We celebrate the bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau’s birth on July 12, 1817 with a Surprise Birthday Present: the creation of (the Beta version of) The Thoreau Polymonophonic Journal Project. All are welcome to participate by recording their thoughtful readings from Thoreau’s Journal (October 1837 - November 1861) and sharing these recordings online with other attentive readers and listeners.
Thoreau? Of course! No need to offer a particular justification to all who come here and who love him and his deliberate words, deeds, thoughts, and movements. This is not the place for an ode to his remarkable life and work. Louis May Alcott has already done that in her ode to “Thoreau’s Flute.”
Polymonophonic? A neologism, to be sure. And not the most mellifluous, even if entirely Greek in its (non)origin.
Monody would be out of place, here. Or rather: untimely. For, we are celebrating now his birth. Not lamenting his death (May 6, 1862).
Polyphony has a nice collective ring to it. Yet it ill resounds for the work of the author who declared in Walden’s Chapter 5, Solitude: “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Many people saying the same thing at once does not beseem Thoreau, who wrote in his Conclusion to Walden: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Polymonophony then. A multiplicity of individual voices, who just might—in tone, in emphasis, in hesitations and élan—find something to say to each other as they share their readings of Thoreau’s Journal. (Please do not abuse the large but limited space made available to you by offering commentaries. This is a reading project; one can find many other places to create endless and often increasingly strident “comment” strings.)
And thus: a Journal Project. For those who love to read Thoreau. Two million words. His “Gleanings—or What Time Has Not Reaped of My Journal.”
So, http://thoreaupolymonophonicjournalproject.org A bunch of letters one has to write out carefully, though not cautiously. Less than one hundred characters left over for a tweet. Perhaps too much effort to spell out for “Friends” who may not be worth the trouble on Facebook. And not the sort of thing one can rush to arrive at before one has taken the time, while typing, to think about where one is heading.
Thoreau’s first Journal entry, a self-referential, almost auto-ekphrastic initial scene-setting dated October 22, 1837, begins in an interrogatory mode:
“What are you doing now?” he asked. “Do you keep a journal?” So I make my first entry to-day.
Immediately follows a first reflection, entitled Solitude:
To be alone I find it necessary to escape the present,—I avoid myself. How could I be alone in the Roman emperor’s chamber of mirrors? I seek a garret. The spiders must not be disturbed, nor the floor swept, nor the lumber arranged.
And so—something Thoreau loved—a paradox: How to share the loving experience we have of reading this ever so private process of writing in a journal—the Journal of Thoreau, who tells us (and we well might find ourselves paradoxically in agreement with him even as we read him), “I love to be alone”?
For my companion of four decades, who can be even more solitudinous than I, I have read out loud passages from the Journal (the fourteen-volume facsimile edition, bound in two volumes) and have had her read selections to me. Sometimes entries chosen at random. Other times keyed to specific Journal dates, matching the day of the reading. And always with great pleasure. Yet not as often as I or we would like. A bit like how Thoreau’s own journaling took time to gain its own cruising speed. So, we hesitatingly found our own dual monophonic Journal reading practice, in the company of Thoreau.
If one has decided to participate in this Project, one has found one’s own response to this paradox.
Of course, Thoreau was no hermit. He ventured to Staten Island, to Cape Cod, to Maine, to Quebec, and even to Minnesota, writing in his Journal and elsewhere about these and other places, close by and further away. And the man who “never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude” did—albeit with difficulty—speak out in public gatherings, delivering lectures and speeches (for instance, on “Slavery in Massachusetts” or in defense of John Brown), and write essays to be published and to be read by others (for instance on Civil Disobedience as well as on “Walking” and “Wild Apples”). Thoreau was no misanthrope. It was in Nature that he found the solitude to reflect on how best to relate deliberately to his fellow man and to develop a critical take on the world into which he was born.
In Walden’s Chapter 6, Visitors, Thoreau explains: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” From his solitude, we enter into companionship with him as we read his Journal. Friendship ensues. A place is left for “society,” as well. For, he well knew his native luck: “I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too” (Journal, December 5, 1856). In this acknowledgment of the lucky timing and location of his nativity, he intimated, too, what loomed before him in society’s increasingly unthinking conformities and world-destructiveness.
Yet a seat remains open for “society.” A place where it may witness and lend an ear to, perhaps join in creating expanding bonds of mutual friendships, an invented commonality. Here, polymonophony may be vocalized and may reverberate in your and others’ ears.
Each may open and download scanned files of Thoreau’s Journal (.pdfs borrowed here from http://www.walden.org/collection/journals/), which we have organized on interactive monthly calendars stretching from 1837 to 1861. Finding an entry that speaks to you, you may read it out loud while recording your monophonic reading, perhaps accompanied by a Thoreauvian flute or other humanmade or natural instrument(s) and/or sounds for this world participatory vocal project open to all.
The completed recording will upload at your volition to the entry date you have selected. Your distinctive voice and understanding of the Journal entry will be available for all to hear and to ponder, without intermediaries.
Monophony thus becomes polymonophonic as recorded readings accumulate online. Yet each series of polymonophonies, or sequential multiple individual voiced sets, is yours to create, in the order you choose, each time you make a choice to listen carefully.
If “symphony” there be, you have created it yourself out of the voices of those who may become your true friends in a world reaching beyond conformity and self-destruction.
The Thoreau Polymonophonic Journal Project, which is made possible with the support of the Appalachian Springs Foundation, makes no pretense of being an exclusively scholarly endeavor. All suggestions and criticisms concerning this Beta version are welcome from Thoreau amateurs and Thoreau scholars alike.