Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 565 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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 entire section is 1356 words.)