Thoreau Country Project: Mapping Thoreau Country
I am reminded by my journey how exceedingly new this country still is. You have only to travel for a few days into the interior and back parts even of many of the old States,to come to that very America which the Northmen, and Cabot,and Gosnold, and Smith, and Raleigh visited. If Columbus was the first to discover the islands, Americans Vespucius and Cabot, and the Puritans, and we their descendants, have discovered only the shores of America. While the republic has already acquired a history world-wide, America is still unsettled and explored.
- Henry David Thoreau, "Ktaadn," The Maine Woods
The Thoreau Society and University of Massachusetts- Lowell, along with several other organizations and libraries across the United States, have joined together to produce a series of digital maps related to Thoreau's travels throughout the United States as part of the Thoreau Country Project. Over the next few years, the Thoreau Country Project hopes to construct three permanent digital map exhibits that will be exhibited in libraries and museums throughout the U.S.: Thoreau Country: Mapping Henry David Thoreau's Travels in Massachusetts; Thoreau Country: Mapping Henry David Thoreau's East Coast Excursions; and Thoreau Country: Mapping Henry David Thoreau's Trip to Minnesota. The Thoreau Society's collections, rich in images and primary source historical material relating to the nineteenth century, will be used as a major resource for the project.
The idea for the Thoreau Country Project grew out of the partnership formed between the Society and UMass-Lowell to produce a digital critical edition of "Resistance to Civil Government," as part of the Reading New England series published by University of Massachusetts Press. It became clear through the Reading New England project that the digital age is making it easier to provide new perspectives on classic works of literature like Walden and figures such as Thoreau.
As vast amounts of archival materials are digitized and made more accessible, historical inquiry and scholarship are changing, and new opportunities are being created. The Thoreau Country Project takes advantage of these opportunities. For scholars, the digitizing of archives can shorten the duration of their inquiry from years to months, or even days. For educators and students, though, the amount of easily accessible archival material can prove overwhelming. The Thoreau Country maps will serve as an organizing tool for educators and students, encouraging direct interaction with primary documents that were previously more difficult to access, and making searches for material easier. If a student were interested in learning more about Thoreau's Staten Island stay from 1843-1844, she could click on the Staten Island area on the project's digital map of the East Coast, and find links to full-text materials and primary sources (such as images of Staten Island in the nineteenth century) related to his stay. Rather than facing a mass of material in an archive, students will have a carefully organized and fully contextualized set of primary materials related to Thoreau's Staten Island period.
The benefits for the Society coming from its involvement in the Thoreau Country Project, which was conceived by Susan Gallagher, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Thoreau Society Board Member, are many. First, the project brings the Society in step with the digital transformation of scholarship and inquiry that is well underway. The project also gives visibility to the wealth of the Society's collections at the Thoreau Institute. Further, the project opens new lines of dialogue between the Society and other organizations and libraries across the United States, which will further enrich the Society's national presence.
One of the more unique contributions of the Thoreau Country Project will be the opposition it poses to certain myths about Thoreau's personal involvement in the world around him. The maps will show how, contrary to popular notion, Thoreau often traveled outside Concord. In fact, he traveled widely and far-to many cities within Massachusetts, to states along the east coast, and to the Midwest. Arguably, he was more welltraveled, at least in the U.S., than most of his neighbors. The maps will also show, through the organization of journal entries, letters, and other materials, how Thoreau did not shun contact as many infer from his works, but rather sought out interactions and lively conversation with strangers wherever he traveled.
Overall, the Thoreau Country Project will enlarge our sense of what is "Thoreau Country," and extend it beyond Concord's town borders. In doing so, it can help establish other areas in the U.S. that Thoreau traveled to as Thoreau "sites." Thoreau traveled widely and often. Indeed, Thoreau truly was a robust traveler, in mind and body. This project will demonstrate this while also opening up his work to a much broader audience.