Snoop Inside Thoreau’s Journals at This New Exhibition

It’s your chance to get up-close and personal with the philosopher-poet’s possessions

When he wasn't writing poems, Thoreau worked as a handyman and surveyor and used these tools. Concord Museum
This steel lock and key were salvaged from the cell where Thoreau spent a night in jail for tax resistance in 1846. Concord Museum
One of Thoreau’s goose quill pens, with a note from his sister Sophia ("The pen brother Henry last wrote with"). Concord Museum
This paper silhouette was made of Thoreau as a Harvard graduate in 1837. The Neil and Anna Rasmussen Collection
Thoreau paid $1 for this desk, on which he wrote during his entire adult life. Concord Museum
Thoreau kept—and illustrated—journals throughout his lifetime. The Morgan Library & Museum
Thoreau made this walking stick himself. Concord Museum

It’s easy to think of Henry David Thoreau in terms of abstractions—his lofty transcendentalist ideals, his lack of possessions, his love of simplicity. But he lived in a material world, too, and the objects he touched and used during his everyday life have taken on a poetic meaning of their own. Now, reports Rebecca Rego Barry for Fine Books and Collections, some of those objects are on the road in honor of the poet-philosopher’s 200th birthday.

An assortment of Thoreau’s personal possessions—from his journals to the desk he used throughout his life and at his home in Walden Pond to walking stick—are now on display through September 10 at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. The exhibition This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal marks the first time the desk has ever left Concord, Massachusetts, Barry reports. (It’s on display as part of a joint-exhibition between the Concord Museum, where it usually lives, and the Morgan.)

Though the exhibition focuses on Thoreau’s journals, which he kept throughout his lifetime, it has plenty of other objects to share. Nearly 100 items will be on display, writes the Morgan in a press release, including pressed plants from Thoreau’s herbarium, a lock and key from the cell where he spent a night in jail for tax evasion, and his beloved copy of the Bhagavad-Gítá.

The museum also has the only two photographs of the author ever taken on display, and will celebrate his birthday with everything from newly commissioned music to movies and birding walks in nearby Bryant Park.

It’s all in celebration of a figure most known for shying away from public life. In 1845, Thoreau left home to live in a cottage at Walden Pond, experimenting with simple living, reading classical literature and exploring the wild world around him. Thoreau’s experiment was a bit less off-the-grid than his famous book Walden; or, Life in the Woods might imply, but his book became a clarion call for anyone inspired to make their lives a bit simpler in an era before Marie Kondo. It’s been called “the ultimate self-help book”—and it’s just the tip of Thoreau’s extremely productive literary iceberg.

The new exhibition suggests that perhaps the best place to look for Thoreau isn’t Walden Pond, or even the poems and essays he published during his lifetime. By highlighting his lifelong journaling habit, the museum writes in the release, a “fuller, more intimate picture of a man of wide-ranging interests and a profound commitment to living responsibly and passionately” is revealed. This Thoreau isn’t just a hiker or a celebrity, but someone who went to school, worked as a handyman, and made plenty of time to contemplate the world around him—a world as magical as it was material.