Henry David Thoreau wrote the book about a boat trip he took with his brother John from Concord, Mass., to Concord, N.H., in 1839.
John contracted tetanus after cutting himself shaving in 1842. He died in Henry’s arms. Henry wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River as an elegy to his brother, with digressions on history, poetry, religion and the changing New England landscape.
Thoreau couldn’t find a publisher, so he published the book at his own expense in 1849. It sold fewer than 300 copies. Three years later, his publisher, James Munroe, sent the books back to him.
He was 36 years old, living in Concord, Mass., as the town’s principled eccentric. He was disappointed in the failure of A Week, but he soldiered on and wrote Walden.
On Oct. 28, 1853, Henry David Thoreau wrote about what it was like to receive 706 of his own books in his journal:
Rain in the night and this morning, preparing for winter.
For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they have arrived to-day by express, filling the man’s wagon,–706 copies out of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain. There was just one piece of good luck in the venture. The unbound were tied up by the printer four years ago in stout paper wrappers, and inscribed,__
So Munroe had only to cross out “River” and write “Mass.” and deliver them to the expressman at once. I can see now what I write for, the result of my labors.
Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the intreat mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever.