Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862.
Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Boston, 1854. [Rare Books Division: Howard T. Behrman Collection of American Literature. Gift of Howard T. Behrman.]
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The disappearance in the Arctic of Sir John Franklin and his crew occurred during the time (1845-1847) Henry David Thoreau, the American writer and natural philosopher, was living at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. It is hardly surprising that he would make fruitful use of some of the events, names, and settings of that history in the essays of his famous work Walden; or Life in the Woods, published in 1854. In the conclusion of the book, which follows the “Spring”chapter where he describes the breaking up of the ice in the pond, he personalizes the quest for the Northwest Passage:

what does the West stand for? Is not our own interior white on the chart? Is it . . . a North-West Passage around this continent, that we would find? Are these the problems which most concern mankind? Is Franklin the only man who is lost, that his wife should be so earnest to find him? . . . Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes . . . Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice. [Thoreau, p. 343.]

In his journal for 23 March 1852 he had written, “As I cannot go upon a Northwest Passage, then I will find a passage round the actual world where I am. Connect the Behring Straits and Lancaster Sounds of thought; winter on Melville Island, and make a chart of Banks Land; explore the northwest-trending Wellington Inlet, where there is said to be a perpetual open sea, cutting my way through floes of ice.”[Bradford Torrey edition of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (1906), vol. 9, p. 358.]

Just so, and in countless other ways, the phrase “Northwest Passage” has entered our lexicon and colored our culture.

—John Delaney, Curator 
Historic Maps Collection 
Princeton University Library 

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