Thoreau's "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" Major Themes


The Journey Inward

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is the record of Thoreau's journey inward toward an understanding of the universal and absolute. The actual journey described in the book provides a framework for Thoreau's many approaches to higher truth. The theme of inward journey is suggested by the book's structure, through imagery — particularly the image of the river as a stream of thought, by numerous passages throughout focusing on thought, the inner life, and the nature of exploration and discovery, and through reference to specific authors and books. Thoreau intimates the metaphorical nature of his journey at the beginning of A Week, in the chapter "Concord River":

[Rivers] are the constant lure, when they flow by our doors, to distant enterprise and adventure, and, by a natural impulse, the dwellers on their banks will at length accompany their currents to the lowlands of the globe, or explore at their invitation the interior of continents.

Concord is Thoreau's own "port of entry and departure," both literally and spiritually. Throughout the book, he argues for the seeking of broad significance, of underlying principles as opposed to more limited worldly wisdom and particulate knowledge. His repeated praise of Oriental thought is based upon its focus on all-encompassing truth and on contemplation as well, in contrast with the western tendency toward busy, unexamined activity. Thoreau criticizes literature, religion, history, biography, medicine, and science as they exist because none is directed toward broad, transcendent vision. He emphasizes that the course of the journey inward is uncharted and unpredictable. The route is revealed along the way.

Thoreau affirms the reality and importance of the life of the mind in A Week. He writes in "Wednesday":

This world is but canvass to our imaginations. I see men with infinite pains endeavoring to realize to their bodies, what I, with at least equal pains, would realize to my imagination, — its capacities. . . .

The inward journey through nature to higher understanding is serious and demanding. He writes in "Friday":

It is easier to discover another such a new world as Columbus did, than to go within one fold of this which we appear to know so well; the land is lost sight of, the compass varies, and mankind mutiny; and still history accumulates like rubbish before the portals of nature.

He contrasts the disappearance of actual frontiers in his time with the persistence of the unexplored inner regions:

But we found that the frontiers were not this way any longer. This generation has come into the world fatally late for some enterprises. Go where we will on the surface of things, men have been there before us. . . . But the lives of men, though more extended laterally in their range, are still as shallow as ever. . . . The frontiers are not east or west, north or south, but wherever a man fronts a fact, though that fact be his neighbor, there is an unsettled wilderness between him and Canada, between him and the setting sun, or, further still, between him and it.

Thoreau's ultimate optimism about the possibility of finding meaning through inward exploration is indicated by the two travelers' successful completion of their trip, literal and figurative, in A Week.

The Particular and the Universal

The purpose of the journey inward is to arrive at the universals revealed by particular expressions found in nature, history, and human character. The image of the all-encompassing river — composed of the many small streams flowing into it, all of them together emptying into the ocean — richly suggests the relationship between the particular and the universal. In A Week, Thoreau presents the comprehension of the divine and infinite as the object of all thought and activity. He writes in "Friday":

Indeed, all that we call science, as well as all that we call poetry, is a particle of . . . information, accurate as far as it goes, though it be but to the confines of the truth. If we can reason so accurately, and with such wonderful confirmation of our reasoning, respecting so-called material objects and events infinitely removed beyond the range of our natural vision, so that the mind hesitates to trust its calculations even when they are confirmed by observation, why may not our speculations penetrate as far into the immaterial starry system, of which the former is but the outward and visible type?

Symbolic particulate information provides the evidence through which we understand the eternal. However, the accumulation of evidence will not by itself lead us to the universal. An alertness to revelation and a sense of vision — some degree of intuition — are required. We must be patient in waiting for insight.

Throughout A Week, Thoreau uses a number of specific examples to demonstrate the ways in which the universal is expressed through the particular. As the journey begins in "Saturday," he considers the place of the human life that he observes along the river within the context of universal history. In the same chapter, the specificity of his catalog of fishes threatens to overwhelm the reader until Thoreau places these creatures within the broad framework of nature's plan. Although there is a tremendous waste of individuals in the course of spawning and in the position of particular species within the food chain, the fishes comply with the role that nature has assigned them. In so doing, they thrive in the aggregate, despite the precariousness of the life of each one individually. In "Wednesday," he writes of watching the boats off Staten Island until they become generic rather than individual.

Thoreau finds little value in current science, history, and other disciplines that focus on the particular but stop short of broader perception. He looks more favorably on certain forms of expression — myth and fable, the literatures of ancient and more elemental times, Oriental scripture and literature, poetry, and music — that are not reducible into factual particulars and consequently allow a kind of direct perception of universals. Myth presents archetypal generalities of human experience rather than the biography of individual men. Poetry possesses a mystical, oracular quality. Music is "the sound of the universal laws promulgated." Fact and detail have their place but are only meaningful when interpreted by those with a larger sense of vision. Thoreau states his belief in the possibility that men of science and others devoted to the specific may achieve the perspective necessary to transform particular data into universal meaning.

Life, Death, and Regeneration

Life, death, and renewal are presented in various contexts throughout A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The book opens with an invocation — tacitly a dedication — to John Thoreau, Thoreau's brother, traveling companion, and friend, whose death in 1842 provided the impetus behind the writing of A Week. Thoreau's discussion of fishes — individually transient, enduring as species — in "Saturday" focuses on both life and death. The passage of man's work into nature at Billerica Falls (in "Sunday") suggests impermanence and decay, and yet, at the same time, an absorption into something higher. "Monday" includes references to the Styx (ancient river of the underworld) and Charon (ferryman of the dead). A graveyard in "Monday" and Indian burial sites in "Wednesday" elicit comments on the enrichment of soil through decay of the bodies of the dead.

A Week is essentially an optimistic book in its treatment of death. Thoreau presents death not as an end but as part of larger natural and universal processes. Death not only results in the reabsorption of the body into the earth and into nature, but also in the transition of nature and the human soul into the infinity of the universe. The seed imagery throughout the book suggests constant regeneration even as individual lives pass away. The decay of Indian bones provides rich soil in which the food of later men may be grown. Thoreau's discussion of friendship in "Wednesday" ends with the confident assertion that "Friends have no place in the graveyard." A friend who dies will live on in the memories and hearts of those left behind. In "Friday," the final chapter, Thoreau lavishly develops the fall — often viewed as a time of decay and decline — as a vital season full of the promise of future growth.

The structure of A Week and the imagery of the river both powerfully suggest the passage of time. The journey takes place over the course of a week — a defined measure of time with a distinct beginning and end — and each chapter is organized around a single day. But time continues beyond the end of any measure of it. Moreover, there is optimism in the transition from summer to fall at the end of the book, and in the implicit anticipation of spring. And while the movement of the river toward the sea suggests the flow of time and life, the sea incorporates the river and the river lives on as part of something larger than itself. Eternity, a force present side by side with death throughout A Week, diminishes the significance of death.

Nature, Civilization, and the Human Spirit

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is full of longing for and celebration of nature and wildness. Civilization and society, nature's foils, threaten man's communion with the wild. Human history has been destructive to wildness in both nature and man. From the beginning to the end of the book, the presence of the Native American in tales of local history constantly reminds the reader of civilization's incompatibility with nature. The story of Hannah Dustan in "Thursday" is a particularly powerful statement of the antagonism between civilization and the wild. Dustan, a New England folk heroine, experienced the full force of the wild in her captivity by Indians and in the murder of her infant. She escapes only by killing her captors — destroying the wild — but does so at a price to herself. As she proceeds down the river through the wilderness on her return to civilization, she is out of her element, silent and fearful. The woods are to her a "drear howling wilderness" to which she has no capacity to respond.

Thoreau finds a more positive example of man's ability to interact with nature in the person of the rough, rude, but innately civil man called Rice in "Tuesday." Like the Indian, Rice has grown naturally out of his wild environment. Above the meaningless niceties of society's standard of etiquette, Rice is naturally decent. Nature possesses its own refinement, Thoreau writes.

Thoreau denounces all of society's institutions in A Week. In "Sunday," he contrasts Christianity with the religion of nature, and the wildness of the Indian with the civilization of the white man, who is "strong in community, yielding in obedience to authority." Religion, political life, and society in general are presented as institutions of the dead, lacking both vitality and the heroic spirit. Man cannot heed the call of higher knowledge if he simply accepts conventional beliefs and definitions. Just as Thoreau travels against the current on the Merrimack River, he must go against the current of civilization and history in seeking the wild.

In "Thursday," the travelers pass into the Pemigewasset Wilderness. They climb Mount Washington, referred to only by its Indian name, "AGIOCOCHOOK." Although Thoreau describes the trek through the surrounding area, he is silent about the ascent. Silence is presented elsewhere in A Week as a listening for communication from nature and the divine. The lack of description and interpretation and the uppercasing of the mountain's name in the text suggest an experience too intense and mystical to be conveyed in words. At the end of the book, Thoreau exhorts his reader to become more natural and spiritual. The life of the spirit is not possible without openness to nature and the wild. Nature is essential to the inner voyage explored in A Week.

Inspiration and Writing

Thoreau's reading and his conscious consideration of writing are evident throughout A Week. The book includes quotations from a variety of authors, particularly ancient classical authors and archaic English writers, and poems and essays by Thoreau himself (some previously published). Moreover, many passages in A Week convey Thoreau's thoughts on the definition of powerful writing.

It is clear in A Week that Thoreau classes himself among poets. He did, in fact, write poetry, and published some of it in The Dial in the early 1840s. Some of his poetry remained in manuscript form, in his journal. Therefore, even though he is known primarily as a prose author, there is some literal truth to his defining himself as a poet. However, the word "poet" is used more broadly than in the literal sense of a writer of verse in A Week, as it is in the journal and elsewhere in Thoreau's writings. For Thoreau, the poet is an inspired writer with the ability to convey his life, the reality and significance of nature, and universal meaning. The poet is more than ordinarily susceptible to nature in all its forms, and preternaturally capable of expressing truth about the divine and the universal order. Thoreau respects myth, fable, and other primal forms that express the universal more than the narrowly cultural. As the "mysticism of mankind," poetry is close to myth and scripture. Thoreau also admires certain writers who possess vision and who treat broad and basic subjects. He writes in praise of Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Goethe, for example. He describes Alexander Henry's Travels and Adventures in Canada as natural, direct, rich in natural fact, lacking pretense and exaggeration. Although far from the standard definition of poetry, Henry's work transcends the narrowness of straight travel narrative and expresses "perennials."

Thoreau distinguishes between two types of poets. The writer of genius and inspiration cultivates life and possesses God within. The writer of intellect and taste, more derivative than original, cultivates art. Thoreau states that true artistic greatness lies in the degree to which art expresses life. It is clear that he identifies his own efforts with the work of those poets who cultivate life. Interestingly, at the end of "Thursday," he writes of the difficulty of keeping a journal — the written record of life — while engaged in living the life that forms the subject matter of this record. Life and the art that reflects it may ideally be one, but in reality there is some distance between life and the written word.

Thoreau applies river imagery to writing as well as to life and the lapse of time in A Week. He likens writing to the flow of the river, thus endowing it with an organic, natural quality. He identifies homeliness, simplicity, vigor, and directness as virtues in poetry. Writing should be truthful, should describe things as they are. These fundamental qualities produce vital, fresh writing even when the subject matter is common. Originality rests in the treatment, not in the theme. Thoreau writes often of perception and perspective, of seeing things in a new light.

Poetry is appreciated in its irreducible integrity by "those for whom it was matured." But even early in his literary career, Thoreau understood that this audience was small. He indicates in "Friday" an awareness that there is not necessarily any connection between genius and appreciation. In "Sunday" and elsewhere, he disdains the approach to writing as a commodity. The actualities of the publishing world in the 1840s did not foster the sustained idealism necessary to create A Week.

Thoreau associates roughness and strength, even a certain violence, with meaningful writing. Just as nature possesses a savage and frightening aspect, so does composition. He writes in "Thursday": "The talent of composition is very dangerous, — the striking out the heart of life at a blow, as the Indian takes off a scalp. I feel as if my life had grown more outward when I can express it." And, as he perceives a loss of wildness to civilization over human history, so he observes a decline of poetry from a more natural age to the present.

Art and nature may exist in a kind of symbiosis. Thoreau writes in "Thursday":

Art is not tame, and Nature is not wild, in the ordinary sense. A perfect work of man's art would also be wild or natural in a good sense. Man tames Nature only that he may at last make her more free even than he found her, though he may never yet have succeeded.

The poet hopes to capture and transmit, and even enhance, the vitality of nature, his subject matter and his inspiration.

As he draws his book to a close in "Friday," Thoreau hopes for an audience sympathetic to his creative idealism, to his sense of writing as a medium for universal truth. He sees his proper audience as consisting of seekers after revelation and understanding such as he himself seeks: "A good book is the plectrum with which our else silent lyres are struck." He offers A Week as one of those good books that strike chords within the reader.


The theme of friendship is implied throughout A Week in the companionship of the two travelers as they make their journey. John Thoreau, Henry's brother and the muse invoked at the beginning of the book, is never mentioned by name, nor is the depth of the emotional bond between the two referred to specifically and personally. The absence of comment on the relationship resembles Thoreau's silence regarding the ascent of Agiocochook. It suggests intensity of emotion, both private and deeply meaningful. The theme is explicitly developed in the long outpouring on friendship in "Wednesday." Thoreau's thoughts on the subject are highly idealistic and, the reader suspects, impossible to achieve and sustain outside of art. But the lyricism of this section is in keeping with Thoreau's idealism in presenting his other themes in A Week.

Neither the possibility of realizing the type of friendship that Thoreau extols nor his specific pronouncements on the nature of true friendship are as important as Thoreau's relationship with his brother, his sense of loss that must be worked through after John's death, and his writing the book to achieve some closure. Thoreau writes, "The only danger in Friendship is that it will end." He goes on to discuss the end of friendship through excessive criticism. Although he does not place the loss of a friend to death in the same category as loss through misunderstanding or failure of sympathy, either situation results in bereavement. He writes positively of the inspiration achieved through the death as well as the life of a friend. Because John's death did, in fact, inspire Thoreau to write A Week, the book itself affirms the endurance of friendship beyond death.