Thoreau’s Lectures After Walden: Introduction


THIS ARTICLE IS the successor to “Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: An Annotated Calendar,” which appeared in STUDIES IN THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE 1995, pp. 127-228. While the purpose of this brief introduction is to supplement, rather than supplant, the introduction to that calendar, some of the material there bears repeating and is therefore integrated into these remarks.
In 1948 Walter Harding published a ten-page “Check List of Thoreau’s Lectures,”1 laying the foundation for investigations into Thoreau’s lecturing and its relationship to his life, thought, career, and other writings. The checklist was skeletal by design, however, and dealt glancingly or not at all with such relevant materials as journal entries, correspondence, and contemporary accounts and responses. Moreover, since 1948 many scholars, Harding among them, have learned much more about Thoreau’s lecturing. We now know, for example, that he delivered at least seventy-five public lectures, or nine more than the “Check List” tally.2 The purpose of this calendar, then, is to flesh out the record of Thoreau as a lecturer. We do so by publishing virtually everything known about what he had to say, when and where and the circumstances under which he said it, how his lectures were arranged and advertised, and how they were received by audiences and the press. Because new information continually surfaces, and because we may have missed items of interest now available, we intend to update the combined calendar whenever sufficient materials are gathered. Meanwhile, anyone discovering new information is invited to submit findings to the compilers for possible interim publication in either The Thoreau Society Bulletin or The Concord Saunterer. And anyone aware of omitted information is asked to call it to our attention. Both categories of material will be included in any cumulative updates of the calendar itself.
Here, as in the “Before “Walden” calendar, a lecture is defined as Thoreau’s (or, in one instance, a representative’s) continuous and public delivery of a text composed by him in advance of that delivery. Counted as two separate lectures are his readings of what were apparently single lecture texts that he split for particular occasions, reading half in the morning, for example, and the other half later in the day. Thoreau’s unscheduled private readings to small groups of friends or family members are not included in the count of lectures; however, Appendix A, which covers the period of this calendar, notes private readings, impromptu speeches, possible but unconfirmed lecture deliveries, and reported deliveries that have been proven spurious or are otherwise problematic. (Note: Appendix B lists the seventy-five lectures in chronological order with each lecture’s title and the location of the delivery.)
Analysis of the combined calendars—and, especially, of this “After Walden” portion—confirms what has long been taken as truth: whether measured by the number of lectures given or by the dollars received for giving them, Thoreau’s career as a lecturer lived up neither to his hopes nor, especially after the publication on Walden, to his expectations. From 1837 to Walden’s publication on 6 August 1854, he gave a total of forty-three lectures in seventeen years, averaging just 2.5 a year. Even if we do not begin counting until 1843, his first multiple-lecture year and the beginning of his continuous annual engagement as a lecturer, he still averaged only 3.7 lectures a year in the pre-Walden era.
Somewhat surprisingly, to us and certainly to him, the publication of Walden had little apparent effect on the frequency of his lecturing. After Walden, in the six-and-a-half years through his last lecture presentation in late 1860, Thoreau gave thirty-two lectures—an average of 4.9 per year. In other words, he averaged only 1.2 more lectures in the years following Walden, with not even that modest increase entirely attributable to the book. Emerson, for example, continued to recommend his younger friend for engagements, and Thoreau himself published other works that attracted some attention. At least part of the increase in lecturing is likely due to the inclusion of Thoreau’s name, from 1854 till the end of his career, in the list of available lecturers published each autumn by the New-York Tribune.3 Certainly, Walden cemented Thoreau’s credentials for this distinction; however, the listing was apparently available on request, and in any case the pre-existing admiration of Tribune editor Horace Greeley (see lecture 20 in the “Before Walden” calendar) would have secured him a spot. It should also be noted that the Tribune lists made no mention of Walden.
Before Walden, Thoreau’s busiest years as a lecturer were 1852 with eight lectures, 1849 with seven, and 1848 and 1851 with six each. If we tabulate not by calendar years but by fall-winter-spring lecture seasons,4 his busiest of the pre-Walden era were 1848-49 and 1851-52 with nine lectures each, and 1850-51 with six. After Walden, his busiest years were 1859 with ten lectures, 1860 with seven, and 1854 with five (not including his only other lecture of the year, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” delivered a month before the book was published). In 1856 he gave four lectures, but in 1855 (the year after publication), 1857, and 1858, he lectured just twice each year. As for lecture seasons, his most active after Walden were 1854-55 and 1859-60 with seven lectures each, and 1856-57 with six. He gave five lectures in 1858-59, four in 1860-61 (not counting “The Last Days of John Brown,” read on 4 July 1860 by a proxy), and two in 1857-58. Shockingly, he gave no lectures at all during the lecture season of 1855-56, when Walden was still fresh but had had more than a year to become known. This record shows that while Thoreau did enjoy some productive years and seasons as a lecturer, he never became a popular platform figure. Indeed, even 1859, with its ten lectures, became Thoreau’s busiest year due less to his own popularity than to the notoriety of John Brown, on whom he spoke four times in just over a month to largely abolitionist audiences. It is true that Thoreau in these years turned down at least a few requests to lecture, but often, as in the case of engagements for his proposed lecture tour to the West and Canada the winter after Walden’s publication, he did so because the paucity of invitations did not justify the travel.5 Ultimately, even if we allow for other undocumented invitations rejected for reasons of health, work, schedule conflicts, or other contingencies, Thoreau’s career as a lecturer was simply far less sizeable than that of many other lecturers of his time, most of whom presumably turned down their share of invitations too.
In the years following Walden’s publication, Thoreau’s most frequently given lectures were “What Shall It Profit,” delivered at least eight times, including twice as “Life Misspent”; “Walking,” delivered at least five times; and “Autumnal Tints,” also presented on at least five occasions. Atypically, Thoreau may well have regarded “What Shall It Profit” and “Walking” as lectures rather than proto-essays or chapters because they are the only ones he delivered over a number of years without moving them toward publication, at least not until he knew he had little time to live. He may have wanted to keep them as lecture staples because together they present his principal views on nature (“Walking”) and humankind (“What Shall It Profit”). Thoreau, it should be noted, never repeated a lecture once its text had been published, making no exception for the lectures that helped form Walden. Other lectures from this post-Walden calendar, along with the number of times they were delivered, are “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (three), “Wild Apples” (two), “Moonlight” (one), “Moosehunting” (one), “The Maine Woods” (one, possibly two) , the “Martyrdom of John Brown” (one), “The Last Days of John Brown” (one, by proxy), and “The Succession of Forest Trees” (one). Another lecture title that must be included among Thoreau’s post-Walden corpus is “Huckleberries,” a late work neither finished nor delivered in his lifetime, but clearly intended as a lecture.6
Plans for far-reaching lecture tours notwithstanding, Thoreau’s post-Walden lecturing kept him often at home or, with few exceptions, not very far from it. Of his thirty-two lectures during this period, eight—or exactly one-fourth of them—were in Concord. In fact, since it was also in Concord that he delivered by hand his lecture on “The Last Days of John Brown” to his stand-in reader for presentation in North Elba, New York, one could stretch a point and say that more than one-quarter of his deliveries were in Concord. At any rate, Thoreau himself during these years lectured just four times outside New England (once in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and three times during one lengthy visit to Perth Amboy, New Jersey); moreover, he lectured only three times in New England beyond his home state (once each in Providence, Rhode Island; Amherst, New Hampshire; and Waterbury, Connecticut). Within Massachusetts, Thoreau lectured on five occasions in Worcester, where H. G. O. Blake and other admirers made him welcome; twice each in Boston, Lynn, and Lowell; and just once in Plymouth, New Bedford, Nantucket, Fitchburg, and Bedford. It is entirely fair to say that while Thoreau’s lecturing horizons widened a bit after Walden, before which he never addressed an audience outside New England, they widened only a bit in those years.
Measured by numbers alone, Thoreau’s career as a lecturer did not amount to much. Of his modest total of seventy-five documented lectures, he received pay for only about forty, and then usually just ten to twenty dollars including transportation from Concord. For several reasons, however, numbers alone do not tell the whole story. To begin with, numbers do not suggest the importance of lecturing in the process of “winnowing” by which he evolved his published works, including Walden. As he wrote in his journal in the summer of 1845, “From all points of the compass from the earth beneath and the heavens above have come these inspirations and been entered duly in such order as they came in the Journal. Thereafter when the time arrived they were winnowed into lectures—and again in due time from Lectures into Essays.”7 Not just pretty rhetoric, this statement accurately describes the way Thoreau worked. Viewed in this light, his lecture writing and delivering were part and parcel of his authorship, directing him to write with audiences and the sound of words in mind, and, upon presentation, allowing him to hear himself think out loud and observe others’ reactions to what he had to say.
In fact, those reactions—whether newspaper reports or comments in letters and diaries—both before and after the publication of Walden, indicate that Thoreau, more often than not, was well received by a significant portion of his audience and that many of his lectures drew enthusiastic responses from an apparent majority. As the collective calendar demonstrates, however, he did not lack for critics and outright detractors, some of whom took exception not only to the alleged foolishness of what he said but also to the allegedly foolish manner in which he said it, to his platform demeanor and speaking voice. Not surprisingly, those who found at least some sense in Thoreau’s message also tended to approve of him as messenger. Judged by all recovered responses, however, the truth seems to be that Thoreau was by no means a distinguished public speaker. In an age of platform eloquence, when most of the lecture engagements went to the most engaging lecturers, he may be said to have suffered from an occupational disability.
It is interesting to note that Thoreau’s comments about his auditors were frequently harsher than theirs about him. As his post-Walden expectations of a significant lecturing career failed to materialize, and as he accepted the fact that many in his audiences were either hardened against his ideas or incapable of understanding them, his frustration often took the form of contempt, as the following passages from his journal indicate:

I am disappointed to find that most that I am and value myself for is lost, or worse than lost, on my audience. I fail to get even the attention of the mass. I should suit them better if I suited myself less…. To read to a promiscuous audience … the fine thoughts you solaced yourself with far away is as violent as to fatten geese by cramming, and in this case they do not get fatter. (J, 7:79-80; see lecture 46 below)

What a grovelling appetite for profitless jest and amusement our countrymen have! (J, 7:89; see lecture 49 below)

Many will complain of my lectures that they are transcendental. “Can’t understand them.” … But the fact is, the earnest lecturer can speak only to his like…. (J, 7:197; see lecture 50 below)

Generally, if I can only get the ears of an audience, I do not care whether they say they like my lecture or not…. The stupidity of most of these country towns, not to include the cities, is in its innocence infantile. (J, 9:187-88; see lecture 54 below)

Sometimes when, in a conversation or a lecture, I have been grasping at, or even standing and reclining upon, the serene and everlasting truths …, I have seen my auditors standing on their terra firma, … watching my motions as if they were the antics of a rope-dancer or mountebank pretending to walk on air…. (J, 9:237-38; see lecture 55 below)

Talk about reading!—a good reader! It depends on how he is heard. There may be elocution and pronunciation (recitation, say) to satiety, but there can be no good reading unless there is good hearing also. It takes two at least for this game…. (J, 12:9; see lecture 61 below)

Always you have to contend with the stupidity of men. It is like a stiff soil, a hard-pan. If you go deeper than usual, you are sure to meet with a pan made harder even by the superficial cultivation. The stupid you have always with you…. Read to them a lecture on “Education,” … and they will think that they have heard something important, but call it “Transcendentalism,” and they will think it moonshine. (J, 13:145; see lecture 70 below)

Throughout the last six years of Thoreau’s career as a lecturer, his journal echoes with this dismay and disdain. Judging solely from these and other similar comments, one might conclude that Thoreau, out of defensiveness and pique, simply chose to reject what had already rejected him, that he privately railed against what he still publicly courted—the mass audience that alone could make his lecturing career succeed.
While there is some truth to this reflexive psychological explanation, it is a half-truth at best. Another, and perhaps greater, truth is that Thoreau was always ambivalent about lecturing success because he feared, in terms of the “economy of living” explained in Walden, that it would cost him too much of the life he valued most (see W, p. 52). Thus, even during his early post-Walden anticipation of increased lecturing travels, he confided in a journal entry of 19 September

Thinking this afternoon of the prospect of my writing lectures and going abroad to read them the next winter, I realized how incomparably great the advantages of obscurity and poverty which I have enjoyed so long (and may still perhaps enjoy). I thought with what more than princely, with what poetical, leisure I had spent my years hitherto, without care or engagement, fancy-free. I have given myself up to nature; I have lived so many springs and summers and autumns and winters as if I had nothing else to do but live them…. Ah, how I have thriven on solitude and poverty! I cannot overstate this advantage. I do not see how I could have enjoyed it, if the public had been expecting as much of me as there is danger now that they will. If I go abroad lecturing, how shall I ever recover the lost winter? (J, 7:46; see lecture 44 below)

The issue of winters lost to lecturing is recurrent, especially during the first lecturing season after Walden. Of his 6 December 1854 train ride to Providence, where he would lecture that evening, he remarked, “I see thick ice and boys skating all the way to Providence, but know not when it froze, I have been so busy writing my lecture” (J, 7:79; see lecture 46 below). And two days later he complained:

Winter has come unnoticed by me, I have been so busy writing. This is the life most lead in respect to Nature. How different from my habitual one! It is hasty, coarse, and trivial, as if you were a spindle in a factory. The other is leisurely, fine, and glorious, like a flower. In the first case you are merely getting your living; in the second you live as you go along (J, 7:80).

Similarly, in a 19 December 1854 letter to Daniel Ricketson arranging a lecture in New Bedford, Thoreau reluctantly declined an invitation to visit the Middleborough ponds: “I should like right well to see your ponds, but that is hardly to be thought of at present. I fear that it is impossible for me to combine such things with the business of lecturing. You cannot serve God and Mammon” (C, p. 356; see lecture 47 below). On the other hand, two months later, after abandoning his proposed lecture tour to the West and Canada because of insufficient engagements, he wrote in a 7 February 1855 letter to Thomas Cholmondeley, “I am from time to time congratulating myself on my general want of success as a lecturer—apparent want of success, but is it not a real triumph?” (C, p. 372; see lecture 49 below). His dashed expectations aside, Thoreau does in fact seem to have found compensation and cause for celebration in having recovered at least some of that lost winter.
Subsequently, even the relatively few engagements he did have often called forth laments for wasted time. On the last day of 1856, in the midst of a flurry of lecturing, Thoreau wrote to H. G. O. Blake:

O solitude! obscurity! meanness! I never triumph so as when I have the least success in my neighbor’s eyes. The lecturer gets fifty dollars a night; but what becomes of his winter? What consolation will it be hereafter to have fifty thousand dollars for living in the world? I should like not to exchange any of my life for money. (C, p. 461; see lecture 34 below)

Although Thoreau himself got neither fifty dollars a night nor fifty thousand dollars for his entire lecturing career, his point here is that even such remuneration would not have justified the cost in authentic life. Less than two weeks later, in the new year of 1857, Thoreau assessed his lagging career, again finding fortune in its failures:

For some years past I have partially offered myself as a lecturer; have been advertised as such several years. Yet I have had but two or three invitations to lecture in a year, and some years none at all. I congratulate myself on having been permitted to stay at home thus. I am so much richer for it. I do not see what I should have got of much value, but money, by going about, but I do see what I should have lost. It seems to me that I have a longer and more liberal lease of life thus. I cannot afford to be telling my experience, especially to those who perhaps will take no interest in it. I wish to be getting experience…. (J, 9:214; see lecture 34 below)

Despite Thoreau’s often-expressed belief that one cannot serve both God and Mammon, this post-Walden lecture calendar suggests that he often tried to mitigate the impact of his lecturing on his living by doing just that, especially on lecture trips themselves. His journal entries and letters covering these junkets often say little or nothing about his lectures, but they record, often in great detail, the many field trips and walking tours he managed to integrate into his generally brief visits. Indeed, one could easily argue that without these manifold excursions into natural and human history, his true life that he so prized would have been a diminished thing. Thoreau, the calendar demonstrates, traveled a good deal in more than Concord. An interesting question, and a good place to end this introduction, emerges from his many condemnations of lecturing and his apparently greater interest, during trips, in experiences outside the lecture hall than in it. The question is simply this: to what extent, and in what ways, was Thoreau’s relative lack of success as a lecturer the result of his fear lest he succeed too well?



 1. Walter Harding, “A Check List of Thoreau’s Lectures,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 52 (February 1948): 78-87.
 2. We should point out, however, that some of the apparent discrepancy is accounted for by the difference between Harding’s and our own definition of what constitutes a lecture.
 3. Horace Greeley. the editor of the New-York Daily Tribune, printed the first of these annual lists on 27 September 1853, but Thoreau’s name is not mentioned until the following year’s list, printed in the Tribune on 20 September 1854. The last time Thoreau’s name appeared in the Tribune’s annual list was on 27 October 1860. Thoreau probably notified the Tribune the following summer or fall that he was too ill to lecture during the 1861-62 lecture season.
 4. The lecture season in mid-nineteenth-century America began in the late autumn, usually late November, and ended at the beginning of spring, usually mid-April.
 5. On 21 September 1854, in a letter to H. G. O. Blake, Thoreau pointed out that he planned to travel to the West to deliver lectures sometime after delivering a lecture in Philadelphia on 21 November 1854 (The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode [New York: New York University Press, 1958], p. 339; hereafter cited in the text and notes as C). We have at least a partial record of his attempts to arrange lecture engagements for the tour: in Hamilton, Canada West (Ontario), and in Akron, Ohio (C, pp. 347, 352-53). Judging from these attempts, he appears to have planned the tour for late-December 1854 and January 1855.
 6. Henry D. Thoreau, Huckleberries, ed. Leo Stoller (Iowa City: Windhover Press, University of Iowa, 1971); rpt., Henry D. Thoreau, “Huckleberries,” in The Natural History Essays, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1980), pp. 211-62.
 7. The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding et al., 11 vols. to date (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971- ), Journal 2, 1842-1848, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer (1984), p. 205. Other volumes in the Princeton Edition of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau that will be cited in the text and notes are: Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley (1971), cited as W; and Reform Papers, ed. Wendell Glick (1973), cited as RP. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations and references to Thoreau’s journal will be from The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen, 14 vols. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1906), and will be cited in the text and notes as J.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission