A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

by Henry David Thoreau

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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 digressions. James Russell Lowell complained that so little of it is about the trip itself, noting, “We were bid to a river party—not to be preached at.”

Carl Bode somewhat agrees with Lowell, noting that “[t]he scholar is much more apparent than the traveler, for the original narrative has been weighted down with learned allusions and quotations.” While the book does contain many of Thoreau’s philosophical musings, however, it is by no means all preaching. Thoreau celebrates the sounds and silences, the light and shadows, of the natural world. Drifting along in their boat, he and his brother find a freedom like that of Huckleberry Finn on his raft. There are word paintings of the river and the landscape through which it flows that make it a verbal correspondence to some of the landscape paintings of the time. Thoreau celebrates the variety and vitality of nature and wildlife, “such healthy natural tumult as proves the last day is not yet at hand.”

He presents part of what he calls “The Natural History of Massachusetts” in his picture of river birds, fish and fishermen, trees and wildflowers. As Robert Frost would later, Thoreau often details a scene of nature and then draws a moral or philosophical reflection from it. A neo-Platonist, he sometimes sees “objects as through a thin haze, in their eternal relations,” wondering “who set them up, and for what purpose.” At times, “he becomes immortal with her [nature’s] immortality.” Yet he also has a Darwinian awareness of the suffering in nature, the tragic end of creatures of the wild. Sometimes he recounts historical vignettes called to mind by passing locations. The book lacks the unity of Walden but anticipates it in many of Thoreau’s concerns—a mystical relationship with nature and the life spirit, a love for wildness in nature and independence in people, and the belief that people can redirect their lives in simpler and more fulfilling ways.


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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

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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’sA 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 horribly. Thoreau could not look back to their vacation on the rivers without realizing that the happiness of those times could never be repeated. In a very real sense, the work is a prose elegy for his dead brother, the true friend, the rival in love. As in all elegies, the reader follows the progress of the mourner’s soul as it seeks consolation for the loss, and the consolation comes from the passage of the seasons and the observation of the natural processes of death and regeneration. This unstated elegiac element is the main motive for the composition. Why grieve for a particular lost friend when all the world is subject to decay and change? Every natural object when carefully observed shows the natural process of death and rebirth. If one must grieve, one should therefore grieve for the sadness of all things and the transitory nature of all beauty found in the material world. So if one were to go to a New England village such as Sudbury, one would see in great detail the teeming activity there, but one must not forget that it was settled by people who were once as much alive as the people there now, but who are all gone, their places taken by new people. The Indians are replaced by the white settlers and the settlers in turn by their children. The Concord and Merrimack rivers flow timelessly into the sea; every individual life flows to its conclusion. The passage of the seasons is cyclical in that every autumn implies a future springtime. The voyage on the rivers is circular, and the two brothers return to their point of departure; thus life must pass back into the great body from which it was first drawn.

Thoreau’s thinking is strongly conditioned by Romantic ideas. The whole book represents a return to nature. The author sees an accord between nature and the human spirit. He observes that he has a singular yearning for all wildness. He values cultural primitivism. He says that gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw. In fact, there may be an excess of cultivation that makes civilization pathetic. Thoreau’s poetry is plainly in the style of the English Romantics, written in ballad measure and celebrating nature and primitive heroes:

Some hero of the ancient mold,Some arm of knightly worth,Of strength unbought, and faith unsold,Honored this spot of earth.

Among poets, Thoreau praises Homer because he lived in an age when emotions flowed uncorrupted by excessive cultivation. Like William Wordsworth, he has a theory that the world is but a canvas to human imagination. He says that surely there is a life of the mind above the wants of the body and independent of it and that this life is expressed through cultivation of the capacity of the imagination. Like many Romantic writers, Thoreau seems to exalt the emotions at the expense of the rational faculty. He says that people have a respect for scholarship and learning that is out of proportion to the uses these commonly serve and that the scholar has not the skill to emulate the propriety and emphasis of the farmer’s call to his team. For Thoreau, act and feeling should be valued above abstract thought.

Thoreau’s work constitutes a major document in Transcendentalist thought. His observation that a farmer directing his team of horses is as important as a scholar’s thought is connected to the theological notion that every person is called to perform a peculiar activity, to fill a particular place in life. This view—that life presents a duty for everyone, that music is the sound of universal laws promulgated, and that marching is set to the pulse of the hero beating in unison with the pulse of nature and stepping to the measure of the universe—is characteristic of the pervasive moralism in Transcendentalist thought. When Thoreau looks at a sunset, he records that he is grateful to be reminded by interior evidence of the permanence of universal laws. In other words, by personal intuition a person watching a sunset is aware of an immanent deity presiding over the universe and providing people with an ethical imperative, a duty to do.

At the end of the week, Thoreau’s boat grates once more on the bulrushes of its native port. The trip provides a framework to support a vast weight of Thoreau’s thought—direct observation of nature, elegiac sentiment, Romantic and Transcendentalist notions—all flowing naturally across the mind of a young man as he drifts through the pastoral countryside of nineteenth century New England.


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