A Week on the Kentucky River

Reading Henry David Thoreau's "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," Which Nobody Reads Anymore (But Should)

. . . rivers
Are the Almighty’s joy. How could He otherwise
—Friederich Hölderlin, tr. Richard Sieburth


Alone on a mild summer day, I slide my wooden boat down a muddy bank and it lands with a splash in the slack water of the Kentucky River. I scramble down, take a seat at the midthwart of this sixteen-foot dory, then pull out onto the heart of the river. Steep walls of limestone stretch along the banks, patrolled by pairs of belted kingfishers at half-mile intervals. Often they answer the call of my creaking oarlocks with their own giddy rattle, then sweep around my boat in wide reconnoitering loops, flying inches from the surface of the water. Soon I settle into the familiar, satisfying rhythms that marry arms and oars in a single understanding of wood, water, wind, and bone.

In 1839, Henry David Thoreau and his older brother John built a boat that they rowed from their home in Concord, Massachusetts, to the source of the Merrimack River near Concord, New Hampshire. Thoreau subsequently wrote up the trip in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a book that inspired me to build my own boat, the one I’m now rowing along my own native river. Here in the summer of 2014, I’ve come down to the Kentucky from my house a few miles upland with a specific task in mind: to read, for the fifth or sixth time, what Thoreau called his “unroofed book,” and to see if I might experience that book in a fundamentally different way here in a boat, on a river, under a roofless sky. The chapters of A Week are divided into seven days, “Saturday” through “Friday.” My plan is to launch my boat at a different landing each day and read the chapter designated for that day. I could say that I’m conducting some kind of thought experiment into the field of neo-Romantic pastoral hermeneutics (if such a thing exists), but really I just want to spend part of my summer vacation floating on the Kentucky River, watching the kingfishers and rereading my favorite book.

If you polled a selection of writers and serious readers, I suspect you’d find that a great many have one book they return to again and again, one book that is always near the nightstand, one book that compels them for reasons even they might not wholly understand. It is the book into which they have pasted images, commentaries, butterfly wings. And often, I would wager, it is a non-canonical or unexpected book. That, I think, makes the compulsion all the more interesting. I have a friend who can sometimes be seen at a bus stop or in a café dipping back into Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West. That book is ostensibly a travelogue about a trip through Yugoslavia, but as Geoff Dyer has noted, it really has two subjects: Yugoslavia and everything else. I feel much the same way about Henry David Thoreau’s first, and if not forgotten, almost completely ignored book. As with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is ostensibly about, well, seven days spent rowing on the two rivers designated in the book’s prosaic title. But it is also about whatever else was on Thoreau’s mind at the time, things that have absolutely nothing to do with river travel. This is what makes A Week at once such a fascinating and, to many, a maddening book. Thoreau’s own contemporaries were slow to take it up. Though the book was generally well reviewed—although critics did take exception with the author’s unorthodox religious ideas—it was not well remunerated. It sold two hundred copies in four years. A rueful Thoreau remarked in his journal that, of the nine hundred books he owned, he had actually written seven hundred of them—all the copies of A Week that hadn’t sold.