(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”