Friday, July 7, 2017

A Walk to Wachusett

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
From Thoreau: Collected Essays & Poems

View of Wachusett from Harvard, undated, oil on canvas by American painter George Frank Higgins (1850–1885).
Twenty-five-year-old Henry David Thoreau had been writing essays and poems for half a decade and had published a few pieces in The Dial, the small journal edited by Margaret Fuller. Yet, at the start of 1843, he had not yet earned a penny from his writing. One might expect, then, that “A Walk to Wachusett” was “a triumph of sorts for Thoreau,” as historian Robert Kuhn McGregor suggests. It was to be “the first sustained essay for which he received monetary payment—except that the Boston Miscellany never paid him.” Alas, the short-lived Boston magazine “of Literature and Fashion” folded after the very next issue.

“A Walk to Wachusett” details a four-day trek (some fifty miles round trip) that Thoreau undertook in July 1842 with Richard Fuller, Margaret’s younger brother. The essay had its genesis at least a year earlier, however. In a May 1841 journal entry Thoreau addressed an ode to the various hills he could see from Concord, where he had just begun living in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home as a handyman and gardener. The poem opens with these lines:
Especial I remember thee,
Wachusett, who like me
Standest alone without society. . . .
Margaret Fuller rejected a subsequent version of this poem when Thoreau submitted it to The Dial. She leveled overall criticisms (“Thought lies too detached, truth is seen too much in detail”) and made suggestions for revision, although she did offer several encouraging comments. “Its merits to me are, a noble recognition of nature, two or three manly thoughts, and, in one place, a plaintive music.” A later version of the poem takes up most of the first three pages of his Mount Wachusett travel essay, and Thoreau would again revise and expand the poem for inclusion in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).

The young writer was already gaining a reputation for his eccentricities. A few weeks after the hike to Wachusett, on August 31, he met and befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had just married Sophia Peabody. The older writer recorded the event in his journal:
Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character—a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty. . . . [For] two or three years back, he has repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men—an Indian life, I mean, as respects the absence of any systematic effort for a livelihood. . . . Mr. Thoreau is a keen and delicate observer of nature—a genuine observer—which, I suspect, is almost as rare a character as even an original poet; and Nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her especial child, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness.
By the time he dined with the Hawthornes, Thoreau had begun a draft of his travel essay—and, in fact, it was almost certainly Hawthorne who suggested he submit the piece to Boston Miscellany, which boasted a much larger audience than The Dial. Even though he never was paid for it, the essay marked a turning point for Thoreau. “What is new in ‘A Walk to Wachusett,’” writes biographer Robert D. Richardson, “is the clear trip narrative and the gentle, sociable one of the familiar essay, combining to make a miniature version of the travel book. . . . [The essay] is only a beginning, but it is the first fully characteristic Thoreauvian excursion.”

Notes: The epigraph is Thoreau’s own composition, a two-line poem originally titled “Westward, Ho!” in his journal. On page 44, Rasselas refers to the hero of Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), whose home is the Happy Valley. A rifle (page 45) is a piece of wood used by mowers to sharpen their scythes. On page 46, Thoreau jokes that he and Fuller “could get no further” than “atque altæ moenia Romæ,” which is only the seventh line of Virgil’s Aeneid. The lines of verse later in the page are from Virgil’s Georgics. The wars of the neighboring Lancaster refers to King Philip’s War (1675–76). The Latin phrase gelidæ valles (page 47) means “cold valleys.”

The lines of poetry on page 47 are all from William Collins’s poem, “Hassan; or the Camel-Driver” (1742), while the excerpt in the middle of page 50 is from Wordsworth’s Peter Bell (1798). Helvellyn is a mountain in the Lake District in England. The poem at the bottom of page 50 is Thoreau’s own composition. On page 51, Thoreau quotes the last two lines of Virgil’s first eclogue.

On page 54, Thoreau and Fuller travel to the scene of Mrs. Rowlandson’s capture. On February 10, 1676, during King Philip’s War, Mary Rowlandson was captured during a Narrangansett raid on Lancaster and held prisoner for 82 days. She later wrote of her captivity in The Sovereignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed. On the next page, he refers to several participants in the war: Paugus, a Pequawket war-chief, as well as Captain Benjamin Church, and John Lovewell (Lovell), prominent soldiers fighting for the Puritans. Myles Standish was a military leader in Plymouth Colony earlier in the century

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Summer and winter our eyes had rested on the dim outline of the mountains, to which distance and indistinctness lent a grandeur not their own, so that they served equally to interpret all the allusions of poets and travelers. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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