Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is the account of a two-week boat and hiking trip he made with his brother John in 1839. Shortly thereafter, Thoreau sold the boat to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thoreau worked on the manuscript for ten years, intending it, after John’s death in 1842, to be a tribute to him. Thoreau wrote most of the work while living at Walden (writing it was part of the “private business” he planned to transact there) but continued revising it for two more years.
Despite its being promoted by Emerson, publishers would not print it unless the author underwrote the cost. James Munroe & Co. printed a thousand copies but bound only 450. Despite generally favorable reviews at home and in England, the book did not sell, and Thoreau, stuck with the unsold copies, lamented in 1853, “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.” A second edition came out posthumously in 1867, with additions and corrections, and the book has remained in print ever since.
In part, the work is an elegy to Thoreau’s brother, who, in the elegiac tradition, is never named. Following an introductory essay, there are seven chapters—one for claiming each day of the week. About 40 percent consists of travel narrative; the rest is a combination of essays, poems, anecdotes, quotations, translations, philosophical observations on life and nature, and numerous...
In 1839, two years after his graduation from Harvard College, Henry David Thoreau and his brother John built a riverboat with their own hands and took the leisurely trip that provides the framework for Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Although the work is based on a real experience, Thoreau molded his material to fit his artistic requirements. Thus the actual time of the trip is reduced to seven days, each represented by a chapter in the work. The author does not hesitate to introduce observations and references to literary works that occur in his journals years after the actual journey. It is a mistake, then, to consider this work as a travel journal, just as it is a mistake to consider Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854) as merely a treatise on domestic economy.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers includes both prose and poetry and often provides meticulous observations about the flora, fauna, and geography of the areas through which the boat passes. For instance, the sight of a fisherman leads the author early in the work to discuss at length the fish in shoals in the stream and the “fish principle in nature” that disseminates the seeds of life everywhere so that wherever there is a fluid medium, there are fish. In this respect, the work is somewhat like the scientific data gathering in nineteenth century works such as Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle (1839). The work, however, is neither a naturalist’s handbook nor a traveler’s guide.
Actually, the geographical journey down the rivers is a metaphor for the reader’s journey into the mind of the author. As Thoreau relates what he saw and thought as he drifted down the river, the reader enters the flow of ideas in the writer’s mind. Just as the current of the stream bears along the boat with Thoreau and his brother, so the current of ideas in Thoreau’s mind bears along the reader by evoking the joy and nostalgia that the author feels for those lost, golden days. As Thoreau says, human life is very much like a river running always downward to the sea, and, in this book, the reader enters for a moment the flow of Thoreau’s unique existence.
One must remember that the circumstances of Thoreau’s life provide an undercurrent of emotion in this apparently tranquil holiday as he recalled it in the solitude of Walden Pond. Both Henry and his brother John had been deeply in love with the same girl, Ellen Sewall, the daughter of a prominent New England family. John had first proposed marriage to her and had been refused; Henry fared no better. Perhaps their relative poverty was a contributing factor in their rejection. The two brothers were therefore friendly rivals, and their relationship occasions a long discussion of the nature of friendship. When one says that someone is a friend, one commonly means only that he or she is not an enemy. The true friend, however, will say, “Consent only to be what you are. I alone will never stand in your way.” The violence of love is dangerous; durable friendship is serene and equable. The only danger of friendship is that it will end. Such was the emotional relationship of the two brothers.
Yet their friendship was to end. Within a year after their trip, John died suddenly and...
Drake, William. “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” In Thoreau: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Sherman Paul. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Argues that Thoreau’s journey on the Concord and Merrimack rivers is an exploratory journey into thought. Easily accessible.
Fink, Steven. Prophet in the Marketplace: Thoreau’s Development as a Professional Writer. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. Contains a detailed discussion of the structure of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and how Thoreau composed the book.
Johnson, Linck C. Thoreau’s Complex Weave: The Writing of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1986. An extensive study of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Johnson focuses on both the complete version of the book and its first draft. Contains the text of the first draft.
Thoreau, Henry David. The Illustrated “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” Edited by Carl F. Hovde, William L. Howarth, and Elizabeth Hall Witherell. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Contains the text of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers complete with photographs by Herbert Wendell Gleason which visually document Thoreau’s rivers. Also contains a helpful historical introduction to the book.