Literary daybook, Oct. 28

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published October 28, 2002 6:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Oct. 28, 1978, Becky tells Miles that her cousin Wilma doesn't think Uncle Ira is Uncle Ira anymore.
-- "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978)
by Jack Finney

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1853, Henry David Thoreau received back from his publisher the 706 unsold copies (out of 1,000 printed) of his first book, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," published four years earlier at his own expense. In his journal later the same day, the ever-resilient Thoreau recorded these reflections upon his "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 ... 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? ... Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer."

"A Week" describes a trip taken years earlier by Thoreau and his brother, in a boat built by themselves, sleeping in a tent made from its sails, living on, as Emerson admiringly put it, "the fish of the stream and the berries of the wood." Bronson Alcott admired the result, almost attributing the book to fresh air and diet: Thoreau wrote "in a style as picturesque and flowing as the streams he sails on," but with "sinewy vigor" too, "as of roots and the strength that comes of feeding on wild meats, and the moist lustres of the fishes in the bed below." In fact, though they breathed "the free air of Unappropriated Land," the Thoreaus carried new potatoes and melons from their garden, and bought their bread, milk and apple pies from farmhouses along the riverbanks.

The book's critics had no quarrel with the menus and venues of Thoreau's "roughing it"; less palatable were the scores of quotations from the Bhagavad-Gita, Sophocles, Chaucer, Tennyson, etc., along with large doses of Thoreau's own poetry, and his philosophizing upon the lot. One reader complained, "We were invited to a river party -- not to be preached at." Another thought the book "a pudding into which the pantry has been dumped," and though "intended to convey outdoors to its readers, became perilously like a library of the shorter works of Henry Thoreau." That Thoreau found it easier to live off the land than his readership is a good thing, as the failure of the "Week" caused a five-year delay in the publication of "Walden," itself not much of a seller.

"A Week" was not only written while Thoreau was living at Walden, but included many of the same Walden-questions:

"What, after all, does the practicalness of life amount to? The things immediate to be done are very trivial. I could postpone them all to hear the locust sing ... I would give all the wealth of the world, and all the deeds of all the heroes, for one true vision. But how can I communicate with the gods, who am a pencil-maker on the earth, and not be insane?"

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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