British Association for American Studies


Book Review: The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years by Robert M. Thorson

Robert M. Thorson, The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years, (Harvard University Press, 2017) $29.95 • £23.95 • €27.00


Robert M. Thorson is a Professor of Geology at the University of Connecticut and previously wrote Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science (2015). The Boatman is designed to appeal to a non-specialist audience. The book participates in a new interpretation of Thoreau, a Thoreau for the Anthropocene – a concept proposed by P. J. Crutzen and E.F. Stoermer in 2000 to describe human activity taking place on a scale that changes the Earth at a geological level. Although the term remains unofficial in this context due to uncertainty about when such human activity is believed to have commenced on a truly massive scale, Thorson argues that Thoreau did not need the technical word itself to recognize that ‘human agency was so completely interwoven with nature that his geological epoch was unique in universal history’ (13). Most biographers have thus far ignored Thoreau’s relationship to the river in favour of looking at him mainly in terms of his sojourn at Walden Pond. Thorson aims to correct this narrow focus, entrenched during Thoreau’s canonisation as a writer, by arguing that the river – the active ever-changing water bustiling with activity both human and natural – is as much a part of Thoreau’s canon and its landscape as the still water of Walden Pond. In this book Thorson envisions Thoreau’s environment as a hybrid of land and water, and the man as a boatman as much as a woodsman.

Thorson characterizes the beginning chapters as merging ‘the ancient geological story of the Concord River with the biography of its greatest admirer’ (xvi). Chapters one through four explore the archaeology and prehistory of the Concord Valley in Massachusetts, investigating the conflicts within Concord America’s oldest river town established in 1635. Thorson unravels the agro-industrial makeover of the valley in 1710, and the impacts of dams and bridges on the surrounding farmland recognized in the early 1840‘s while offering a glimpse of Thoreau’s early boyhood in the 1820’s. Thorson then introduces Thoreau as a young man threatening vigilante justice in 1844 against the Billerica dam,which provided hydropower for milling but was controversial because it raised water tables, thus threatening farming interests.

The middle chapters shift focus from the land to Thoreau himself. Chapters five through seven cover Thoreau’s relationship with the river before and after his excursion to Walden Pond in the mid-1840‘s and expand on what Thorson terms Thoreau’s ‘life-changing epiphany’ about wildness in 1856. In this revelationary moment, Thoreau realized that wildness was not separate and pristine, but instead flowed through the human landscape (xvi). Thorson describes the daily sojourning habits of a mature post-Walden Thoreau and offers a detailed discussion of Thoreau’s division of time between the river and the woods.

In the last chapters, Thorson plunges Thoreau ‘into the historical and intellectual gestalt of what would today be called environmental assessment’ (xvii). Chapters eight to twelve show the interaction between Thoreau and the landscape, both river and woods, that he loved. This section interweaves Thoreau’s scientific studies and the legislative work he contributed to the water flow controversy between farmers and industrialists. Thorson concludes with Thoreau’s lingering death from tuberculosis and the convoluted legal battle waged between the farmers and the industrialists over the Billerica dam in its aftermath.

One of The Boatman’s most important achievements is in highlighting the limits of current scholarship on Thoreau. Thorson illustrates these limits with the anecdote of Bradford Torrey and Francis Allen, the editors of the first published edition of Thoreau’s journals, who chose to exorcise much of Thoreau’s technical data because they were advised that it was ‘without scientific value’ (28). Thorson concludes that dismissal of Thoreau’s scientific river work during his canonization as an American writer was a mistake and subsequent scholarship was ‘crippled by that editorial decision’ (28). Unlike other scholars, Thorson, characterizes Thoreau as ‘ more of a man of the river than of the interior woods, meaning more of a boatman than a woodsman’(132). His analysis of Thoreau’s journal entries justifies this assessment. Thorson estimates that Thoreau made an average of 300 entries per year for ten consecutive years between 1851-61 where ‘ an average of 274 were penned in Concord with 212 involving local sojourns, with an average of 147 involving the river and only 28 involving Walden Pond.’ (132-3). Whether Thorson’s quantitative approach to Thoreau’s journal entries sheds more light on the nature of Thoreau’s creativity is questionable, and may be confusing quantity with quality, but it creates a new path of research to pursue.

July 12th, 2017, marked Thoreau’s 200th birthday, and after two centuries Thoreau’s work is ready for re-evaluation. Thorson participates in this revisionist project by chronicling a Thoreau who was actively involved in the politics of his environment and who found ‘himself increasingly drawn to the Concord River watershed as the largest, wildest, and most beautiful thing in his daily life’ (xv). Thorson ultimately transmits this wonder and appreciation of nature and wildness to the reader, taking the founding father of modern environmentalism and sustainable living and giving a new interpretation of the environment that inspired him.

About the Author

Anna Kirsch completed her English Studies MA at Durham University. Her thesis was on Environmental Ethics and Morality in Carl HiaasenÕs Crime Fiction. Her research interests include Crime Fiction, Satire, American Studies, Gender Studies, and Environmental History. Her Twitter account is @kucerakirsch.