Geneseo’s 13th annual Harding Lecture was brought to Geneseo by none other than current editor-in-chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, Elizabeth Witherell. The highly anticipated lecture, entitled “Thoreau’s Manuscripts and the Prepared Eye,” took place on Tuesday Nov. 8 for an eager audience of experienced and new Thoreauvians alike. The Harding Lecture began in 2004 in honor of Distinguished Professor Emeritus Walter Harding, known worldwide as the leading Henry David Thoreau scholar. The lecture was endowed by his late wife Marjorie Brook Harding in order to keep “Walter Harding’s tradition of scholarship and learning” alive at the college.
When Harding is referred to as the world’s leading Thoreau scholar, this is no understatement. As the author of over 30 published books, Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau remains the definitive and most extensive biography of Thoreau in the world.
It is widely known that Harding brought Thoreau and his works to more people around the globe than any other scholar—a fact proven by his travels around the globe, the successful American play based off of the biography and the letters received by Harding from Albert Einstein, Presidents Cater, Johnson and Nixon, Don Henley and Martin Luther King Jr.
Despite this great worldwide influence, however, Harding remained a humble individual who shared many of Thoreau’s ideas on life. Many Thoreau scholars seemingly share this trait, including Witherell, who describes Harding as an awe-inspiring individual and “an important influence on my life.”
As “Walter Harding’s heir,” Witherell cuts an impressive figure herself. Other than inheriting Harding’s own publication—he was the first editor-in-chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau—she won the Thoreau Society Medal in 2008, which is another organization started by Harding.
Witherell specializes in transcription and has translated hundreds of pages of Thoreau’s writing. Most recently, Witherell worked on a new publication, which is a third volume of Thoreau’s correspondences. As a result, she can now identify Thoreau’s hand and writing habits, as well as that of his family, on sight.
She compares her discoveries to Harding’s as being “tamer … but just as exciting” and is immensely grateful for digital photography and technological innovations that make these findings possible.
In her lecture, Witherell described these findings and just how she came to them, sometimes sifting through endless scraps of paper—Thoreau was apparently very frugal—to find continuations of letters and notes.
Witherell takes special interest in the revisions Thoreau made to his letters to publishers, friends and business partners. Although the correspondences themselves reveal much about Thoreau’s personality, these revisions have allowed Witherell to make new discoveries about how Thoreau viewed himself and how he presented himself to others.
In one particular draft of a letter, Thoreau deletes a beautiful passage explaining exactly what it is he is looking for in his observations of the natural world and replaces it with a more professional, emotionless statement. Thus, Witherell can finally identify Thoreau as the “hunter of beauty” she has searched for throughout her career.
One would expect such an intelligent and impressive intellectual to be an intimidating orator who speaks with complicated jargon. But just like Harding, Witherell is a humble and unpretentious scholar, who merely wishes to share with the world her greatest interest.
Feeling a true connection to her work and a pure enjoyment of knowledge, Witherell provides a role model for all who strive to chase their curiosity. Walter Harding would be proud.