Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Taking Heart from Henry

Those of us who call ourselves writers—having nothing more substantial to support ourselves on, like a hedge fund or real estate portfolio—lean for comfort and inspiration where we can find them.

What an extravagantly strange book!

For years, I have taken comfort from thought of Norman Maclean. The University of Chicago English don didn’t do a lick of non-scholarly writing until his retirement, which began past my current age of 63. Still, the period from 1973 to Maclean’s death in 1990 was long enough to yield two great non-scholarly books: A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories and my favorite work of non-fiction, Young Men and Fire. 

Maybe there’s hope for me as well, as the thief on the cross was heard to mutter.

More recently, I’ve been leaning on Henry David Thoreau for all the wrong reasons. I thought it might be smart to read his Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, because I am planning to spend at least a week walking along the Merrimack next spring. What did Thoreau find there when he and his brother John ran upriver and down between Lowell, Massachusetts, and Hooksett, New Hampshire, I wondered to myself? How did he describe it? How has it changed? Maybe I could learn something about that neck of the woods from one of the greats.

I might better have studied astronomy by reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

What an extravagantly strange book is Thoreau’s Week! If Thoreau’s immortal name rested on his Week, instead of on his Walden, he would be long forgotten. No wonder A Week received “mixed reviews” and sold “poorly” when it was first published in 1849. The quotes are from the concise chronology at the back of the Library of America edition of Thoreau. There we learn that the Week was such a bomb the author eventually took back 706 copies of the first printing of 1,000, leading him to say, “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”

At which, the writer and sometime smalltime publisher in me can only smile condolently.

Of the three hundred pages in my edition of A Week, Thoreau spends about 50 pages on the river and 250 in his imagination. I wanted to learn about the landscape around Manchester, New Hampshire, not about Hindoo [sic] philosophy or the mean of a Friend. 

And yet.

After a cursory glance at The Maine Woods and Cape Cod in the back half of the L/o/A edition, I am turning to Thoreau’s other book-length work, Walden. I never meant to read Walden as I prepare for my pilgrimage to Montreal, but now I have to.

I have to understand how the man who splashed up and down the Concord and Merrimack during a desultory week in 1838 managed to turn around and write one of the great works of American, or any national, literature a few years later.

It gives writers and even bloggers hope that lightning still can be caught in an ink bottle.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you have trouble posting comments, please log in as Anonymous and sign your comment manually.