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

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 A 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...

(The entire section is 1,921 words.)