in the process.

I want to keep in mind this equation of authenticity with both author and manuscript, when looking at one of the passages in Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Field Book (my Pet book), in which he quotes from Thoreau’s journal. He read a manuscript of Thoreau Journal and copied passages down, noting page numbers and occasionally dates. At the bottom of one page, there is a passage with a crossed-out word and amendment, appearing like this:

White & Black Spruce

Got a white black  [sic] spruce for a Christmas tree for the

town, out of the spruce swamp opposite J. Farmer’s.

It is remarkable how few inhabitants of Concord

can tell a spruce fr. a fir, & prob. not 2 a

white from a black spruce unless they grow together v(324)

Higginson ‘corrects’ white to black, but then indicates with [sic] that this ‘correction’ was in the original. By noting [sic], Higginson is explicitly signalling a couple of things – that it is not his own mistake, and that he has represented the text as he has found it faithfully. Keeping in mind Grazia and Stallybrass’s references to the features (like spelling) which Shakespeare’s editors have standardized, it is worth noting that Higginson keeps certain abbreviations like “fr” and “prob.,” and in this way he is perhaps trying to keep faith with the other text too. I cannot be sure that these are actually kept and to be found in Thoreau’s manuscript because currently no facsimile is publicly available for this date range (Aug 1853-Jan 1854) – however, in manuscripts of the later journal entries, Thoreau does use these abbreviations (and others which Higginson uses). Of course, the abbreviations are not necessarily marks of an attempt at exact representation (since they might easily be a product of desire for speed or ease). However, the decision to mimetically represent the crossing-out – and then to mark it as belonging to the original – does appear to be an attempt to render faithfully Thoreau’s manuscript. The dual quality of authenticity is important here I think, since, if Higginson wanted to represent Thoreau’s thought he might have written black as that was the “latest” authorial decision. Instead he copied the error and the correction as he saw them on the page: this seems like a desire for the authentic in the sense of the original document. Another way to look at it would be to say Higginson’s copy appears to want to confront us with the “materiality” of the Journal. Higginson’s crossing out “white” recalls a part of the composition process, although [sic] attempts to shift its reference onto Thoreau’s composition. What I am describing as Higginson’s desire to keep faith with Thoreau is then complicated by a number of factors. For a start Higginson adds an underlined title that does not exist in the Journal. More importantly, immediately after the quotation, he writes:

Yet afterwards he says “in the town hall

this eve my white spruce-tree  – [evidently forgetting to

alter this afterwards & showing that he

found it difficult in this special case] 328

The sentence in square-brackets has Higginson effectively interpreting the presence of the correction (and the absence of a further correction). The aim, perhaps here is not to accurately reproduce the words (and crossings-out) of the Journal, but to interpret and understand Thoreau’s thought process (his forgetting to correct, as well as how difficult he apparently finds it to tell Spruce species apart). As such, it appears that Higginson’s commentary feel like an attempt to reach authenticity in the sense of authorial genius – the thoughts, as they were in the writer’s head.

A further complication arises when we look at one passage Higginson copied from Thoreau which he later went on to publish in an 1870 article for Atlantic Monthly. In the Field Book, Higginson copies out two passages next to each other. Their distinctness from one another is indicated by separate sets of quotation marks. However, when he reproduces the passages, he runs the two passages together as if they were one (514). Elsewhere he actually appears to make mistakes (or at least his copy is different from that of the 1906 Houghton Mifflin edition), writing at one point, “the faint warbling of the spring notes by many birds.” The 1906 edition has “their spring notes.” It is tempting to read Higginson’s rendering not as an error but another (re)writing.  In part these examples raise the question as to what exactly Higginson is writing when he is copying out Thoreau’s journal. It is both an explicitly interpretive rewriting (as he juxtaposes disparate, passages), and an attempt to record an exact image of several parts of the Journal (with its errors).


Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Footpaths.” The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 26. Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co., 1870


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