A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers Essay - Critical Essays

Henry David Thoreau

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

*“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 “Lost Journal” (1840‐1841) (journal) 1958

The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau (letters) 1958

Collected Poems (poetry) 1964

*Originally a lecture, “Ktaadn” was later included in The Maine Woods.

†“Resistance to Civil Government” was reprinted in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau under the title, “Civil Disobedience.”


Lawrence Buell (essay date 1973)

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...

(The entire section is 10675 words.)

Paul David Johnson (essay date March 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 4669 words.)

Walter Hesford (essay date fall 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 4855 words.)

Jamie Hutchinson (essay date fourth quarter 1979)

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....

(The entire section is 7858 words.)

David B. Suchoff (essay date fall 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 6907 words.)

Joan Burbick (essay date 1983)

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,...

(The entire section is 9369 words.)

Linck C. Johnson (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 17741 words.)

Donald M. Murray (essay date June 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 5264 words.)

Marvin Fisher (essay date summer 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 5637 words.)

H. Daniel Peck (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 7975 words.)

Frederick Garber (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 14492 words.)

William Rossi (essay date June 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 10543 words.)

Stephen Adams (essay date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 3119 words.)

Eric Wilson (essay date 1998)

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....

(The entire section is 8821 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 774 words.)