Introduction: Reversing Course on Thoreau (continued)
...Several weeks later, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers arrived in the mail and I opened the pages with excitement. As I began to read it, however, my eager smile faded and a furrow of frustration formed on my brow. I began to have serious misgivings both about Thoreau and the idea of a kayak trip to celebrate him. I don’t know how to put this gently, but A Week is a difficult book, an awkward book, a . . . well, perhaps the kindest thing one can say is that it really isn’t a book at all. It is a collection of miscellaneous reflections and observations. Published ten years after the boat trip was completed, it contains little about the actual voyage. Even when Thoreau turns his attention to the expedition, he applies a mechanical style, merely stating where the brothers pulled ashore, what they ate for dinner and other dry facts. There’s no getting around it: Thoreau was a poor storyteller, with little appreciation for suspense or plot.
In any case, descriptions of the boat trip amount to only about ten percent of the book. The body of the volume consists of dogmatic pronouncements on literature, culture and philosophy, descriptions of plant and animal species, and a considerable amount of rather obscure poetry.
One can speculate on how this collection of thoughts and comments occurred. Thoreau read widely—in five languages—and felt a strong urge to comment on the ideas he was encountering. Almost every day, he sat down at his desk and wrote for many hours on philosophical and literary topics. Understandably, he wanted to publish these writings somewhere, and that somewhere was this river trip manuscript that had been lying on his desk for ten years. The result is not a coherent or readable book. No publisher would take it, and Thoreau had to print it at his own expense. It proved to be such a weak book that his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson wouldn’t even review it.
If I had read—tried to read—the ponderous A Week first, before making my travel plans, I probably would have lost interest in Thoreau, considering him to be just another one of those historical figures overrated by the blind engine of fame. But I was already committed. I had told all my friends that I was copying a trip by Henry David Thoreau, and it would have been embarrassing and complicated to explain why I was changing my mind.
Beneath the surface ran another motive for continuing with the project: I felt it would be disloyal to turn my back on someone whose shortcomings rather closely mirrored some of my own.
My writings display something of Thoreau’s lack of sensitivity to an audience. Like Thoreau, I am impatient with tradition, ritual and dogma. I have strong opinions on social and political questions and, as my sisters remind me, I often appear to be judgmental. Heck, maybe I actually am!
In addition to these personality traits, my life parallels Thoreau’s on a point of personal history to an uncanny degree. Thoreau, as we have seen, undertook a long-distance water voyage and wrote a book about it, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He self-published this book, but it was not commercially successful, selling so poorly that after many years most of the copies remained stored in his study. With these in mind, he would joke with visitors that "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself."
I, too, have written and self-published a book about voyaging in a self-propelled craft. I gave it the title One Inch above the Water and it is an account of my kayak adventures on American waterways. The shipping pallet of books was delivered from the printer and unloaded on my driveway in 2008. Yes, some of these copies have been sold to eager and appreciative readers, and I would plead that this work is more readable than Thoreau’s ponderous A Week. But objectively speaking, it falls in the same category as that book: it is not a best-seller, to put it gently, and many copies remain, enabling me to jest that I, too, am the author of most of the books in my home. Indeed, near the front door in our house we have assembled a nice, square side table composed of cartons of unsold books, covered with a tasteful green cloth, which we use every day to set down mail and purchases. So useful has this side table become that, were book sales suddenly to pick up, we should be forced to pay several hundred dollars at a furniture store to replace it with an actual table.
That being the case, I felt I ought to study Thoreau more fully, if only to find out why this man should have been so overrated as a writer. I must confess that in my many years of education I never actually read Thoreau’s works. I had heard the name, of course, as one hears famous literary names one never reads, like T. S. Eliot or Immanuel Kant, but beyond the vague image of Thoreau being a nature-lover and rebel, I knew almost nothing about him.
Therefore, before leaving for Massachusetts, I undertook to read several biographies about Thoreau, and to study a few of his essays, especially Civil Disobedience. From this material, I began to understand what made the man tick, and my opinion of him steadily improved. I came to see that his strength as a thinker also proved to be his greatest liability. Thoreau had a mind that naturally and instinctively ignored the social environment. As he put it, “Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient.” This independent-mindedness made it easy for him to eschew prevailing economic, religious and political dogmas, and reach positions that were way ahead of his time.
The down side of this aloofness, this tendency to ignore the tastes and opinions of those around him, was that it gave Thoreau a tin ear when it came to considering what readers would enjoy. This lack of sensitivity is a severe handicap in a writer, of course, because it can mean you end up writing unread books—like A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
Fortunately, some of Thoreau’s other works are not as unfocused as A Week. In these more successful pieces, he is gripped by the excitement of an ideal or argument and the result is a piece of coherent writing. This point especially applies to Thoreau’s most famous book, Walden. On my trip, I took along a small paperback copy of this work which I read while huddled in the tent at night, or while sitting on the riverbank waiting for an adverse tidal current to abate. I found Walden to be a worthy masterpiece, and it further raised my opinion of Thoreau. It is an exposition of his two-year experiment in independent, self-sustaining living at Walden Pond, on the outskirts of Concord. “I went to the woods,” Thoreau explained, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” This adventure in self-reliance proved to be an exciting personal experiment for Thoreau, and the intensity of this experience propelled him to craft Walden into a focused and inspiring account.
to be continued... Buy your copy now for just $9.95, and find out how this adventure continues!