Thoreau's "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" Summary and Analysis


In 1840, Thoreau was recording journal entries about his 1839 trip with his brother John up the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He started to think seriously of a book based on the trip after John's death in 1842. As he copied over journal entries relating to the trip, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers began to take shape in his mind. He was able to work his preliminary material into a first draft while living at Walden Pond; the second draft was completed in 1847. He continued to expand and revise the book until its publication in 1849. He first approached Ticknor & Company (predecessor of Ticknor and Fields) but, unable to obtain satisfactory terms, sent the manuscript to James Munroe and Company early in 1849. Munroe agreed to publish the book at the author's expense and issued it in an edition of 1,000 copies in May. In 1853, Munroe returned 706 unsold copies (256 bound, 450 in sheets) to the author. In 1862, just before Thoreau's death, Ticknor and Fields (publisher of Walden in 1854) bought the remaining 145 bound copies and the 450 unbound copies, which were reissued in 1862 with a new title page. A second edition, including revisions that Thoreau had made in his own copy of the first edition, was published by Ticknor and Fields in 1868, and later reissued several times. The first English edition appeared in 1889. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was published as the first volume of the Riverside Edition of Thoreau's complete writings in 1894, as the first volume of the Walden and Manuscript Editions in 1906, and as the fifth volume of the Princeton Edition in 1980. Editions by a variety of publishers were issued in the twentieth century. Selections from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers were included in the Modern Library Edition of Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Brooks Atkinson and first published in 1937. The essay on friendship from the chapter "Wednesday" has been separately printed a number of times.

Although its title suggests a travel narrative, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers focuses not so much on the actual two-week trip made by Henry and John Thoreau in 1839 (August 31 to September 13) as on journey into self, through nature, toward the infinite. It is an intensely cerebral, literary, metaphorical book, both long and dense. It is divided into an opening chapter and a separate chapter for each day of the week, Saturday through Friday. Thoreau compresses and distills the two-week trip to provide a structure that clearly suggests the passage of time. Approaching its writing as a work of literature rather than a factual account, he incorporates material drawn from journal entries written well after the trip. Although the narrative sections of each chapter present the landscapes, the people, and the plant and animal life encountered along the actual journey, there is little uninterpreted description within the book. Moreover, Thoreau intersperses much information drawn from local histories (particularly regarding interactions between Native Americans and English settlers); references to and quotations from ancient, medieval, and modern authors; previously unpublished and published poems and essays of his own (for example, his "Aulus Persius Flaccus," published in The Dial in 1840, appears in "Thursday"; his poem "To the Maiden in the East," published in The Dial in 1842, appears in "Sunday"); and long philosophical explorations. These seeming digressions, connected to the narrative by thematic threads, are, in fact, integral to the meaning of the book. Only the reader willing to submit to the flow of the author's thoughts — as Thoreau surrenders himself to his journey on the rivers — can appreciate the richness and depth of A Week.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers begins with an elegiac invocation to the muse of Thoreau's brother John. By maintaining John's presence throughout the book and exploring the themes of friendship, the passage of time, death, and immortality, Thoreau transforms personal grief into understanding and acceptance of loss within a larger philosophical framework.

In "Concord River," the opening chapter, Thoreau describes the river, evokes the Native Americans whose lives were intertwined with it long before the advent of English settlers, associates the Concord with the great rivers of this continent and others, and suggests the metaphorical nature of actual rivers as routes to the exploration of the unexplored territory in "the interior of continents." He places the Concord within a universal context as a symbol of the flow of time and life toward the eternal. He represents weeds on the bottom and objects floating by as "fulfilling their fate," and indicates his openness to what the river might teach in his resolution to "float whither it would bear me."

The brothers' journey begins in "Saturday." They depart from Concord, "a port of entry and departure for the bodies as well as the souls of men." On their first day, they travel as far as Billerica, Massachusetts. Thoreau describes what they see along the way, places the particular examples of humanity that they encounter within the all-encompassing scope of universal history, and likens life itself to a river, and the inevitable progress of a single life toward its absorption into infinity to the river's flow. The chapter contains a lengthy and detailed catalog of fishes. Despite the fragility and expendability of individual fishes, the race endures through the far-flung dissemination of its seeds. The lives of countless fishes are wasted as a matter of course, but there is a kind of virtue in their instinctive willingness to fulfill the role that nature has assigned them. The place where the brothers camp at night is described in classically sylvan terms. Past and present are intermingled throughout the chapter, and the specific employed to reveal universal significance. "Saturday" concludes with a discussion of night sounds, described as evidence of nature's health.

At the beginning of "Sunday," the dawn is described as dating from earlier than the fall of man and retaining a "heathenish integrity." This description sets the stage for Thoreau's later lengthy diatribe against established Christianity, prompted by the sight of people coming out of church on the Sabbath. Thoreau contrasts Christianity with the religion of nature. He refers to the displacement of the Indian by the English settler, and contrasts the wild life of the Indian with white man's civilization. The white man is described as "strong in community, yielding obedience to authority." Civilization lacks the "heroic spirit" and leads to the degeneration of man. The Indian — independent and aloof — preserves an integral relationship with his native gods and with nature. The sciences and arts do not affect us nearly as powerfully as more primal concerns — hunting, fishing, mythology, and fables. Mythology, "the most ancient history and biography," is explored, as is the poet's particular susceptibility to it. The ultimate passage of the works of man into nature is suggested by the canal at Billerica Falls. Thoreau urges a life embracing both spirit and matter (as nature demands) and discusses books, literature, and the fitness of poetry to treat nature and universal truth. He praises Homer and Shakespeare, dismisses the treatment of writing as a commodity, and likens writing to the river's flowing. He admires homeliness, simplicity, and a natural vigor in books. These qualities permit truthful and fresh expression even of topics that have been explored before. The brothers pitch their tent in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, where, in contrast to the "Scythian vastness of the Billerica night," they are kept awake by raucous Irish laborers. One brother, visited by "Evil Destinies" in his dreams, is soothed by the other.

Thoreau begins "Monday" with reference to both the dawn of time and, in describing a ferryman on the river in the morning fog, to death. He alludes to the Styx (the ancient river of the underworld) and to Charon (the ferryman who transports souls across the Styx to the other world). He thus reinforces the imagery of the river as symbolic of universal history and the course of human life. In presenting the history of Tyngsboro, he again evokes the ever-present Indian and his extermination by the white settler. He pauses to reflect on "the lapse of the river and of human life" and on the permanence of the eternal despite the transitory nature of the particular, the individual. He urges seeking the larger principles of the universe as opposed to worldly wisdom, employing the imagery of seed that is present throughout the book. In questioning the value of reform, he presents society in general and the political state as institutions of the dead. Thoreau compares western with eastern religion. Eastern thought focuses on "loftier themes" than does western, and on contemplation — an element lacking in western religion — as well as action. He discusses history and its study, which should be more concerned with universals, more evocative of atmosphere, more vital than it is. History should distill and transcend facts and particulars, deal with the underlying connection between past and present, convey relevance to both the outward and inward life of man. Thoreau introduces the imagery of mountains in recalling a trip that he made to Mount Wachusett (in central Massachusetts). The distance of mountains from the daily life of men imparts to the traveler a broader perspective than is possible from the valleys below, allowing direct communication with nature and the infinite. A graveyard along the way prompts another consideration of death and life beyond death. Thoreau comments on the falseness of epitaphs, their failure to express what was important in a life, and presents the enrichment of the soil through the decay of the body as a more meaningful form of immortality than the monument over a grave. Like the previous two chapters, "Monday" concludes with a discussion of night sounds, which comprise sensual evidence of the health of the universe. He discusses music as "the sound of the universal laws promulgated." The brothers camp near Penichook (Pennichuck) Brook, on the outskirts of Nashua, New Hampshire.

Thoreau further develops the mountain imagery of A Week in "Tuesday," in which he describes his ascent, on another trip, of Mount Greylock ("Saddle-back Mountain") in western Massachusetts. He writes metaphorically of meeting and surmounting obstacles on such a journey, remarking that travelers frequently overestimate difficulties along the path. A person lost is not actually lost — he is simply where he is. Thoreau thus emphasizes the importance of openness to experience, observation, and understanding, of avoiding a predetermined route. He explores the subject of perspective in relation to mountains again, and — here and elsewhere in A Week — in relation to fog, mist, haze, and clouds. Mountain heights impart clarity; mist magnifies what is seen. Thoreau also develops the image of the all-encompassing river. Although it subsumes the tiny streams that empty into it, it nevertheless allows each to retain some of its own music, which remains audible as the river flows into the sea.

The local history of the region through which the brothers pass once again provides tales of Indian/white interaction. Thoreau is reminded by a "brawny New Hampshire man" of an earlier encounter, on another trip, with a "rather rude and uncivil man" named Rice. In his character sketch of Rice, he underscores the insignificance of what is commonly considered civility. Rice's character has grown naturally in the wild environment he inhabits. He is "as rude as a fabled satyr," direct, honest, and possesses a primal dignity and civility, as opposed to the acquired politeness of more civilized men. Back on the river, the sight of boatmen leads Thoreau into a discussion of the value of simple occupations. Resting at noontime, he takes up the Travels and Adventures in Canada by Alexander Henry, in whose life he finds a naturalness and lack of pretense and whose writing is characterized by directness, avoidance of exaggeration, and an abundance of natural fact. He finds that Henry's Travels express "perennials" — broad truth — beyond the straight historical fact of "annals." The two brothers kill, cook, and eat a pigeon, a small drama that causes some guilt, but that also prompts Thoreau to comment on the fulfillment of fate and on the detection of "the secret innocence of these incessant tragedies which Heaven allows." The chapter ends with a description of the "wild and solitary" landscape through which the travelers pass. They camp in Bedford, New Hampshire.

Thoreau begins "Wednesday" by contrasting roads (which "do some violence to Nature, and bring the traveller to stare at her") with the river (which "steals into the scenery it traverses without intrusion," creating and forming a part of the landscape, as well as providing an approach to it). In passing Indian burial sites, he revisits the subjects of death and rejuvenation. He comments on how "time is slowly crumbling the bones of a race." As the bones decay and become one with the earth, they fertilize the soil used to grow crops for the white man. Ever alert to microcosms of the universal, Thoreau returns to the theme of nature's enveloping scope in comparing even the smallest stream to a "mediterranean sea, a smaller ocean creek within the land." Thoreau describes the boats he viewed from Staten Island (where he lived in 1843). Through their great number and in the changing light of the day, these vessels lose their particularity and become increasingly generic. He attributes Arcadian and Oriental qualities to simple New England dwellings on the river, imagining the quiet, unhurried, pastoral life of their residents, and the mistress of one as "some Yankee-Hindoo woman."

At Manchester, the travelers approach the Amoskeag Falls, where they observe basins worn into rock by the falling water. Whereas the Native Americans understood that such basins were natural formations, members of the Royal Society described them in the eighteenth century as artificial. The Indian's native intuition is clearly portrayed as superior to the so-called knowledge of civilized man. Such natural formations, Thoreau writes, along with lichens, rocks, and other details of nature, form the antiquities of America, the stuff of our history. Unlike the remains of man-made objects, they do not return to dust. But nature incorporates evidence of past human life as well. Thoreau criticizes the distinction made by men and reflected in the practice of both religion and medicine, which regard matter as independent of spirit, and he asserts the inseparability of the physical and the spiritual in human life. As the brothers progress through New Hampshire from Manchester to Goffstown, Thoreau launches into the lengthy, idealistic, lyrical consideration of friendship that is central to the book. He reveals that his brother John is the friend of whom he writes in the moving passage, "My Friend is not of some other race or family of men, but flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. He is my real brother." It is clear in this chapter that A Week represents Thoreau's attempt to work through his grief over John's death. Thoreau accepts that John has, in some way, been translated into nature and the eternal, and, moreover, that he will live in the spirit of those who cared for him. Thoreau writes affirmatively, "Even the death of Friends will inspire in us as much as their lives." The travelers camp in Hooksett. Thoreau considers the permanence of universal laws; the awakening within us, in serene moments, of all the eras of history; the world as "canvass to our imaginations"; the life of the mind, which craves expression; the fragility of human enterprise and aspiration; and the difficulty of achieving inner life in the normal course of human existence. The chapter closes with Thoreau's dream of a friend with whom he had had a "difference," which is resolved through the dream.

"Thursday," opening with rain, brings the travelers to Concord, New Hampshire. In presenting the local history, Thoreau comments on the fact that geographical frontiers no longer exist, but adds that frontiers and wilderness endure "wherever a man fronts a fact." He discusses travel, metaphorically stating that continued travel is not productive — "True and sincere travelling is no pastime, but is as serious as the grave, or any other part of the human journey, and it requires a long probation to be broken into it." The wild country of the Pemigewasset and of Amonoosuck (Ammonoosuc) — the "Unappropriated Land" — is described. With a striking absence of detail about the ascent, Thoreau writes simply, "we were enabled to reach the summit of AGIOCOCHOOK [Mount Washington]." All the remaining narrative relates to the trip back home to Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau considers the swallowing up by nature of man's works; the innate refinement of the wildest nature; and the close relationship between nature and ideal art. But nature is God's art, which man's art can never match. Reaching a point at which the past almost seems to enter into the present, Thoreau tells the story of Hannah Dustan (also spelled elsewhere "Dustin" or "Duston"). A white woman taken and held captive by Indians, Dustan endured savagery in the wilderness. She and two other captives murdered their captors and escaped. Thoreau reflects on the great age of the world, and says that Hannah Dustan's story is, though relatively recent, nevertheless ancient. Universal history is thus expressed not just in ancient myth and history, but in events close to our own time as well. He writes about describing things as they are; considers Goethe, genius, and the artist; and reaffirms the importance of poetry — "atmospheric and irreducible" — as the "mysticism of mankind." He describes the power of composition as dangerous, possessing a certain savagery of its own. As the river flows on, he comments on the centrality of man in the universe. The travelers pitch camp at Merrimack, New Hampshire. Thoreau notes the difficulty of keeping a journal as a record of life while trying to live fully. The chapter ends with the sound of the blowing wind.

"Friday," the concluding chapter, celebrates the transition into fall, a new season, one to which Thoreau attributes qualities of regeneration rather than decline. He refers to the Concord Cattle Show, a seasonal festival of nature parallel to the great celebrations of antiquity. He discusses genius; the fact that genius and popular appreciation have nothing to do with one another; the poet — who possesses God within — and his rough, natural, truthful, penetrating strength; and the greatness of an artist, which lies in the degree to which his work expresses his life. He writes of the poet Ossian, of perspective and perception, of seeing things anew, and of permanence over the lapse of time. The "constant abrasion and decay of our lives" are presented as imparting new life — making "the soil of our future growth" — and the unity of body and spirit is restated.

Thoreau turns to mathematics and science, asserting that natural law, scientific truth, and moral law should not be considered separately from one another. He complains that the man of science does not approach the "central facts." Science will not be elevated until the scientist adopts a broader vision. Following qualified praise of Chaucer, Thoreau laments the decline of poetry from a ruder, more natural time, and discusses poets and poetry. He identifies two types of poets. One cultivates life, the other art. The former possesses genius and inspiration, the latter intellect and taste. He focuses again on the rough vigor of the work of genius. He returns to the river, and to nature's composition of an autumnal poem. Autumn is presented as a time of inner verdure and regeneration, possessing "ripe fruit" behind the sheaves and under the sod.

Thoreau urges man to spiritualize and naturalize so as to be open to the beauty of the world and to aspire to immortal existence, to conceive of a "better heaven." Temporal morality, he says, is petty beside pure, primeval nature. The seeking of nature beyond the ordinary is comparable to the discovery by Columbus of the New World. Thoreau metaphorically suggests that the world has many rings, that we live on the outermost, and that we must travel to the core. He urges the examination not of what was, but of what is, and optimistically states his hope that he will gain information on the "OTHER WORLD." Both science and poetry are "particles of information"; poets, philosophers, and spiritual men are "our astronomers." Thoreau advocates a radical, intuitive, expansive kind of thought, as opposed to a commonsensical, logical, narrow one. He points out the distance between what is and what appears to be. He quotes from Oriental literature on immortality and refers to the ways in which nature makes use of us without our knowledge (for instance, in the unintentional scattering of seeds as we walk). The book ends with a discussion of silence — presented as the ultimate refuge, a waiting for sound, and an openness to revelation. Thoreau refers indirectly to his hopes for his own earnest, reflective, suggestive book. And so the two travelers return to Concord, completing the circle of their journey.