A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Henry David Thoreau
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers Henry David Thoreau
American essayist, journal writer, and poet.
The following entry presents criticism on Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). See also, Walden; or, Life in the Woods Criticism.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is considered one of the finest works of the Transcendentalist movement, in company with Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and Thoreau's own Walden.
Plot and Major Characters
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers relates the two‐week boating and hiking trip that Thoreau and his brother John took through Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1839. For artistic purposes, Thoreau chose to condense the events into one week with eight sections. The first section is titled “Concord River” followed by seven sections reflecting the days of the week: Saturday through Friday. “Concord River” is an introduction of sorts which includes detailed descriptions of the river—flora, fauna, and geography—with numerous historical and mythological references. The trip commences in the “Saturday” section with the launch of a boat that is hand‐built by the Thoreau brothers. As the narrative progresses, Thoreau describes the plant and marine life he sees. By nightfall, the brothers have left civilization behind and ventured into the primitive wilds of nature. The “Sunday” section includes meditations on the essences of nature, religion, and poetry, including a comparison between ancient gods and Christ. In “Monday” Thoreau contrasts the contemplative values of the East with the hasty activity of the West. Toward the end of the day Thoreau expresses a feeling of transcendence in which he feels at one with the universe. “Tuesday” focuses on a lengthy remembrance of climbing Mt. Greylock; the chapter uses rich symbolism to evoke an idealized past. “Wednesday” concerns itself with Thoreau’s ideal of true friendship—a friendship that attains a spiritual level of intensity and purity. “Thursday” is devoted to hiking and recognition of the approach of autumn, while “Friday” finds the brothers traveling downstream back home to Concord as Thoreau muses on death and immortality.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers includes a number of primary themes. Given its place in literary history, the attainment and experience of transcendence is central. The proper role of man in nature is also present throughout much of the work. Many critics credit the existence of A Week to the death of Thoreau's brother, John, in 1842 and consider the work to be a tribute to him. Three important themes—the cyclical nature of time and history; the elements of true friendship; and the understanding of death—are considered related to Thoreau’s attempts to come to terms with his loss. Whether read as a symbolic quest traveling the river of life, or as an elegiac tribute to his beloved brother, A Week operates on several thematic levels.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was a commercial failure upon first publication. It initially met with mixed reviews, which complained of its disjointed and digressive structure. Modern critics, however, praise A Week and often find its complexities more interesting and rewarding to study than Walden. As a result, critical assessments have been quite varied. A number of critics have considered Thoreau's treatment of history. Joan Burbick asserts that Thoreau favored a wild and uncivil history over romantic, conventional retellings of America's past. And Jamie Hutchinson contests the notion that Thoreau's emphasis on transcendence is anti‐historical, arguing that Thoreau demonstrates a belief in the progression of mankind. The element of nature is considered by David B. Suchoff, who notes that the work struggles “to assert simultaneously the identity and difference of language and Nature.” Religious influences are considered as well. Marvin Fisher writes that in his “perception of the negative implications of American apocalyptic thought, Thoreau is much closer to the temper of the late twentieth century than he could ever have imagined.” Fisher goes on to discuss the influence on Thoreau of Edward Johnson's Wonder‐Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New England, a religious book centered on Revelation. Regarding Thoreau’s treatment of time, H. Daniel Peck posits that Thoreau sought continuity in historical remembrance in order to cope with a certain antipathy toward time that he felt after his brother’s death. The friendship and influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson is another topic frequently considered by critics, with debate arising regarding the nature of their friendship and the extent to which Emerson's ideas are found in Thoreau's writing. The question of genre has also been explored. A Week resists easy categorization, since it combines elements of travelogue, polemic, elegy, and Eastern philosophy, and includes digressive essays and lengthy quotations from historical records. Despite numerous points of view, most critics agree that A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is a rich and varied work that celebrates both natural science and artistic discovery, and is, as Frederick Garber puts it, a “major statement about being in the world.”
*“Ktaadn, and the Maine Woods” (essay) 1848; published in journal Union Magazine
†“Resistance to Civil Government” [also published as “Civil Disobedience”] (essay) 1849
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (essays) 1849
“Slavery in Massachusetts” (essay) 1854; published in newspaper The Liberator
Walden; or, Life in the Woods (essays) 1854
“A Plea for Captain John Brown” (essay) 1860; published in journal Echoes of Harper's Ferry
“Walking” (essay) 1862; published in journal The Atlantic Monthly
Excursions (essays) 1863
“Life without Principle” (essay) 1863; published in journal The Atlantic Monthly
The Maine Woods (essays) 1864
Cape Cod (essays) 1865
A Yankee in Canada, with Anti‐Slavery and Reform Papers (essays) 1866
Early Spring in Massachusetts (essay) 1881
Summer (essay) 1884
Winter (essay) 1888
Autumn (essay) 1892
The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (essays, journal, letters, and poetry) 1906
Journal. 14 vols. (journal) 1949
Consciousness in Concord: The Text of Thoreau's...
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SOURCE: Buell, Lawrence. “Thoreau's A Week.” In Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance, pp. 208‐38. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973.
[In the following excerpt, Buell traces the course of A Week and explains how it displays, through “endless suggestiveness,” the Transcendentalist sensibility.]
Written largely during his years at Walden Pond, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers comes closer than any of Thoreau's later writing to an unguarded expression of his relationship to nature.1 In Walden the speaker is obviously much more familiar with his surroundings, but he is also more detached in his presentation of them: he begins and ends in polemic and the account of his experiences is subsumed within an analytical framework throughout. Much of A Week, one feels, might have been taken straight from a journal, but very little of Walden. This helps to make Walden a better book, critically speaking, but it makes A Week a more interesting record of the Transcendentalist sensibility. Although A Week was of course actually written some years after the original excursion, it gives the impression of chronicling the succession of a sensitive mind's meditations in nature. From this point of view, the book's loose consecutiveness, and even the lack of close coordination between its...
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SOURCE: Johnson, Paul David. “Thoreau's Redemptive Week.” American Literature 49, no. 1 (March 1977): 22‐33.
[In the following essay, Johnson contends that the quest for self‐liberation is central to A Week, a quest advanced through the cyclical representation of time.]
We have forgotten that much of the “private business” which Thoreau transacted at Walden was the writing of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and have lost sight of the intimate connections between Thoreau's writing of A Week and the activities at Walden which gave birth to his second, more famous book. His program for living a wholly natural life by purifying his spirit of the clutter of cultural arrangements until—like the surface of Walden pond—it trembled responsively with the heavens and expanded and contracted with the rhythm of the seasons is fully anticipated in the journey of A Week. Further, so carefully did he construct his rhetorical strategy for A Week that he used it again to build his two‐year experiences at the pond into the brilliant narrative and symbolic allegory that became Walden.
I hope my argument will not surprise careful readers of Thoreau. A Week has been conventionally seen as a mildly disappointing travelogue which narrates the incidents of a camping trip which Thoreau took in the company of his older brother...
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SOURCE: Hesford, Walter. “‘Incessant Tragedies’: A Reading of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” ELH 44, no. 3 (fall 1977): 515‐24.
[In the following essay, Hesford interprets A Week as a call for faith in response to the incessant tragedies of nature and life.]
There are studies of Henry Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers which begin to do justice to its structure, style, and import. Even the most astute and sympathetic critics1 have not, however, accounted, I think, for the power, the impression of the book, perhaps because they are generally preoccupied with its merits as a transcendental document. A Week is Thoreau's impressive attempt to confront the “incessant tragedies” (236)2 which he perceives and in which he participates; through his perceptions and participation, he fulfills his fate. In Walden, Thoreau works his way beyond fate and tragedy, but in his first book he is concerned with working his way into their phenomenal presence in nature, on the road, in history, in art, and in his personal experience.
Of course A Week introduces us to the vitality and happiness of nature, to such facts as would lead to the conclusion Thoreau drew in “Natural History of Massachusetts”: “Surely joy is the condition of life.”3 Yet this conclusion is not without...
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SOURCE: Hutchinson, Jamie. “‘The Lapse of the Current’: Thoreau's Historical Vision in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 25, no. 4 (fourth quarter 1979): 211‐22.
[In the following essay, Hutchinson contends that A Week documents Thoreau's belief in historical progress and that he sought inspiration, not eternity, in his river voyage.]
A people without history is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern of timeless moments.
—T. S. Eliot
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
Beginning with Sherman Paul in The Shores of America, critics of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) have generally agreed that Thoreau's journey may be interpreted symbolically as a spiritual quest on the river of time. What has been largely overlooked, however, is the connection of this quest with his implicitly teleological view of the nature and meaning of history. The trend, in fact, has been to characterize his outlook as antihistorical, to conclude that he sees the course of time as purposeless and inconsequential. Lawrence Buell, for example, though he discusses Thoreau's use of history to develop the themes of A Week, believes that...
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SOURCE: Suchoff, David B. “‘A More Conscious Silence’: Friendship and Language in Thoreau's Week.” ELH 49, no. 3 (fall 1982): 673‐87.
[In the following essay, Suchoff contends that Thoreau sought to understand the mystery of nature through friendship rather than language.]
“It is difficult to begin without borrowing,” Thoreau tells us as he relates the borrowing of an ax to found his cabin at Walden, “but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow men to have an interest in your enterprise.”1 The project of Walden, promising to take the writer to the “necessary of life” (7), and at the same time to make him matutine, capable of pure origin like the morning, begins already in debt. “All poets and heroes, like Memnon,” he tells us, “are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is perpetual sunrise” (62). The pure beginning Thoreau seeks at Walden is already undercut by the need for the axe, which like the pen, divides at the same time it discovers. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau will describe the poetic frenzy as the poet who scratches with his pen, but who does “not detect where the jewel lies, which, perhaps, we have in the mean time cast to a distance, or quite covered up again.”2 The...
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SOURCE: Burbick, Joan. “Henry David Thoreau: The Uncivil Historian.” Bucknell Review 28, no. 1 (1983): 81‐97.
[In the following essay, Burbick analyzes Thoreau's views concerning the treatment of history, including his disdain for historical approaches that rely on romantic and novelistic techniques.]
By the first half of the nineteenth century, Americans were searching for histories that would justify their actions both at home and abroad. The romantic historians of this period in part satisfied this demand, creating stories that sustained the ideal of progress, the triumph of civilization, and the necessary control of “primitive” forces. George Bancroft, one of the most noted of these, has been judged as a man who “saw the American past as a great play, written by God and man together, moving toward a triumphant last act in which the promise of the Christian tradition and the Age of Reason came true.”1
In the 1830s, Thoreau also adhered for a time to this sense of history, confident that his epoch, the nineteenth century, would not be “a barren chapter in the annals of the world,—that the progress which it shall record bids fair to be general and decided.”2 But by the mid‐1840s when Thoreau came to write A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he was in direct conflict with the historical vision and methods of his contemporaries....
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SOURCE: Johnson, Linck C. “‘Whose Law is Growth’: A Week and Thoreau's Early Literary Career.” In Thoreau's Complex Weave: The Writing of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, pp. 202‐47. Charlottesville, Va.: The University Press of Virginia, 1986.
[In the following excerpt, Johnson relates the troubled ten‐year history of A Week, from the river trip to initial publication.]
As the above chapters indicate, the writing of A Week charts Thoreau's literary and intellectual development from his years at Harvard to its publication in 1849. But he was not simply becoming a mature artist during this period. He was also becoming a man, a frequently painful process that also had a marked impact upon A Week. “The changes which break up at short intervals the prosperity of men, are advertisements of a nature whose law is growth,” Emerson observed in “Compensation,” an essay that offers interesting insights into his own and Thoreau's early life. “Every soul is by this intrinsic necessity quitting its whole system of things, its friends, and home, and laws, and faith” (CW II:72). Thoreau, like Emerson before him, experienced precisely such “changes,” a series of disappointments, failures, and losses, during the writing of A Week. He also enacted a series of what Emerson described as “revolutions,” signing off from the church, refusing to...
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SOURCE: Murray, Donald M. “Symbolic Landscape in the Greylock Episode of Thoreau's Week.” American Transcendental Quarterly 1, no. 2 (June 1987): 123‐32.
[In the following essay, Murray offers a Freudian reading of the ascent of Mt. Greylock, claiming that Thoreau was motivated by Oedipal conflicts.]
We are closer than ever before to an understanding of young Thoreau's psychological problems, and we see more clearly than ever before the formal patterns in his book, A Week On the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Yet certain striking features of the chapter “Tuesday” remain unexplained. There is an arresting quality in the brief portrait of the young woman in a dishabille whom Thoreau meets on the ascent of Mt. Greylock (which he calls Saddle‐back) as there is in the longer portrait of the uncivil man, Rice.1 It is a quality not fully accounted for by the fact that these people had been part of the outward reality of the experience, like the various fishermen or villagers who pass briefly before our eyes as we float along; one feels that Thoreau had with both some emotional transaction that he does not choose to probe. There is something odd, too, about the fact that the Rice episode is out of its chronological place in the story of the ascent. And, finally, it is strange that Thoreau used the Greylock experience at all; it occurred in 1844, whereas the Week...
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SOURCE: Fisher, Marvin. “Seeing New Englandly: Anthropology, Ecology, and Theology in Thoreau's Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” The Centennial Review 34, no. 3 (summer 1990): 381‐93.
[In the following essay, Fisher considers Edward Johnson's apocalyptic‐imbued history of the settlement of New England and its influence on Thoreau.]
The title of Henry Thoreau's first book announces an authorial strategy that either failed utterly or succeeded only as irony. It echoes the titles of countless travel books by British and continental visitors and by American devotees of the scenic picturesque. Authors from Irving, Cooper, and Hawthorne to Whitman and Twain, Steinbeck and Kerouac have promoted and occasionally transcended the form. In Thoreau's time such well‐traveled moralists as Timothy and Theodore Dwight told Americans where to go, what to look at, and how they should see it. For them Niagara Falls was a sublime set piece, testifying to God's grandeur and power. Thoreau was at once more modest and far more ambitious; his New England rivers more mundane, and his excursion far more profound. His landmarks were familiar to Massachusetts and New Hampshire residents, his literary allusions less so; but his references to New England history and theology were intensely local and paradoxically remote. James Russell Lowell chided him for inviting us to a picnic and subjecting us to a...
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SOURCE: Peck, H. Daniel. “Killing Time.” In Thoreau's Morning Work: Memory and Perception in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Journal, and Walden, pp. 3‐21. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Peck analyzes Thoreau's concern with the nature of time, showing how he responded with literary techniques of temporal disorder and creative remembering.]
On January 8, 1842, the day his brother John began to experience the first symptoms of the virulent infection that would kill him three days later, Henry Thoreau was thinking of time. In his Journal, he asks meditatively: “Of what manner of stuff is the web of time wove—when these consecutive sounds called a strain of music can be wafted down through the centuries from Homer to me—And Homer have been conversant with that same unfathomable mystery and charm, which so newly tingles my ears.—These single strains—these melodious cadences which plainly proceed out of a very deep meaning—and a sustained soul are the interjections of God” (PJ, 1:361‐62). The sense of mystery expressed here regarding time's continuity (its “music”) and the intimacy thus afforded between Thoreau and voices of the ancient past are familiar; his Journal shows repeated expression of these sentiments from the time he began to keep it four years earlier in the autumn of...
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SOURCE: Garber, Frederick. “A Space for Saddleback.” In Thoreau's Fable of Inscribing, pp. 116‐41. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, Garber argues that Thoreau inserted the Saddleback Mountain climbing episode in order to show the insufficiency of textual and temporal closures.]
The logic of this study derives, in part, from the logic of Thoreau's thought on some very basic questions about being at home in the world. From language, to writing, to the field of inscribings of which writing is a part, to the functions of autography as a mode of self‐inscribing—each of these actions or consequences implies and implicates the others, all of them together creating a tight and rigorous complex. The complex is remarkable in part because, after some hesitant sputtering that sometimes slips into sentimentality (seen as late as in several sections of “Natural History of Massachusetts”), it quickly matures and stays surprisingly consistent through the rest of Thoreau's work. We saw that consistency as early as in A Week. Thoreau had drawn up the main lines of the complex by the time the book was completed, that is, during his stay at Walden. For the rest of this chapter, we shall look at A Week as a model of many issues, among them the possibility of irony and self‐parody, the flexing of a metacommentary.
There are all manner...
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SOURCE: Rossi, William. “Poetry and Progress: Thoreau, Lyell, and the Geological Principles of A Week.” American Literature 66, no. 2 (June 1994): 275‐93.
[In the following essay, Rossi demonstrates that much of Thoreau's view of science can be traced to Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology.]
Well‐known for its witty criticisms of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers's reflective sections as “digressions” from the boating narrative, James Russell Lowell's influential review quickly became the locus classicus for discussions of the book's apparent lack of coherence. “We come upon them like snags, jolting us headforemost out of our places as we are rowing placidly up stream or drifting down,” Lowell quipped. “We were bid to a river‐party, not to be preached at.” But a crucial feature of Lowell's evaluation which those who cite it never mention (irrelevant, as perhaps it has seemed, to any literary assessment) is the way Lowell frames his review with a long lament over the displacement of poetry and “Belief” by “Science”: “The fault of modern travellers is that they see nothing out of sight. They talk of eocene periods and tertiary formations, and tell us how the world looked to the plesiosaur. They take science (or nescience) with them, instead of that soul of generous trust their elders had. … Even Deity is subjected to chemic tests. We must have...
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SOURCE: Adams, Stephen. “The Genres of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” In Approaches to Teaching Thoreau's Walden and Other Works, edited by Richard J. Schneider, pp. 143‐9. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1996.
[In the following essay, Adams explains the teaching opportunities that arise from exploring the question of A Week's genre.]
The “drama” of Sunday in Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers concludes “without regard to any unities which we mortals prize. Whether it might have proved tragedy, or comedy, or tragi‐comedy, or pastoral, we cannot tell” (114). Many readers have shared a like uncertainty about A Week as a whole and have based criticisms of it on dubious assumptions about its genre. For example, James Russell Lowell was the first to berate what he called the work's digressions: “[T]hey are out of proportion and out of place, and mar our Merrimacking dreadfully. We were bid to a river‐party, not to be preached at …” (Rev. 47). Because he assumes that A Week is essentially a book of travel and natural history, Lowell condemns as distractions the discursive essays that most modern critics consider essential to it. Students also find A Week troublesome, partly because they cannot fit it neatly into a familiar category or identify the conventions with which Thoreau is...
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SOURCE: Wilson, Eric. “Thoreau, Thales, and the Distribution of Water.” The Concord Saunterer 6 (1998): 27‐41.
[In the following essay, Wilson explores Thoreau's concept—borrowed from the philosopher Thales—of water as the fundamental principle of the cosmos.]
On New Year's Day, 1851, Thoreau as usual set out on his afternoon walk, exhilarated by another warm day, the third in a row, surrounded, though the sky was sunless, by a luminous mist. He made his way to a deep cut in the bank around Walden Pond, his former habitat. There he beheld thawing clay, the frozen earth melting under the plastic power of midwinter spring: earth returning to first water. Metamorphosing his head to hands and feet, Thoreau dug below the surface of the sliding mud, unearthing its subterranean significance:
These things suggest—that there is motion in the earth as well as on the surface; it lives & grows. It is warmed & influenced by the sun—just as my blood by my thoughts. I seem to see some of the life that is in the spring bud & blossom more intimately nearer its fountain head—the fancy sketches & designs of the artist. It is more simple & primitive growth. As if for ages sand and clay might have thus flowed into the forms of foliage—before plants were produced to clothe the earth. The earth I tread on is not a dead inert mass. It is a body—has a...
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Colbert, Charles. “Thoreau's Panoramic Vision and the Art of Guido Reni.” The Concord Saunterer 7 (1999): 218‐35.
Speculates on the appeal to Thoreau of Reni's fresco Aurora and explains its role in the Saddleback episode.
Fink, Steven. “Variations on the Self: Thoreau's Personae in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” ESQ 28, no. 1 (first quarter 1982): 24‐35.
Examines how Thoreau achieves fluidity of identity while maintaining narrative control.
Fulton, Joe Boyd. “Doing ‘Pioneer Work’: The Male Writer in Thoreau's Week and Walden.” ESQ 41, no. 4 (fourth quarter 1995): 289‐305.
Explores Thoreau's concept of a writer being part of a gendered relationship with nature.
Germic, Stephen. “Skirting Lowell: The Exceptional Work of Nature in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” In Thoreau's Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing, edited by Richard J. Schneider, pp. 244‐53. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa, 2000.
Contends that A Week advances the ideology of American exceptionalism, which confuses the perception of class and labor differences.
Hodder, Alan D. “‘Ex Oriente Lux’: Thoreau's Ecstasies and the Hindu...
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