The use of ‘rich soil’ to represent fertile ground for writing isn’t surprising but this reference to ‘decayed literature’ is.  I’ve been wondering what constitutes ‘decayed’.  Elsewhere Thoreau mentions books from the preceding three centuries languishing in libraries untouched, instead of being plundered for riches by contemporary writers.

I have mixed feelings about this. Some books die natural deaths as they were only written for their own time or were written badly and so simply didn’t stand up to the test of time.  On the other hand, I remember finding a treasure trove of materials stashed away in untouched stacks on the top floor of a library.  And I believe there are entire canons of works that are at best neglected if not actively suppressed.

‘Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.’  16 March 1852

Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion Searls (ed.), preface by John R. Stilgoe (New York: New York Review Books, 2009), p. 118

Photo credit: Hans at


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