Thoreau Was Known For Walden Pond, But One Scholar Says He Was A 'Man Of The River'

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The Concord River. (Alex Ashlock/Here & Now)
The Concord River. (Alex Ashlock/Here & Now)

Henry David Thoreau is rightly known for the time he spent at Walden Pond near his home in Concord, Massachusetts. But a new book offers a different take on the famous author and naturalist.

Author Robert Thorson tells Here & Now's Alex Ashlock that while the pond is certainly a large part of Thoreau's legacy, the rivers that flowed around him are a better metaphor for his life.

Interview Highlights

On Thoreau's love of the Concord River

"Henry Thoreau was a man of the river. He was born on the river, he loved it, he felt its flow in his veins, and it, as he said, it 'meanderest forever' in the bottom of his dreams."

On how Thoreau interacted with the river

"What Thoreau would do was, lots of times, he would just take his boat out and just sit, and drift. And drift, and drift, and drift. So if it's life you're after — real life, the history of life, the ebb of life, the flow of life — the river is the place. If it's a moment in time, and a moment of clarity, and a moment of reprieve and a remove from that vigorous stream of life, then Walden Pond was the perfect place."

"If it's life you're after — real life, the history of life, the ebb of life, the flow of life — the river is the place."

Robert Thorson

On the river and Walden Pond as complementary forms

"The circle and the line make wonderful metaphors, and Walden Pond is the circle, or the dot, if you like. And the river is the line. And when you think about that magical moment of your youth, Walden Pond is a great place — it's a moment in time, that you may go back to over and over again. But when you think about your whole life, it's a line. There's these eddies and these rapids and these currents and these sluggish zones, it's a wonderful metaphor for life. And Henry Thoreau lived it his whole life. In fact, the episode at Walden Pond was a deviation away from a life spent on the river before, and on the river after. In fact, there are big pieces of 'Walden' that come straight from the river, but he's inventing a mythology here, so he doesn't want to tell you that outright.

"But there is one quote that gives itself away, and he says, 'Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.' Well, that's because he's walking over the Concord River and catching fish over there, because it's richer, to feed himself. Then when he comes back to Walden, he has more issues catching fish. He could always count on catching fish in the river, but not so much at Walden Pond."

Author Robert Thorson on the Concord River. (Alex Ashlock/Here & Now)
Author Robert Thorson on the Concord River. (Alex Ashlock/Here & Now)

On Thoreau writing about how the river marked the changing seasons

"Thoreau recalled one June sunset with special delight: 'It was shortly after dusk, thousands of frogs were croaking in a deafening roar. A low mist hung above the water. In that direction, the sparkle of the planet Venus was multiplied by countless ripples, the light from each reflection haloed by the mist. Meanwhile, above the adjacent meadows, the 'coppery light of fireflies' was multiplying as dusk gave way to dark. This was a river summer scene that no forest or field could match.'"

Book Excerpt: 'The Boatman'

By Robert Thorson

Excerpted from the book THE BOATMAN by Robert Thorson. Copyright © 2017 by Robert Thorson. Excerpted by permission of Harvard University Press.

This article was originally published on May 16, 2017.

This segment aired on May 16, 2017.


Alex Ashlock Producer, Here & Now
Alex Ashlock was a producer for Here & Now since 2005. He started his WBUR career as senior producer of Morning Edition in 1998.



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