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Thursday, July 13, 2017

July 13, 2017: Thoreau’s Bicentennial: A Walk to Wachusett

[July 12th marks Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday! So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five texts and contexts for Thoreau, leading up to a weekend post on three ways we can remember and celebrate this unique and influential American on his 200th.]
On a simple and a more complex pleasure of Thoreau’s first published essay.
As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, when our collective Thoreau canon expands beyond Walden and “Civil Disobedience” to include his travel writing, it tends to focus on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). Week, written in honor of Thoreau’s late brother John (with whom he had taken the title excursion in 1839 and who passed away from tetanus in 1842), is an interesting and evocative book, and one about which there’s still plenty to say (indeed, my initial plan was to make it the focus of today’s post). But just as adding Tuesday’s text Cape Cod into the mix expands our sense of Thoreau as a travel and nature writer, so too is it worth considering Thoreau’s first such piece of writing, his essay “A Walk to Wachusett.” Based on a July 1842 excursion with his friend Richard Fuller (Margaret’s brother) and published in the Boston Miscellany in January 1843, “Walk” is partly of interest as precisely a very early example of Thoreau’s writing and perspective, two years before he would begin his time in Walden and more than a decade before he’d publish that book. But it also offers two distinct literary pleasures, each of which are worth considering as part of Thoreau’s overall career.
For one thing, “Walk” presents perhaps the clearest statement in Thoreau’s body of work of the simple pleasures of exploring the world around us in good company. In this case, that means Mount Wachusett, north-central Massachusetts’ highest peak and one on which “summer and winter [the two young men’s] eyes had rested.” As Thoreau notes, finally exploring such a long-imagined place can have its downside: “we resolved to scale the blue wall which bound the western horizon, though not without misgivings, that thereafter no visible fairy land would exist for us.” Yet much of the essay focuses not on such philosophical concerns, but on precisely the simple and grounded pleasures of the walk and world themselves, as in this beautiful early passage: “Before noon we had reached the highlands overlooking the valley of Lancaster, (affording the first fair and open prospect into the west,) and there, on the top of a hill, in the shade of some oaks, near to where a spring bubbled out from a leaden pipe, we rested during the heat of the day, reading Virgil, and enjoying the scenery. It was such a place as one feels to be on the outside of the earth, for from it we could, in some measure, see the form and structure of the globe.” Makes me want to stop blogging and start hiking!
Thoreau wouldn’t be Thoreau if he didn’t digress into more philosophical threads, though, and “Walk” includes a particularly complex once Thoreau and Fuller reach Wachusett’s summit. To quote the heart of these reflections: “A mountain chain determines many things for the statesman and philosopher. The improvements of civilization rather creep along its sides than cross its summit. How often is it a barrier to prejudice and fanaticism? In passing over these heights of land, through their thin atmosphere, the follies of the plain are refined and purified; and as many species of plants do not scale their summits, so many species of folly no doubt do not cross the Alleghanies; it is only the hardy mountain plant that creeps quite over the ridge, and descends into the valley beyond.” As is often the case, I’m not sure I entirely agree with Thoreau here; but as is always the case, he weds his experiences with and close observations of nature to such social and philosophical ruminations in a unique and compelling way. From the very beginning of his career, Thoreau was bringing such reflections to his walks and his words, and in “A Walk to Wachusett,” as in all of his writings, the text and its readers are all the better for that complex added layer.
Next Thoreau post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Thoreau responses you’d share?

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