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  • Natural Wrecks and Textual Relics in Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
  • Brian Gazaille (bio)

Reflecting on the perennial insights of ancient wisdom literature, Henry David Thoreau writes in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) that a book like the Hindu Laws of Menu “comes to us as refined as the porcelain earth which subsides to the bottom of the ocean” and that, after the intellectual excavation accomplished by reading, its moral edicts emerge “as clean and dry as fossil truths, which have been exposed to the elements for thousands of years.”1 Passages like this one exemplify Thoreau’s early engagement with the rhetoric of science, particularly with the trope of relic-reading that pervaded the works of nineteenth-century geology. To convince readers that the physical features of the earth could be studied, naturalists called fossils, strata, and other such “relics” of nature’s past “pages” in the archives of the planet, texts that could relate wondrous histories from deep time.2 That Thoreau often thought about crumbling poems and wisdom texts as “fossil truths” with fragments that erode and settle to lay the foundations of a “porcelain earth” demonstrates that A Week wrestles extensively with this geological rhetoric. While A Week loosely commemorates Thoreau’s boating trip with his brother, John, toward the White Mountains and back, another of the book’s central goals is to describe the natural histories of [End Page 451] Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Thoreau focuses particularly on records of geological activity: relics like decaying animal remains, the pot-holes hewn into the bedrock near Goff’s Falls, and the rivers’ various depositions of silt.3 Yet, if Thoreau takes up the trope of relic-reading to investigate the New England wilderness, he also uses that figure to explore the connections between nature and poetry. Indeed, he reads relics like the “porcelain earth” alongside the Laws of Menu and other relics of literary history. Thoreau even equates fossils with poems and, in doing so, intimates that the powers of the poet and geologist—the people who peruse these materials—are deeply connected in the act of reading.

Scholars have been quick to downplay the scientific character of Thoreau’s musings about geological poetry and literary geology. Some dismiss A Week’s engagement with science altogether because it does not bear the hallmarks of what we now consider scientific study, features like the meticulous field work that would typify Thoreau’s later work on the dispersion of seeds. Many in this camp maintain that A Week appeals to natural history but that its interest in science is superficial and merely literary.4 Such critics might be right that A Week does not foreground data as often as Thoreau’s late natural history essays, like “The Succession of Forest Trees,” but arguing that he started as a writer and moved to genuine scientific practice undervalues both his early relationship with nature study and the mutually constructive rhetorical relationship shared by literature and science during the mid-nineteenth century. A second group of critics, including William Rossi, Laura Dassow Walls, and James Guthrie, not only calls attention to these fruitful intersections between literary and scientific discourses but demonstrates that the rhetoric of geology offered an important framework for A Week. Such accounts point to the influence of Charles Lyell’s seminal Principles of Geology (1830-33), Thoreau’s first documented encounter with professional science.5 These merits notwithstanding, such studies still underrate how actively Thoreau wrestled with the powers [End Page 452] and limits of empirical inquiry, focusing on his application of Lyell or of other canonical figures in the history of professional science. Tracing the Lyellian tropes in A Week leaves unexamined Thoreau’s connections to other geologists and to public conversations about what counted as science. More importantly, concentrating on Principles encourages scholars to think of A Week as a mere literary reimagining of a scientific text. Approaching the book in this way establishes a one-sided interaction between literature and science. At best, doing so diminishes the ways that the two discourses supported and revised each other’s conclusions about nature study; at worst, doing so...


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pp. 451-484
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