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A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers…

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)

by Henry David Thoreau

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In 1839, Henry David Thoreau spent two weeks rowing with his brother on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. However, in A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers this two-week trip is represented as having occurred in just one week.

For lovers of Natural History writing A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is a must-read. Thoreau are prose-poetry, and the dreamlike tranquility of the scene on the river comes through in full. The book is simply a pleasure to read. ( )
  edwinbcn | Sep 2, 2013 |
This is a somewhat editied version of Thoreau's first notable book-length work, nominally celebrating a boat-trip he made with his beloved brother John, but of-course --Thoreau being what he was -- discoursing on practially everything that came into his mind, not merely on the trip, but afterwards. For those who don't know, the actual trip did not last seven days, but Thoreau decided to describe it thus, for reasons of literary structure. This edition was a special corporate gift/promotional item published by an outfi which Thoreau would have cursed root and branch had he lived to our times. That aside, it is a lovely piece of work ( )
1 vote HarryMacDonald | Nov 5, 2012 |
I've never read such a beautiful and gentle book...

In this book, writen during his time in Walden pond, Thoreau documents a boat trip he made with his brother, from Concord, Massachusetts to Concord, New Hampshire. A delightful journey immersing themselves (and the reader) fully into nature and a time where things were different, calmer, probably better. A wonderful narrative where Thoreau intercalates descriptions of the scenery and its inhabitants with observations and thoughts about poetry, religion, philosophy, friendship, literature and history among other topics, flowing effortlessly between the former and the later like the rivers themselves. The reader often feels in the same boat as the two brothers, sailing on the brown rivers or having supper in a small, human-free, green island only to be taken the next second over a thought-provoking essay about religion or a history lesson about the indian wars. Thoreau shows an unusual grasp of english and brilliant prose which shines on every page, making it a little bit difficult to read for the non-native english speaker like me, but it's absolutely worth the effort. This is probably the most erudite book I ever read. Henry David Thoreau is king. ( )
1 vote Menzel | Feb 7, 2012 |
This is a wonderful, gentle book. The prose flows at the same relaxed pace as the river on which the author travels. It is full of history and nature and philosophy and documents a week when the world moved at a much slower pace. ( )
  TheWasp | Sep 19, 2010 |
Two footnotes before I even begin: (1) I use the words America and American to refer to all of North and South America, not just the United States, one part “of America.” (2) That understood, I recognize a number of literary classics that helped establish a distinctive USAmerican literature, not simply a continuation of European traditions, genres, and styles. Almost all of these have been significant experiences in my reading history, but I will not be reviewing them. They have been reviewed to death. Here are my top ten among such works, arranged more or less chronologically: Thoreau’s Walden, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, Faulkner’s novels of Yoknapatawpha County, Langston Hughes’ stories of Jesse B. Simple, Thornton Wilder’s dramas, especially Our Town, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

However, two other works of Henry David Thoreau that were also influential in declaring the independence of USAmerican literature are not so well recognized: his essay “Walking” and his travelogue, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack, both of which were at least as significant in my thinking and as pivotal in establishing my appreciation of Thoreau as his opus mirabilis, Walden.

Rivers of USAmerica have been highways into history, an interstate system predating and outshining our twentieth-century arteries of concrete. For rivers had significance not only for commerce and nationalist expansion; they also spoke to the imagination, to the aesthetic, literary, intellectual, and spiritual sides of our forebears’ nature. Sam Clemens knew this from personal experience, when he decided to send Huck and Jim down the Mississippi together. T. S. Eliot, a native St. Louisian, knew it when he was writing his Four Quartets:

I think that the river
Is a strong brown god . . . .

Langston Hughes knew it as well, and saw its primitive roots:

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

The editors and authors of the 65 volumes of the Rivers of America series knew it and developed the concept in 65 different ways, relating themselves to rivers from the Yazoo to the Yukon, from the Monogohela to the Columbia, from the St. Lawrence to the St. Johns.

Even William Least Heat Moon abandoned his blue highways for a four-month coast-to-coast boat trip on the country’s waterways, producing River-Horse.

I think the person who helped all USAmericans see this earliest and most clearly was Henry David Thoreau. His Week on the Concord and Merrimack lets his river transport us, first, into amazing details of nature, then into history, and finally into moments Edenic in their timelessness. When he went into isolation at Walden Pond on July 4, 1845, Thoreau tells us he went “not to live cheaply” but “to transact some private business” without interruptions. What not everyone knows is that the “business” he was working on was his manuscript of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack. It tells of an excursion he made with his brother John, beginning August 31, 1839 (actually two weeks in real life with an overland hike, omitted from the book). They were taking a break from the teaching they did at the time in their own private school. The book was intended as a memorial to John, who died two years later of lockjaw.

In the little hand-size edition I have been reading for going-on forty-five years now (Holt, 1963), the distinguished Thoreau scholar Walter Harding provides an introduction, which is a splendid review. He talks about the three kinds of material Thoreau incorporated: (1) a travel narrative, accounting for about half the text; (2) digressions, or little essays, embedded in the text, sometimes related to the setting, the day, or the travel experiences, but sometimes simply a “floating” of the mind on his river of thought; and (3) commonplaces, or favorite quotations from Thoreau’s wide and diverse reading. The travel narrative is divided into seven days. As Harding says, speaking for all us Thoreau readers, “We row or drift with them along the river. We wait for the locks to fill at the canals around the dams. We converse with the other travelers . . . . We pull our boat up to the shore for a lunch of watermelons or we camp upon an island for the night, pitching our tent against the impending rain.”

The digressions are an excursion of the mind, memory and speculation and intuition—little islands in the river of his thinking, if you will. We camp out with him on topics such as cattle shows, Goethe, reform movements, Sir Walter Raleigh, fables, the Christian religion (some controversy there for that fundamentalist age!), poetry, fables, history, Aulus Persius Flaccus, and friendship (that last one often published separately, perhaps the most widely read of his essays, an expression of his transcendentalism).

In his prefatory chapter on “The Concord River,” Thoreau almost immediately submerges us in history (“as old as the Nile or Euphrates”), the landscape (“farm-houses along the Sudbury shore, which rises gently to a considerable height”), and images of nature in September (“ducks by the hundred, all uneasy in the surf, in the raw wind, just ready to rise, and now going off with a clatter and a whistling like riggers straight for Labrador, flying against the stiff gale with reefed wings, or else circling round first, with all their paddles briskly moving, just over the surf, to reconnoitre you before they leave these parts”)—all this within the first three pages. And then, immediately, in his first brief digression, he soars into one of his recurrent and most profound themes:

“As yesterday and the historical ages are past, as the work of to day is present, so some flitting perspectives, and demi experiences of the life that is in nature are in time veritably future, or rather outside to time, perennial, young, divine, in the wind and rain which never die.” (p. 4)

One reads along, immersed in images of flora and fauna of the river, in comments on the people and places along its banks, in the digressive reflections of the traveler, when all at once we are treated to one of these “demi-experiences,” a flitting perspective that is “outside of time.” These are the flashes of light reflected off the waves of the text, unpredictable but irreplaceable. “I moments live who lived but years before.”

Though Thoreau clearly enjoyed collecting quotations from other writers (and adapting them freely to his own use), one of the pleasures in reading his work is finding quotations that speak to and for each reader.

Of a fisherman, “the Walton of this stream”: “His fishing was not a sport nor solely a means of subsistence, but a sort of solemn sacrament and withdrawal from the world . . . .” (“Saturday”)

Of fables: “In the history of the human mind, these glowing and ruddy fables precede the noonday thoughts of men as Aurora the sun’s rays. The matutine intellect of the poet, keeping in advance of the glare of philosophy, always dwells in the auroral atmosphere.”

“The smallest stream is mediterranean sea, a smaller creek within the land . . . .” (“Wednesday”)

“The life of a wise man is most of all extemporaneous for he lives out of an eternity which includes all time. The cunning mind travels further back than Zoroaster each instant, and comes quite down to the present with its revelation.” (“Thursday”)

Near the middle of his voyage, Thoreau tells us outright something of the source of his “demi-experiences,” the transmutation of sense experience:

“I see, smell, taste, hear, feel, that everlasting Something to which we are allied, at once our maker, our abode, our destiny, our very Selves; the one historic truth, the most remarkable fact which can become the distinct and uninvited subject of our thought, the actual glory of the universe . . . .” (Monday)

Thoreau gave USAmerican writers their rivers, and invited them to join him, waiting for just the right finite image of the infinite:

“Two herons, Ardea herodias, with their long and slender limbs relieved against the sky, were seen traveling high over our heads—their lofty and silent flight, as they were wending their way at evening, surely not to alight in any marsh on the earth’s surface, but, perchance, on the other side of our atmosphere, a symbol for the ages to study, whether impressed upon the sky, or sculptured amid the hieroglyphics of Egypt.” (“Friday”)

Yes, Henry David, the two herons did alight beyond your immediate atmosphere as you knew they would. Their images are sculpted in your prose, and still we study in “their lofty and silent flight” Something to which we are all allied.
2 vote bfrank | Aug 6, 2007 |
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» Add other authors (37 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Henry David Thoreauprimary authorall editionscalculated
Anderson, Charles R.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dothard, Robert L.Book Designer.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Holden, R.J.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leighton, ClaireIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stinehour PressPrintersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Where'er thou sail'st who sailed with me
Though now thou climbest loftier mounts,
And fairer rivers dost ascend,
Be thou my Muse, my Brother-.
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THE MUSKETAQUID, or Grass-ground River, though probably as old as the Nile or Euphrates, did not begin to have a place in civilized history, until the fame of its grassy meadows and its fish attracted settlers out of England in 1635, when it received the other but kindred name of CONCORD from the first plantation on its banks, which appears to have been commenced in a spirit of peace and harmony.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0486419320, Paperback)

Classic of American literature not only vividly narrates a boat trip Thoreau took with his brother in 1839 but also contains thought-provoking observations on literature, philosophy, Native American and Puritan histories of New England, friends, and a diversity of other topics. "A book of wonderful merit." — Ralph Waldo Emerson

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:24 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

"Thoreau's account of the 1839 river voyage he made with his brother is both a compelling travel narrative and a meditation on the meanings of time, history, and loss." "Thoreau's Week shares many themes with his classic Walden: self-renewal in nature, the spiritual meanings of perception, and the shallowness of contemporary culture, religion, and politics. But while Walden portrays a pastoral life essentially impervious to time, A Week dramatizes change and the inevitability of loss. The loss that implicitly informs the narrative, deepening its elegiac treatment of New England's past, is the tragic death of Thoreau's brother, John, only three years after the journey. Yet, through the classic structure of departure and return, Thoreau imaginatively redeems both his personal and historical losses, as he voyages upon the stream of time.". "In A Week, descriptions of natural phenomena, the rural landscape, and local characters are interwoven with reflections on literature and philosophy, the Native American and Puritan histories of New England, Eastern sacred writings, the imperfections of Christianity, and many other subjects."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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