Jeffrey Cramer

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Jeff Cramer, in addition to being the Curator of Collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, is the editor of Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition (Yale University Press, 2004), a winner of a 2004 NOBA (National Outdoor Book Award) and a co-winner of the Boston Authors Club's 2005 Julia Ward Howe Special Award. The book has been called a "handsome, 'all-things-Walden' edition" by the Boston Globe and USA Today said "Cramer's side notes are like short, illuminating conversations."

Jeff is also the editor of the recently published I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau (Yale University Press, 2007) and Thoreau's The Maine Woods: A Fully Annotated Edition (Yale University Press, 2009). He has appeared on public radio's "On Point with Tom Ashbrook" and on C-SPAN's Book-TV. His essays and other writings have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Literary Review, and The Christian Science Monitor, among others, and have appeared in such collections as Contemporary Literary Criticism and The Robert Frost Encyclopedia.

Check out the Library area of the Walden Woods Project website to learn more about resources online and in our collections.

Questions and Answers

We learned that despite the common misconception that Thoreau was a hermit at Walden Pond, he actually went home often. Do you think that takes away from Walden?

He did go home often. He went into town to visit family and friends almost daily. He wasn't living a reclusive life at Walden. I don't think that takes away from it, unless you think of Walden as an autobiography. If you think of it more as a philosophical text, then it doesn't take away at all.

When Thoreau uses the pronoun "I," it's a persona he takes on for literary purposes, not the person who walked around Concord. I think of it like the difference between the person Sam Clemens and the writer Mark Twain. We envision this Thoreau doing certain things that don't necessarily match up with the way he really lived his life.

Was Thoreau the first environmentalist?

Thoreau lived in a time when people were using nature. He was living in a woodlot that people used to get fuel. It's difficult to take him out of his time and know what he'd say today. But he did make statements such as the famous one about setting aside parks which later influenced people like the conservationist John Muir. So, you can trace back the environmental movement to him in that sense.

What did Thoreau believe about nature as a miracle?

The idea of Transcendentalism is that there's a spirit that runs through all of nature, of which we're apart. The wonder of the world, the thing we may call God, spirit, or oversoul, is visible in nature. 

If, like Thoreau, we could walk out into nature and experience the beauty and wonder of the world, it would be difficult to do anything evil. I think that's the essence of Thoreau, that if we could be like him and go out into the woods and appreciate nature, the world would be more wonderful and we couldn't do bad things.

What is your environmental ethic?

We try to make choices as a family that have the least harmful impact on the environment. It's why we prefer organic food and organic cotton. It's why I drive a hybrid car. We try to make decisions that help, not harm, the environment.

If you could recommend one other book or essay to read after Walden, what would it be?

"Life Without Principle," if for no other reason than the title. It's just a reminder that we have to keep our lives on the right track.