The discovery of an unpublished essay by Thoreau on Sir Walter Ralegh is an event of great interest in the world of letters, as being the earliest contribution to literature, of decided scholarly value, of its distinguished author. The original manuscript was purchased by Mr. William K. Bixby, of St. Louis, from Mr. Edward H. Russell, of Worcester, Massachusetts, to whom nearly all of the MSS. and Journals of Thoreau came by inheritance; and it is to the generosity of its present owner (Mr. Bixby) that the members of The Bibliophile Society are indebted for the privilege of possessing such an exceedingly rare item of Americana.
When mere fragments of hitherto unpublished compositions of our foremost American writers are so eagerly sought, it seems strange that a well-rounded work of perhaps the most original of the noteworthy group of Concord (Massachusetts) thinkers should have remained unknown for nearly sixty years. This is a veritable treasure wherewith still further to enrich the bibliography of the publications of our Society.
It may be well here to remark that simultaneously with this volume the Society has issued Thoreau's Journey West, the entirely unpublished MS. notes of which were discovered among the author's Journals, and purchased by Mr. Bixby at the same time he acquired the Sir Walter Ralegh. We are therefore permitted to bring out, as companion pieces, first editions of the first inedited important manuscript written by Thoreau, and also this narrative of his Western journey, which preceded his death by only a few months. These two items will doubtless prove to be one of the most important literary "finds" of the season.
We are fortunate, moreover, in having a special Introduction to each of them prepared by Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, the greatest living authority on Thoreau, of whom he was a life-long friend and neighbor.
There are three drafts of the manuscript of Sir Walter Ralegh, each one differing in certain respects from the other two, and all of which have been used in the preparation of this volume. The third, and final, draft, in its careful elaboration, and the skilful weaving together of its parts, is a distinct improvement over the first; and there are some indications, even in this last draft, that the author may have had a still further revision in contemplation.
We are so wont only to associate Thoreau with his own immediate world of Nature, that a work like this in which he ventures so far afield, and in which he deals with so much that is stirring, presents him to us in an entirely new light. Perhaps, at first, we may wonder what there was in common between the retiring, home-loving citizen of Concord, and this adventurous knight of "the spacious days of great Elizabeth," which should make Sir Walter Ralegh his favorite character in English history. But we have only to study the career of this sturdy Devonshire worthy to come under the spell of his enduring charm and real manliness; to admire the unswerving loyalty with which he ever served his country; and to feel, with Robert Louis Stevenson, that "God has made nobler heroes, but He never made a finer gentleman than Walter Ralegh."
To every patriotic American this heroic figure should appeal with a special enthusiasm, since, as Charles Kingsley has said,—
"To this one man, under the Providence of Almighty God, the whole United States of America owe their existence."
Henry Aiken Metcalf