A soft summer rain cloaked the Concord River with an iridescent mist in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, 31 August 1839, as two young men, brothers, eased a small boat of their own construction into the water. She was painted blue and green to reflect the element in which she would live, and christened the Musketaquid after the name given to this river of many meadows by the indigenous peoples. They boarded her with happy anticipation as she slipped from the muddy ooze of the bank.
Each man was slightly built and just below medium height. The elder of the two, John Thoreau, 24, was a genial, easy-going, eminently likeable man with a talent for friendship; clever, but rather less bookish than his classically educated younger brother, who had recently come down from Harvard. The younger brother, Henry, was of sterner countenance, his demeanour inspired by the Roman stoicism he so admired, though his passions ran deep. Henry was 22 and more respected than liked, though he had a way with children. He had a reputation for extracting absolute obedience from the most recalcitrant boys in his days as a teacher, though he never resorted to the cane, and he had lost a well-paid teaching position for voicing his objections to its use.
Life had been kind to the Thoreau brothers. They were fit, healthy, enjoyed nothing so much as their time together in the open air, and having successfully taken over the Concord Academy, the local private school where they themselves had been educated, they had cause for optimism. They were finding their place in the world. It was a time to breathe deeply and venture forth with confidence. These would be among the happiest days of Henry Thoreau’s all-too-brief life, and would inspire A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).
This is a young man’s book, brimful of life, self-confidence, faith and doubt, with just that whiff of paganism Thoreau so enjoyed holding under the noses of his neighbours. We a
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