We must be at the helm at least once a day

Portrait photograph from a daguerreotype of Thoreau by Benjamin Maxham

Henry David Thoreau was a 19th century American essayist, poet, and philosopher known to most as the author of Walden, a memoir of sorts in which he recounts the two years spent in a small cabin in the woods near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. But his life’s work was undoubtedly the journal he began at the age of twenty: more than two million words across seven thousand pages through which he eloquently recorded his daily walks, thoughts, reflections and observations, from the trivial through to the profound. This entry came in February of 1841, four years before he set off to live in the woods.

The Diary Entry

February 22, 1841.

The whole of the day should not be daytime, nor of the night night-time, but some portion be rescued from time to oversee time in. All our hours must not be current; all our time must not lapse. There must be one hour at least which the day did not bring forth—of ancient parentage and long established nobility—which will be a serene and lofty platform overlooking the rest. We should make our notch every day on our characters, as Robinson Crusoe on his stick. We must be at the helm at least once a day; we must feel the tiller-rope in our hands, and know that if we sail, we steer.

Further Reading

Thoreau’s journal has been published in various shapes and sizes over the years, beginning with a fourteen volume edition in 1906 that was edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. Many of these old editions, now out of print and in the public domain, can be found at the Internet Archive, but to read them in that form is a struggle. Thankfully, in 2009, an abridged, (hefty) single volume edition was published by NYRB, titled The Journal: 1837–1861 and edited by Damion Searls, which serves as a perfect starting point. Also worthwhile is a visit to the Thoreau Edition website, which is aiming to make available, online, Thoreau’s entire journal, transcribed word for word from the original manuscript. Some of it can already be seen.

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