Monday, August 30, 2010

Thoreau, A Week, Day #1

Here are a couple of questions you might explore. Please do not try to respond to all of them and feel free to add in with your own reactions or questions.

At the beginning of the book, Thoreau points out the distinctiveness of rivers, their role in history and ultimately calling the river's current "the emblem of all progress" (13). How does the experience of river travel, its constant movement and its relation to the bank/shore affect the structure the book (whether in the way he describes what he sees or all the digressions into history, philosophy, religion, etc.)?

There's a lot of talk about Puritan history, Native Americans and myth here--all about the past. This book was also written 10 years after the trip it describes was taken. What do you think Thoreau is trying to say about the past and our relationship to it?

You might also comment on your own personal reaction to one of his digressions, whatever the topic (and while it is understandable to be frustrated, I would appreciate it if you were to comment on something other than your frustration). What do you make of it? How does it fit or not fit with your own views on religion, or wilderness, or fishing (or anything else)? How do you see it connecting to the project of the book?


  1. I think that the experience of river travel, its constant movement and its relation to bank/shore affects the structure of the book because the structure in essence mirrors that of the river. Thoreau is inspired by things he sees during his travel on the river, and thus goes of on tangents about religion, philosophy, history, etc. Thoreau can view the progression of history by looking at the banks of the river and those who inhabit he can imagine the first settlers and pioneers. He is also prompted to ponder philosophy when he spots a school of fish. Thoreau thinks about how they are such a vast and fertile species, spreading their seed down currents and on top of mountains. He talks about the many different species of fish, much like the different people he views during his travels. He then ties this back to history, touching on the fact that Shad and Salmon used to be abundant in this region, but due to hunting for food and manure, are scarce in the region now (28). He then ties the Shad to the "irregular militia in Christendom" (29). Although all these thoughts are scattered and random, they reflect the structure of the river itself.

  2. I have a bit of bone to pick with Thoreau on his digression about the state of Christianity during the time of his writing, and its role in–for lack of better phrasing–pop culture.

    First, I should say that my religious convictions on this issue are irrelevant, so I'll leave those out.

    Moreover, I'm frustrated with some of the semantics of his rant against Christians. On page 59, Thoreau says: "Men have a singular desire to be good without being good for anything, because, perchance, they think vaguely that so it will be good for them in the end." Ignoring which side you fall on the idea of the existence of an afterlife, his logic here is flawed. He is referring, of course, to a Christian's faith that they will, after they die, go to heaven if they live their life by the Bible's measurements of good.

    My problem with Thoreau's convictions (that they are foolish for believing such a thing, because there is no afterlife) is that he is essentially being just as close-minded and overly confident as the Christians, albeit from the other side of the coin. He speaks just as certainly and condescendingly about Christianity's lacking merits as Christians speak of his atheism. It creates an interesting paradox: is it hypocritical to so critically judge someone who does the same thing as you, despite arguing from another perspective?

  3. Thoreau makes a very good point when he calls rivers, "the emblem of all progress." For nearly all of the 19th century, rivers were the major means of transportation and they connected areas that were otherwise would not be able to trade. The Missouri River served as the means of transportation for one of the most important expeditions in U.S. history when Lewis and Clark used it to explore the Louisana Purchase. With all of the history that rivers hold, it certainly is understandable that Thoreau would have reason to think about that history and go off on a few tangents as he does. I think the nature of the river affects the structure of the book in that the book is a constant stream of thought towards one idea, but that doesn't mean that there won't be points when it takes a soomewhat unexpected turn or branches off altogether for awhile. Much like water takes the path of least resistance and flows into wherever it can, Thoreau lets his toughts wander, and lets his mind free.


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