A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers by Henry David Thoreau

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Lawrence Buell (essay date 1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 reflective and descriptive parts, enhance its interest, to the extent that they allow the speaker's perceptions freer play. Like catalogue rhetoric, A Week is best understood and appreciated when read as a series of epiphanies leading from one to another by process of association, fitting here and there into larger patterns, threading back and forth precariously between the infinite and the concrete. Since these qualities are common to much Transcendentalist literature, in different degrees, the following chapter may serve in some measure not simply as an explication of A Week but also as an illustration of how the Transcendentalist sensibility unfolds over the course of a lengthy work.

“Concord River” fulfills Thoreau's apparent literary objective in the book as a whole: to immortalize the excursion by raising it, in all its detail, to the level of mythology. The chapter begins with fact and ends in myth. The Concord is a particular river with a particular ecology, but it also turns out to be the familiar river of time, which can mean “progress,” “fate,” or even death—it can be benign, neutral, or somber (Wr [The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vols. I‐VI. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906], I, 11), like nature herself. As emblem and as natural force, the river is also timeless. The name of the Concord has changed, and so has the civilization around it, but it “winds mindful still of sannup and of squaw” (3), as old as the Nile or Euphrates, ultimately at one with all the famous rivers of history and legend: Xanthus, Scamander, Mississippi, Ganges, Nile.

The movement of the chapter acts out this paradox of timelessness versus time. The motto, from Emerson, foreshadows it: the river is still an “Indian rivulet,” but along its banks dwell the farmers, “supplanters of the tribe.” Through the imagery of the first few pages, Thoreau insists on time's flow: contrasting then with now, moving from a description of the raw March wind to the white summer honeysuckle and clover (now seen no more) to a reference to haying in the marsh in winter, and ending with a provocative image of scythes cutting tufts above the ice (5). Again, a voyage upstream, if only to nearby Sudbury, is seen hyperbolically as a journey back to the primitive, to Labrador and the Northwest and heroic times of old (5‐6).

But now, having implied that time can be reversed, Thoreau changes his approach at mid‐chapter, by remarking that although “yesterday and the historical ages are past, as the work of today is present, nevertheless some flitting perspectives, and demi‐experiences of the life that is in nature are in time veritably future, or rather...

(The entire section is 117,925 words.)