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A Treatise on Life: The Critics and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Margaret Taliaferro, VCU (1984)

In Steven Fink's opinion, American "Transcendentalism hinged upon one's mystical union with Nature and thrived upon sharing that experience with others. He speaks for many Thoreau critics by classifying A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers as archetypal instead of autobiographical. The authority of Thoreau's inspiration persuades his reader to transcend a merely quotidian existence. Fink supports his thesis, that the river is the protagonist of A Week, by calling attention to its carefully structured, ascending features--from the elemental fluid of the river's way and spray, to fish and birds and animals to men. Thoreau mythologizes the fisherman throughout; in fact, Thoreau becomes the archetypal fisherman so that he can discuss the universal characteristics as manifested in fish. Fink also emphasizes the recurring metaphorical importance of pairs of mirror images: the two men in a skiff on Sunday morning and the two herons on Friday imply the existence of ideal, eternal harmony, attainable through transcendence of an earthly identity. Thus, Fink and other notable writers read the heart of Thoreau's youthfully optimistic message in A Week.

In contrast to the serious, reverent consideration of Fink, Joseph Wood Krutch in Henry David Thoreau has nothing praiseworthy to say of A Week. He calls it a "curious narrative frequently interrupted by long passages of sometimes callow mysticism." (54) He thinks it odd that Thoreau would have gone so far back for the subject of his first book when his journals reveal more mature thoughts and experiences. The treatises, according to Krutch, break the chronological thread of narrative so badly that the whole renders little more than a notebook. Krutch further demonstrates his distaste for A Week by calling it "an account of a vacation, which is to say of an interlude, a truancy, or an escape." (105)

An essay by William Drake sides with Krutch. Although Thoreau metaphorically identifies self-exploration with exploration of the natural world, he is never satisfied with pure symbol. He intends for the river to work on a natural and metaphorical level. The difficulty lies, therefore, in making poetry and speculation about friendship, favorite authors, Christianity, and the art of writing develop easily out of the context of experience on a naturalistic level. Thoreau fails to convince Drake of the connection. Thoreau's own reading also interferes with his observations, and his original but unsuccessful poems break the flow. These inconsistencies in style and structure reveal Thoreau's failure to integrate thought and experience. Although Thoreau convincingly presents the self-explorer's struggles with the dichotomy of truth and fact, he still leaves Drake uncertain as to how exploration of this world leads one to the more important inner world.

Sherman Paul feels that Thoreau uses myths because their symbolic power readily expresses the truth of this quest for self-knowledge. The Shores of America: Thoreau's Inward Exploration notes Thoreau's archetypal patterns of night and day, sunrise and sunset, ascent and descent, mountain and plain, forest and town, summer and winter. Against the temporal backdrop of one week, the voyageur recounts the heroism of America's early settlers and of the classicists' mythological adventurers: he gauges both his and his readers' valor according. Thoreau sees the boating excursion with his brother John in the summer of 1839 as analogous to leaving home or going to sea. The Concord and Merrimack Rivers represent a literal medium of a spiritual adventure--likewise, the brothers' boat is of water and air, fact and spirit. Thus, from the perspective of recollection, Thoreau records an outing of the spirit, "a soul's voyages taken on the tides of youthful hope." ((194)

Thoreau uses the diurnal and seasonal circulation from life and health to death and decay to organize the recounting of his voyage: it serves as a natural, archetypal source of inspiration. Sympathizing with the condition of the workingman, Thoreau directs his epic in order to excite others and to render a transcendental pattern for conduct. "Saturday" serves to establish the book's themes with fish representing types of people and shad, in particular, representing the transcendentalist. Both the shad and the transcendentalist must swim against the tide to heed their elemental, spiritual instincts. Tuesday's foggy beginning contrasts markedly with one of Thoreau's finest accounts of man's quest for inspiration. The long cold night on the mountain top receives its reward in the glorious dawn, and that ecstatic experience foreshadows the more quiet ecstasy of Friday's thoughts. From Wednesday's musings on friendship through Thursday's last search for spiritual self-realization, Thoreau resolves the inevitability of decay with spiritual maturation by balancing it with the ebb and flow of natural life.

Lawrence Buell contends that the circularity of the trip conveys at worst a sense of fatality as early as "Concord River" and at best a sense of moving toward an unknown, threatening future. In Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance, he outlines the main movements of A Week. On Tuesday the book's moment of most intense joy takes place--ironically--during a time before the trip. Buell takes Wednesday's dissertation on friendship to be the "thematic climax of the book, the ultimate object of Thoreau's literary quest" (225) because nature is his metaphor for friendship. Thursday dawns rainy, and it reflects a general malaise and disappointment in the quest. The theme of both historical and seasonal declension predominates. On Friday the fast pace of the downstream journey quickens the tempo and gives a feeling of flight to the boat. The book ends with hints of immortality and a succession of repetitiously symbolic sunsets.

In an article in ESQ, Jamie Hutchinson combines the historical and archetypal implications in A Week and then takes the inferences a step further. Thoreau accepts, Hutchinson notes, Emerson's tenet that one may discern eternal universal laws within changing historical phenomena. Thoreau next takes the river as it symbolizes both movement and statis, both temporal, fixed-in-time events and eternity. The dual quality of the river functions in A Week to unify Thoreau's multiple views of time--that is, dynamically present and archetypally significant. Thoreau's goal, to explore the boundaries of the spirit's intersection with man and nature, contrasts sharply with what has actually happened--historical lapse. Man has lost the connection between his mind and spirit and consequently that between his spirit and nature. Thoreau feels that going up river goes against this historical tendency.

Downstream lies Billerica, emblem of civilizations' decay and nature's alienation from society. There men, forgetting that time has its source in the eternal, forego traveling up and down the river in favor of bridging and damming it. The descending course of the Merrimack through its stages symbolizes man's spiritual fall. It takes man through his alienation of his spirit from Nature and from his primitive state still exemplified in the Indian to his imperfect cultivation and manipulation of nature. Thoreau emphasizes man's state of fallenness by starting his descent from the river's source at noon. By the time Thursday melts into Friday, summer has turned to autumn or fall--transcendental pun intended.

Thoreau's reliance on such seasonal and natural imagery implies that renewal is the key to the spiritual unity that preceded man's psychological fall. However, recovery represents a higher level than the seasonal circle implies; for Thoreau spiritual renewal assumes a spiral shape with the circular and linear progressions blending. Thus, the frequent image of morning fog giving way to light takes on new meaning. The quest for self-knowledge appears most significantly in his Saddleback experience. Each successive day's quest brings the traveler closer to recapturing that brief mountaintop glimpse of Paradise. Consequently, when one heeds the mythical design of A Week, he sees Thoreau's hope for individual growth set against the world's decay and ruin.

A Week is a work of art which reflects the genius of the artist but is imperfect because, in Thoreau's words, "Nature is a greater and more perfect art." (Works, 210) Thoreau connects literal digressions of the river with figurative digressions on writing: "There is many a book which ripples on like a freshet, and flows as glibly as a mill-stream sucking under a causeway." (100) He reveals the many correspondences between nature and man--in this case, his music and his mythical hero: "It is the flower of language, thought colored and curved, fluent and flexible, its crystal fountain tinged with the sun's rays, and its purling ripples reflecting the grass and the clouds . . . The hero is the sole patron of music." (134) Hutchinson's spiral, a well-founded interpretive image, manifests itself in numerous places. In one segment Thoreau poignantly relates the correlation between the seasons and cabins: "Strange was it to consider how the sun and the summer, the buds of spring and the seared leaves of autumn, were related to these cabins along the shore; how all the rays which paint the landscape radiate from them, and the flight of the crow and the gyrations of the hawk have reference to those roofs."  (166) In fact, Hutchinson delivers a thorough and aesthetically consistent exegesis on A Week. The book overflows with telling puns--from the river's whetting the voyageurs vision to the fall of the year. Likewise, it pulses with paradoxes: they never bother Thoreau for he realizes that they correspond to life's most mysterious paradox. That is, life springs (double-entendre) from death.

Buell, Fink, Paul, and Hutchinson have responded to this timelessly hopeful message and reflect their acceptance in their keen interpretations. Yet, Buell acknowledges the assessments of Krutch and Drake in saying: "Despite its recurring immaturities both in style and philosophy, A Week is indeed the most many-sidedly sensitive public account of the soul's encounter with the Not-me which the Transcendentalist movement produced." (Buell, 238) Unfortunately, Krutch and Drake got bogged down in a swamp the first day out and never resumed their personal journey through A Week.


Drake, William. "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers." In Thoreau: A Collection of Critical Essays, Sherman Paul, editor, 63-91.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Fink, Stephen. "Variations on the Self: Thoreau's Personae in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, " ESQ, 1982 1st Quart., 28:1 (106), 24-35.

Hutchinson, Jamie. "The Lapse of the Current': Thoreau's Historical Vision in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," ESQ 1979, 25, 211-23.

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