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The Maine Woods: (Writings of Henry D. Thoreau)

The Maine Woods: (Writings of Henry D. Thoreau) by  Henry David Thoreau, Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Editor), Paul Theroux (Introduction)

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Book Description

Henry D. Thoreau traveled to the backwoods of Maine in 1846, 1853, and 1857. Originally published in 1864, and published now with a new introduction by Paul Theroux, this volume is a powerful telling of those journeys through a rugged and largely unspoiled land. It presents Thoreau's fullest account of the wilderness.

The Maine Woods is classic Thoreau: a personal story of exterior and interior discoveries in a natural setting--all conveyed in taut, masterly prose. Thoreau's evocative renderings of the life of the primitive forest--its mountains, waterways, fauna, flora, and inhabitants--are timeless and valuable on their own. But his impassioned protest against the despoilment of nature in the name of commerce and sport, which even by the 1850s threatened to deprive Americans of the "tonic of wildness," makes The Maine Woods an especially vital book for our own time.

Contemporary Reviews

Review from the September 1864 issue of The Atlantic Monthly

"Literary Notice" from the August 1864 issue of The Continental Monthly: devoted to literature and national policy


5 out of 5 stars American wilderness as it was in the 1850s, December 10, 2005

By Martin H. Dickinson "Walker in the woods, dis... (Washington, D.C.)

Most people are familiar with Thoreau through his Walden. Few know perhaps that he didn't stay put in Concord but journeyed to the Maine Woods and elsewhere, and that these travels were formative of his philosophy and ideas. Thoreau believed the Maine wilderness north of Bangor was every bit as wild as the west and other far flung corners of the continent in the 1850s, and here he shows us an incredible panorama of beauty and wonder. You will gain insight into how Native Americans hunted Moose in the mid-19th Century and why Thoreau, a vegetarian, disdained the killing of animals for meat. One of the most sriking passages is his description of the sound of a huge tree falling in the forest in the distance at night.

In Ktaadn, Thoreau defines the essence of wilderness:

"Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man's garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor wast-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth as it was made forever and ever."

You do not need to read The Maine Woods on a wooded island in Maine (as I did) to be captivated and transported by it to a higher and greater sense of wilderness than you may ever have imagined.

5 out of 5 stars With Thoreau in the Maine Woods, July 27, 2006

By Robin Friedman (Washington, D.C. United States) (TOP 50 REVIEWER) (REAL NAME)       

In 1848, 1853, and 1857, Henry David Thoreau travelled to the wilderness -- forests, lakes, rivers, and mountains in the northwest part of Maine. He wrote three lengthy essays describing each of his journeys, and they were gathered together, as Thoreau had wished, and published after his death, together with an appendix, as "The Maine Woods." It is a moving book, a classic work of American literature, and the founder of a genre of descriptive travel writing.

Readers coming to "The Maine Woods" after "Walden" or "A Walk on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" may be in for a surprise. These earlier books do include extensive descriptions of nature and of plants and animals, but their focus is much more internalized and philosophical. Both books are full of discussions of themes that have little direct connection with nature. They show Thoreau as a Transcendentalist, an American philosopher akin to Emerson and others.

"The Maine Woods", in contrast, shows Thoreau as much more of a naturalist interested in describing the wilderness in great detail for its own sake. I think the book articulates a philosophical temperament akin to Thoreau's earlier books, but it is for the most part implicit rather than stated at length.

The three essays describe Thoreau's journeys at widely separated times to Mount Ktaadn, the Chesuncook River, and the Allegash and East Branch Rivers, journeys that overlapped to some degree. Thoreau travelled with a companion and with Indian guides. He gives the reader pictures of what was still largely a pristine wilderness even though it was, at that early time, already being subject to logging, the growth of towns, and despoilation. We see Thoreau and his companions travelling in canoes or batteaus on the interconnected rivers and lakes of northwest Maine, carrying and portaging their vessels around falls, camping in the woods, observing the vegetation and animals, getting lost, finding shelter from the rain, visiting lumber camps and the hardy residents of the woods, gathering berries, hunting, and much else. The narrative is filled with detail of Thoreau's experiences and thoughts.

I found the most moving part of the book was Thoreau's description of his climb up Mount Ktaadn in the first essay. We see this journey in detail, described with ancient Greek and American Indian symbolism. It concludes with a long peroration of the value of wilderness -- of land not controlled or under the disposition of people. Thoreau observes that "the country is virtually unmapped and unexplored, and there still waves the virgin forest of the New World." The "Chesuncook" essay includes a vivid description of the stalking and killing of a moose and Thoreau's resultant sense of discomfort. It closes with a call for the creation of national preserves for wilderness. The final essay describes a broad spectrum of adventures and places on a day-to-day basis. There are many passages that describe Thoreau's Indian guide, Joe Polis. Although Thoreau was deeply fascinated with the Indian heritage of Maine, some of his treatment of Polis will sound stereotyped to modern readers.

Thoreau's book was the first in a long line of American works devoted to nature. But I was reminded most of the Beat writers in some of their moments, of Jack Kerouac, (a native of Lowell, Massachusetts) in "The Dharma Bums" describing rucksacking and the climbing of a mountain and of the poetry of Gary Snyder.

This book is about the need to leave the beaten path and follow one's star. There are some fine websites in which the interested reader can get more information about the places Thoreau visited. [...]

Robin Friedman

5 out of 5 stars Pure Travelogue, July 18, 2006

By Erika Mitchell (E. Calais, VT USA) (TOP 500 REVIEWER) (REAL NAME)       

This book chronicles the adventures of Thoreau as he encounters wilderness in the guise of backwoods Maine. The book covers 3 separate expeditions that Thoreau made in 1846, 1853 and 1857. On each trip, Thoreau was accompanied by one or more companions, as well as an Indian guide.

Of all of Thoreau's books, this one sticks most closely to nature and travel writing, with little explicit philosophizing. Although Thoreau was accustomed to taking long walks off the beaten track in Massachusetts, it was in Maine where he first encountered genuine wilderness. He found the wild surroundings quite inspiring, and far from being overwhelmed by them, he seemed to want even more. In this book, he presents detailed accounts of the flora and fauna that observed on his Maine journeys. In addition to his observations of the natural world, Thoreau also describes many of the people and tiny communities that he found on his trips through Maine. While he follows his custom of never naming his traveling companions or providing personal information about them, he seems to feel no similar compunction about the privacy of his Indian guides, and describes them and their behavior in detail as if they were suitable subjects of his travel studies rather than co-travelers. One aspect that makes this book timeless is the fact that so much of the natural world that Thoreau describes has remained unchanged in the 150 years since his journeys.

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