February 20, 2018
Thoreau Gets Week Back
On this day in 1853 Henry David Thoreau received back from his publisher the 706 unsold copies of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Only 1000 copies had been published four years earlier, at the author's own expense. In his journal entry for this day, the ever-resilient Thoreau recorded these reflections upon his "purchase":
They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin.... I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor?... Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer.
The Week describes a trip taken years earlier by Thoreau and his brother -- in a boat they had made themselves, sleeping in a tent made from its sails, living on, as Emerson admiringly put it, "the fish of the stream and the berries of the wood." Bronson Alcott admired the result, almost attributing the book to fresh air and diet: Thoreau wrote, he said, "in a style as picturesque and flowing as the streams he sails on," but with "sinewy vigor" too, "as of roots and the strength that comes of feeding on wild meats, and the moist lustres of the fishes in the bed below." In fact, though they breathed "the free air of Unappropriated Land," the Thoreaus carried new potatoes and melons from their garden, and bought their bread, milk and apple pies from farmhouses along the riverbanks.
The book's critics had no quarrel with the menus and venues of Thoreau's "roughing it"; less palatable were the scores of quotations from the Bhagavad-Gita, Sophocles, Chaucer, Tennyson, etc., along with large doses of Thoreau's own poetry, and his philosophizing upon the lot. One reader complained, "We were invited to a river party -- not to be preached at." Another thought the book "a pudding into which the pantry has been dumped," and though "intended to convey outdoors to its readers, became perilously like a library of the shorter works of Henry Thoreau." That Thoreau found it easier to live off the land than his readership is a good thing, as the failure of the Week caused a five-year delay in the publication of Walden, itself not much of a seller.
The Week was not only written while Thoreau was living at Walden, but included many of the same Walden-questions:
What, after all, does the practicalness of life amount to? The things immediate to be done are very trivial. I could postpone them all to hear the locust sing.... I would give all the wealth of the world, and all the deeds of all the heroes, for one true vision. But how can I communicate with the gods, who am a pencil-maker on the earth, and not be insane?