Trying to avoid the petty hypocrisy of teaching things I haven’t read myself, I’ve been reading Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack Rivers. This lesser-known predecessor of Walden chronicles a week that Thoreau spent floating the two rivers with his older brother, John, in 1839.
David (and yes, the younger Thoreau’s family called him David, because that was his first name until he switched them in a characteristic fit of pique) was 22, and John 24 when they launched their homemade boat from their village near Concord. They spent the week from August 31 to September 6 following the lazy currents, camping along the banks, and visiting with the strangers in other boats and along the shores. It must have been a blast.
Of course, we wouldn’t know that from reading A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack.
What I tell my classes is this: Thoreau wrote the book as a tribute to his brother, who died from a shaving cut. In 1842, John nicked himself with a razor and got tetanus. It wasn’t a good way to go, and he literally died in David’s arms.
The tribute book was written almost ten years after the trip, in 1848, and while it may be in memory of John, it doesn’t talk about him at all. Thoreau couldn’t find a publisher for it, mostly because it was so freaking pedantic. The descriptions of the actual float – the scenery, people, and other interesting things – make up about a tenth of the whole, and the rest is Thoreau’s ponderous forays into religion, poetry, politics, history, and philosophy. By the time he’d gotten into his late 30’s, he wrote as if he had the intellectual weight of a small planet on his shoulders in place of a head.
One of the most fascinating things is Thoreau’s fascination with Hinduism and the ways he contrasts it with Christianity. Granted, he grew up in New England, where Sabbathbreakers were put in special cages outside the meeting-houses, but it is odd that he prefers Shiva the Destroyer to the compassionate Christ. He was probably short on actual experience on both counts.
My students and I generally like Walden. After reading A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack, though, I understand why Thoreau had to publish it himself. Instead of a memoir of the trip, or even of John, the book is just one more place for H.D. Thoreau to propound his opinions, with the emphasis on pound. It’s like a loaf of wheat bread with not enough yeast – the occasional flashes of humor and humanity just can’t make this rise above mediocrity.
But now I can tell the class I’ve read it.