Surely the fates are forever kind, through Nature’s laws are more immutable than any despot’s, yet to man’s daily life they rarely seem rigid, but permit him to relax with license in summer weather. He is not harshly reminded of the things he may not do. She is very kind and liberal to all men of vicious habits, and certainly does not deny them quarter; they do not die without priest. Still they maintain life along the way, keeping this side the Styx, still hearty, still resolute, “never better in their lives”; and again, after a dozen years have elapsed, they start up from behind a hedge, asking for work and wages for able-bodied men. (30)
Henry David Thoreau’s brilliant book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is hard to summarize or even isolate thematically. Like the subtly changing landscapes along the Massachusetts waterways that Thoreau describes, his philosophical ponderings venture from the personal to the national to the universal. Many readers will tease out something for themselves, likely disregarding the rest. If, on the surface, A Week is a naturalists account of the plant and animal life and scenery of the river, it is also a documentary of his thoughts and values. Now we are free to take in some of the scenery and completely ignore others—Thoreau is not an authoritarian telling us to “Look at that tree!” In the same way we are free to completely ignore some of his philosophy. It does not seem to me to be a system that requires unification and strict method for the observer. Nature has certain rules and principles governing how things work. Thoreau’s philosophy has that as well. In neither case, are we required to know what those rules are to appreciate the beauty before us. A Week is an ideal book to read on a day when you promise yourself to do nothing. Maybe it needs to be read in that way. I had trouble getting into it before because I was thinking about what to say about it. I came back to it a bit hung over, bored and uninspired and its treasures opened up before me.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was Henry David Thoreau’s first book. It was written alongside Walden while he was living at Walden Pond. It was published in 1849, almost a decade after the trip that it supposedly documents. It was a disappointment. Emerson did not promote the book to Thoreau’s disappointment. Of the original 1,000 books, Thoreau took back 706 of them. So, it is fair to say that Thoreau was largely neglected at this time. A few years later, Walden will be much more successful. Of course, Thoreau is not making a living from his writing and works various jobs throughout his life such as teaching, surveying, and a bit of lecturing.
A Week is broken up into seven chapters, each corresponding to a date. While I cannot even attempt to approach a summary of the work, I can highlight some anarchist themes. Thoreau is commonly identified as an anarchist and is certainly one of the most important figures in the American libertarian traditions. Months ago I looked at his essays and found not only themes of anti-slavery and individualism, but also strong currents of anti-capitalism and even work resistance. The theme of work resistance surprised me because I rarely saw that outside of a fully industrial, post-scarcity economy. Thoreau was not like Kropotkin, he was suspicious of industrialization and technology. His argument against industrial regimen of work was rooted in his effort to preserve individualism in the face of a homogenizing society. Anyway, let’s see what A Week contributes to my growing literary arsenal of anarchism.
At times Thoreau seems to hack the promethean spirit of early America, a belief in progress and the potential of the human mind to accomplish great deeds, while also sabotaging some of the clearest images of that progress. He questions the application of that promethean spirit.
Instead of the Scythian vastness of the Billerica night, and its wild musical sounds, we were kept awake by the boisterous sport of some Irish laborers on the railroad, wafted to us over the water, still unwearied and unresting on this seventh day, who would not have done with whirling up and down the track with every increasing velocity and still reviving shouts, till late in the night. [Notice that the exploitation of labor and the violation of nature are two sides of the same process for Thoreau.] One sailor was visited in his dreams this night by the Evil Destinies, and all those powers that are hostile to human life, which constrain and oppress the minds of men, and make their path seem difficult and narrow, and beset with dangers, so that the most innocent and worthy enterprises appear insolent and a tempting of fate, and the gods go not with us. But the other happily passed a serene and even ambrosial or immortal night, and his sleep was dreamless, or only the atmosphere of pleasant dreams remained, a happy natural sleep until the morning; and his cheerful spirit soothed and reassured his brother, for whenever they meet, the Good Genius is sure to prevail. (94)
In this second part, Thoreau details the two sides of this coin, labeling them the Evil Destinies and the Good Genius. It is the tension between these two sides of the American spirit that come as close as anything can to being a theme of the book.
As in the opening quote, Thoreau consistently uses the language of freedom and oppression. I included that one because it suggest the logic of the liberal state in a certain way. Like nature, the liberal state gives the illusion of autonomy and freedom. And in the same way that the industrial frontier is just 12 years away from shattering the myth that nature’s laws can be overcome, so is the jackbooted nature of the state always just one crisis from being exposed. Thoreau is perhaps most interested in the tension between freedom nature provides and the unavoidable laws of nature and the pull of society. “Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw. There may be an excess of cultivation as well as of anything else, until civilization becomes pathetic. A highly cultivated man,—all whose bones can be bent! Whose heavenborn virtues are but good manners!” (45–46)
Thoreau’s critique of religion is libertarian to the core. A major theme of “Sunday,” the second day of the “week,” is that religions are products of their societies and reinforce the needs and assumptions of that civilization. A hierarchical society, while have a hierarchical god. A terrified society will have gods that terrify them. Thoreau seems to take from this two conclusions. The first is that people should not take the Bible very seriously, pointing out that it does not have much to teach that is valuable or unknown and that it is also bad poetry. “Examine your authority. Even Christ, we fear, had his scheme, his conformity to tradition, which slightly vitiates his teaching. He had not swallowed all formulas. He preached some mere doctrines.” (57) The second conclusion extends from this and suggests that we should create religious traditions that work for ourselves. Is he predicting William James? He talks about a wood-chopper who may find little of practical value in the New Testament. His goodness and conscience is not derived from faith and certainly not organized religion (which is often mocks in the book). “Monday” continues some of the religious perspectives of “Sunday,” where Thoreau takes a special look at the value and limitations of Hinduism and the ancient Greeks. Through this discussion these is the general suggestion that all the different philosophies and religions are windows to the same truth.
Thoreau is constantly worried that the universal truths of nature and humanity (including all that ancient “wisdom” that he gobbles up with only nominal reflection) is doomed to be swept aside and forgotten by the mad rush to industrialization. Even local history, often the topic of A Week, is in danger of being lost. Here is his ideal:
Let a thousand surmises shed some light on this story. We will not be confined by historical, even geological periods which would allow us to doubt of a progress in human affairs. If we rise above this wisdom for a day, we shall expect that this morning of the race, in which it has been supplied with the simplest necessaries, with corn, and wine, and honey, and oil, and fire, and articulate speech, and agricultural and other arts, reared up by degrees from the condition of ants to men, will be succeeded by a day of equally progressive splendor. (127)
Thoreau seems to realize that the world around him is a graveyard of ideas, past ways of living, bits of nature, people, and even entire towns. He is uncomfortable in such a place. At one point he said that has no friends in the graveyard. This again is the two sided coin. The same promethean spirit that Thoreau wants to embrace is responsible for digging a lot of graves.