Henry David Thoreau (1849)
By way of introduction
So what book was dear Henry working on at Walden Pond? It sounds almost like a trick question along the lines of “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” The obvious answers (Walden, President Grant) are not exactly wrong, it’s just that there’s more to it than that. It seems Mrs. Grant is interred in Grant’s tomb as well. And while Thoreau was keeping the journal that would become Walden almost a decade later, he was also trying to shape an earlier journal into his first published book, an account of a river excursion he and his brother John took during the first weeks of September, 1839, in a boat they had built themselves at home in Concord, Massachusetts.
I say “weeks” to point out that the title is just a bit misleading. The boat portion of the trip did take seven days — five up and two down — but it’s a discontinuous “week,” with a couple more weeks of travel by foot in between before they headed home. Wisely, perhaps, Thoreau restricted the book largely to the water travel, although his choice of title does appear to have confused at least one publisher.
My used copy of A Week is from a “Limited Edition” published for Christmas 1966 by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, of all people. In this edition the designer of the book stuck an additional decorative page before each chapter, which Thoreau simply titled with the day of the week — this extra page specifies the day’s date, starting with Saturday, August 31, 1839 and ending with Friday, September 6. But this last date can’t be right since it omits the weeks of hiking. It made me think this edition was more an exercise in fine paper and eccentric typefaces, where the designer had not actually read the text. But still, even missing the original slip case, as mine does, this is an exotic, splendid-looking book, although perhaps intended more for display than for reading.
One other characteristic of this edition is worth mentioning: it’s not the complete book. A Week is a youthful book and Thoreau crammed it full of quotes, digressions, classical allusions, and possibly a little of just about everything he had ever read or thought about at Harvard or in the dozen years since. At times this just about buries the account of the river trip itself, although Thoreau is not himself without being Thoreau. Critics just hated this book when it was published in 1849 and modern readers may find some of his flights of fancy distracting or even mystifying. Some anthologies only include parts of this book; my edition removes “many irrelevant passages.” But that’s okay, I guess — Thoreau is still very readable even in excerpted form. If you need more, there’s always the complete book, either in an inexpensive printed edition or as a free electronic text from Project Gutenberg.
With a decent road atlas you can trace the brothers’ boat trip even today. And with a DeLorme or other more detailed atlas, you can find most of the place names Thoreau mentions, although a few of the Indian names are gone now.
Departing early in the afternoon on Saturday, August 31, the brothers rowed downstream and north on the Concord as far as Billerica, Massachusetts, where they camped.
By midday Sunday they reached the Merrimack near present-day Lowell, Massachusetts. They then rowed upstream on the Merrimack, continuing in a northerly direction until nearly dark, camping near Tyngsboro.
On Monday they entered New Hampshire and rowed to just past Nashua.
On Tuesday the weather must have been quite warm, or maybe the rowing was wearing out the boys, but they spent most of the afternoon resting on an island in the river adjacent to the village of Merrimack. In late afternoon they continued, reaching Bedford south of Manchester.
On Wednesday, they got as far as Hooksett, camping across the river from a landmark still known today as The Pinnacle.
Hooksett would prove to be as far as they got by boat. Thursday dawned with rain on their tent and anyway the last of the locks that their heavy boat required were only a few more miles upstream. So they took to foot travel, hiking through the rain as far as Concord, which they called New Concord to distinguish it from their hometown.
At this point Thoreau’s account grows vague and very abbreviated, but it sounds as though they followed the Merrimack to where it becomes the Pemigewasset near present-day Franklin, then continued along that river to where it peters out near Franconia Notch. But they didn’t stop there, it seems, reaching the Ammonoosuc River in northern New Hampshire and following it east and beyond to the summit of Agiocochook, called Mt. Washington today (elevation 6,288 feet). If true, this must have been a hell of a hike and it strikes me as odd that Thoreau doesn’t say much more about it than he does.
By the time they returned to their boat in Hooksett weeks later, autumn was in the air. But heading downstream now, they were able to reach the village of Merrimack that afternoon (a Thursday) and cover about 50 miles on Friday, arriving in Concord late in the evening.
So where to begin? How about invoking the name of Thoreau’s deity and thank the Good Genius for Ralph Waldo Emerson, who encouraged Thoreau to keep a journal in the first place. Talk about your what-if scenarios and roads not taken. At 22, Thoreau was just a lad in 1839, but he was Emerson’s lad. No doubt he might have gone on to do something interesting without having known Emerson, but the Thoreau of our universe depends upon the intertwining of these two mens’ lives.
Still, the possibilities for speculation… What if Emerson had not moved to Concord in 1833? What if Emerson had not published Nature in 1836, a book which heavily influenced Thoreau? And what if Thoreau had built his hut on an island in the Merrimack River, as he contemplates in A Week, rather than at Walden Pond? But of course Walden Pond lay on land owned by Emerson — that guy again — and so we now have Life in the Woods rather than some latter-day Robinson Crusoe’s account of island life.
If Walden is life in the woods, then A Week is life on the river. But this book is not Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, published a quarter-century later. The river that runs past Twain’s hometown has a vastness and scale to it that the Concord and Merrimack lack. And while the Mississippi and Merrimack were both commercial rivers when these books were written, Thoreau’s is the more personal river, the one you might retire to. Populated not by paddlewheel steamers and professional gamblers, but by canal boats that sit low in the water and locksmen who double as philosophers and mathematicians. This is Transcendental New England, after all, not the avaricious gateway to the West.
A Week is full of fish and grasses and birds and water. It’s also full of showy erudition, colonial history, astute observations, and startling statements. Although not exactly a humorous book, it contains a great many things I found amusing. Who else but Thoreau would describe the least bittern as having a “dull, yellowish, greenish eye” and then surprise us, out of the blue it seems, with this statement: “Methinks my own soul must be a bright invisible green.” Who but Thoreau would digress on the differences between priests and physicians and say that “the one’s profession is a satire on the other’s and either’s success would be the other’s failure.” Or conclude a description of the Merrimack’s fall from its source in the White Mountains to its mouth on the Atlantic with this: “There are earth, air, fire, and water, — very well, this is water, and down it comes.”
On the basis of what Thoreau tells us, we have to conclude that a trip like this, taken for the pleasure of the journey and the discoveries made along the way, was not common in his day. One canal boatman they meet simply refuses to accept the brothers’ explanation of what they’ve been doing and why they’re inquiring about a certain island in the Merrimack, assuming their interest is only due to the island’s disputed ownership. And yet we get glimpses of two Huck Finn precursors who would very much like to leave their young lives behind and sail away with the brothers Thoreau. The first is a stone mason repairing one of the locks on the Merrimack. As he examines their outfit, Thoreau sees “many a distant cape and wooded shore reflected in his eye.” But alas the young man’s duty is to his chisel.
The second is “a little flaxen-headed boy, with some tradition, or small edition, of Robinson Crusoe in his head.” But alas he’s too young, although on their return trip the brothers do buy a melon from this young entrepreneur. Life in those days is about work, it seems, and travel, whether by canal boat or stage coach or, increasingly, by train, well, that’s about work too. Interestingly, one of Thoreau’s favorite words is “retired” and he uses it over a dozen times in A Week, although mostly in the somewhat archaic sense of “secluded” rather than our modern sense of “no longer employed.”
19th century gear
Provisions: packed, purchased, picked
- Potatoes and melons from Thoreau brothers’ patch in Concord
- Bread, sugar, cocoa, rice
- Huckleberries, picked
- Pigeon, caught and broiled
- Squirrel, caught and skinned but “abandoned in disgust”
- Milk and homemade bread, presumably purchased
- Watermelon, purchased
- Cotton tent; boat mast doubled as tent pole
- Buffalo skins for sleeping on, with blankets for covering
Thoreau makes no mention of what they wore on the river, although one can’t help but think they were barefoot and bareheaded much of the time, like canal boatmen.
None. Although they weren’t weighed down by packs, the brothers did have to propel and worry about a 15-foot boat. In Walden, we find this:
“How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty…”
And yet where do they leave their gear to dry when they commence their foot journey? In a farmer’s corn-barn, of course.
- 15 feet long x 3.5 feet at widest, painted green and blue
- Two masts, sails
- Two pairs of oars, several poles
- Outfitted with wheels for rolling around waterfalls (not used)
Calendar quotes (best lines ever)
“Cold and damp, — are they not as rich an experience as warmth and dryness?”
“One half the world knows how the other half lives.”
© 10 Franks 2015