Literary Daybook, Feb. 8

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published February 8, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 8, John Pontifex dies.
-- "The Way of All Flesh" (1903)
by Samuel Butler

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1841, Henry David Thoreau began his daily journal entry with this explanation of why he kept one: "My journal is that of me which would else spill over and run to waste, gleanings from the field which in action I reap. I must not live for it, but in it for the gods." Journal-writing was a widespread habit in New England, and almost obligatory in the Concord Transcendentalist community -- Emerson's journal is 10 volumes, Thoreau's is 14. A journal was viewed not merely as a record of events and thoughts but as a means of self-improvement, a verbal hairshirt in aid of the "healer, heal thyself" injunction. As one of Thoreau's biographers put it, his journals are "too often personal only as saints are personal who record in their lives the worldly events which led them toward salvation." Thoreau was also a writer with an eye on the market, and he gleaned the "gleanings" of almost 25 years of entries into his books and articles. The books sold as poorly in his lifetime -- his contemporaries did not enjoy having him turn the hairshirt inside out -- as they are popular today, and the Journals continue to be quarried by editors from all possible angles:

1) A writer who does not speak out of a full experience, uses torpid words, wooden or lifeless words, such words as "humanitary," which have a paralysis in their tails.

2) How I love the simple, reserved countrymen, my neighbors, who mind their own business and let me alone.

3) It is fouler and uglier to have too much than not to have enough.

4) I see dumbbells in the minister's study, and some of their dumbness gets into his sermons. Some travelers carry them round the world in their carpet bags. Can he be said to travel who requires such exercise?

5) How much of beauty -- of color as well as form -- on which our eyes daily rest goes unperceived by us! No one but a botanist is likely to distinguish nicely the different shades of green with which the open surface of the earth is clothed.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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