After A Week, Thoreau owed $300 to the publishers, easily
several years’ income for him. To get out of debt, Thoreau manufactured a large order of pencils. (Thoreau and his family were well-known pencil makers.) However, in the time that he had been at the pond, the pencil market had been flooded with less expensive high-quality German pencils. Thoreau was forced to sell his pencils at a loss. He tried next to sell cranberries in New York; again, he misplayed the market. Finally he had handbills printed, advertising himself locally as a surveyor, a profession he would first use to clear his immediate debt and subsequently rely on for the rest of his life for income and for allowing him to see all of Concord and its environs at once more closely and more profitably. He took the copies of A Week himself, moving them into his parents’ house, 706 copies out of 1,000. “They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows,” he wrote, “which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin.” Thoreau could be haughty, of course, but he certainly knew how to be self-deprecating. “I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself,” he wrote to a friend.
And yet the failures of A Week cleared the way for Walden, the way he’d cleared the brambles from his land at the pond in order to grow beans. In some way, A Week, the elegy, was about finding a way to nature, or a life based on some higher truth, but in A Week Thoreau never actually accesses nature—it’s a travelogue that never goes anywhere. “We were always passing some low inviting shore or some overhanging bank, on which, however, we never landed.” He had forgotten a lot of the lessons he learned while in New York about writing commercially. With Walden, he would attempt to access nature more directly and, in so doing, find a way to live better. Sometimes writers have to write things to exorcise them. With A Week, Thoreau had gotten his pure Transcendentalism out of his system. As it happened, A Week ends on a Friday, a smooth sail, the week ready to begin again. (Thoreau especially enjoyed this section, and referred to it on his deathbed.) Now Thoreau was set to begin again, or yet again. One of the things he discovered while writing A Week was that he wanted to delve deeper into the idea of nature as salvation, as opposed to Christ. “I feel that I draw nearest to understanding the great secret of my life in my closest intercourse with nature,” he wrote. He had gotten all mystical, living at the pond, at the same time that he had become more obsessed with transcribing the actual: the details of tree rings, the levels of rivers. His two year-stint at Walden pond had brought him to the definition of what he might have called a good life: “A life of equal simplicity and sincerity with nature, and in harmony with her grandeur and beauty.”
PS: Thoreau went to Harvard. (Library of Congress photo.)