In March 1852, Thoreau returned to Harvard College, where he had graduated fifteen years earlier, to research early European exploration of Canada in its library. In his journal for March 16 he notes:
“The Library a wilderness of books. The volumes of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, which lie so near on the shelf, are rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers. When I looked into Purchas’s Pilgrims, it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat. Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literature to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bullfrogs and the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.”
No writer is so comfortable, so equally at home in the worlds of books and nature as Thoreau. Emerson’s pages are musty in comparison, and Edward Hoagland’s sweaty and filled with mosquitoes. Thoreau’s balance, sometimes precarious, is rooted in his fine literary sense. He was neither scholar nor scientist but first and always a writer. The passage above might be rendered like this by a competent journeyman journalist:
“The Library is filled with old books. If writers read them they might find inspiration.”
Thoreau’s first sentence spans his two worlds – “Library,” “wilderness.” In the hands of some writers, “impassable swamp” would constitute a criticism. For Thoreau, it’s an invitation to “a certain fertility” of literary imagination. The passage, in its metaphorical exuberance, reminds me of a writer from the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne, and one from the twentieth, Edward Dahlberg. Thoreau celebrated and perpetuated the tradition of rich, exacting prose and its reliance on “decayed literature.” He composed while immersed in the decomposed.