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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

X. Thoreau

§ 7. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Two years later, Thoreau published his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The actual voyage was performed by the two brothers Henry and John in the late summer of 1839 in a boat of their own making, “painted green below with a border of blue, with reference to the two elements in which it was to spend its existence.” During his Walden retirement, Thoreau worked over the original record of his pleasant outing, expanding it greatly by the inclusion of very various material, and had it published at his own risk by Monroe in 1849. It was the year of the Argonauts, of the gold-rush to California, and such literary treasure as the odd book contained was not much regarded. Though favourably reviewed by Ripley and by Lowell, it did not please the public, and over seven hundred copies out of an impression of one thousand were thrown back on the author’s hands. It is another of the paradoxes of Thoreau’s career that since his death, this failure has been edited with almost benedictine care.

Lowell’s praise of A Week can hardly be termed excessive. After dwelling on its weak points, its lack of unity, its imitation of Emerson, its dolorous verse, he continues,

  • the prose work is done conscientiously and neatly. The style is compact and the language has an antique purity like wine grown colourless with age.
  • The truth is that Thoreau with all his genuine appreciation of the classics never learned their lessons of proportion, restraint, “nothing too much.” Nor was the example of his master Emerson likely to correct his own tendency to formlessness. The principle of selection is absent. The week’s excursion is only an excuse for including Emersonian essays on friendship and chastity, or dissertations on the Laws of Menu, or translations of Anacreon, till the reader asks resentfully what they are doing in this dory-modelled galère, painted green below with a border of blue, on the Merrimack and Concord, lucid streams. If he had possessed the artistic instinct of Stevenson, or had undergone Stevenson’s rigid self-imposed discipline in the writer’s craft, he might have made A Week as complete a little masterpiece as An Inland Voyage. A Week fails on account of its scattering aim. It is neither a record of a week’s excursion, nor a book of essays, but a jumble of the two. Thoreau’s American contempt for tradition accounts for the artistic failure.

    Where Thoreau is not the transcendental essayist, but the first-hand observer of nature, he is delightful. When discoursing on such a theme as the common sunfish, the reader wishes he would never end.

  • The breams are so careful of their charge that you may stand close by in the water and examine them at your leisure. I have stood over them half an hour at a time, and stroked them familiarly without frightening them, suffering them to nibble my fingers harmlessly, and seen them erect their dorsal fins in anger when my hand approached their ova, and have even gently taken them out of the water with my hand.… As you stand thus stooping over the bream in its nest, the edges of the dorsal and caudal fins have a singular dusty golden reflection, and its eyes, which stand out from its head, are transparent and colourless. Seen in its native element, it is a very beautiful and compact fish, perfect in all its parts, and looks like a brilliant coin fresh from the mint.
  • If the whole book had been of this texture, it would be a classic. Another element in the book which Thoreau valued slightly—those incidental glimpses of a vanished America—will be prized by later generations. His accounts of the mountain people he discovered, of the girl combing her black hair, of his surly host, Rice, and his strange inn, of the old farmer praying in the dim morning pasture, of the canal boatmen, of the lockmen’s house, and the small-voiced but sincere hospitality of the Yankee housewife offering the obsolete refreshment of “molasses and ginger,” read like pages Irving forgot to put into The Sketch Book. These things are seen with the naturalist’s clear grave eyes and recorded in plain words with no attempt at oracular profundity. For the sake of more such true pictures of reality, how gladly would the modern reader forego the disquisitions on Persius and Ossian.