“As we shoved away from this rocky coast, before sunrise, the smaller bittern, the genius of the shore, was moping along its edge, or stood probing the mud for its food, with ever an eye on us, though so demurely at work, or else he ran along over the wet stones like a wrecker in his storm-coat, looking out for wrecks of snails and cockles. Now away he goes, with a limping flight, uncertain where he will alight, until a rod of clear sand amid the alders invites his feet; and now our steady approach compels him to seek a new retreat. It is a bird of the oldest Thalesian school, and no doubt believes in the priority of water to the other elements; the relic of a twilight antediluvian age which yet inhabits these bright American waters with us Yankees. There is something venerable in this melancholy and contemplative race of birds, which may have trodden the earth while it was yet in a slimy and imperfect state. Perchance their tracks, too, are still visible on the stones.''—Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)
Henry David Thoreau spent 10 years writing about a boat trip he took with his beloved brother John from Concord, Mass., to Concord, N.H.—yet, when he was done with it, all he had left were mixed reviews and sales so poor that publisher James Munroe and Company of Boston eventually forced him to take back 700 copies of the original 1,000. It also drove a wedge between the author and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Thoreau believed hadn’t done enough to promote the title. Even in the eyes of posterity, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers—published on this day in 1849—has been neglected in favor of Walden and another tract published this same year, Civil Disobedience.
It deserves better. Pick up any page and you’ll find something of interest: the lush, lyrical natural descriptions, so precise, for which Thoreau is famous, such as the one quoted above; snatches from his own poetry; literary criticism (including of Chaucer); local history; and passages that ring out with epigrammatic force. ("If there is nothing new on the earth, still the traveler always has a resource in the skies. They are constantly turning a new page to view….Every man’s daylight firmament answers in his mind to the brightness of the vision in his starriest hour.”)