Plymouth, Massachusetts; Leyden Hall
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On 17 September 1854, Thoreau’s Plymouth friend and former Harvard schoolmate Benjamin Marston Watson sent him this invitation to lecture in Plymouth:
Mr James Spooner and others here, your friends, have clubbed together and raised a small sum in hope of persuading you to come down and read them a paper or two some Sunday. They can offer you $10 at least. Mr Alcott is now here, and I thought it might be agreeable to you to come down next Saturday and read a paper on Sunday morning and perhaps on Sunday Evening also, if agreeable to yourself. I can assure you of a very warm reception but from a small party only.
In a postscript Watson added:
I will meet you at the Depot on Saturday evening, if you so advise me. Last train leaves at 5—
This is not a “Leyden Hall Meeting” but a private party—social gathering—almost sewing circle. Tho’ perhaps we may meet you at Leyden Hall. (C, pp. 337-38)
Two days later, on 19 September, Thoreau responded to Watson with an acceptance and a question:
I am glad to hear from you & the Plymouth men again. The world still holds together between Concord and Plymouth, it seems. I should like to be with you while Mr Alcott is there, but I cannot come next Sunday. I will come Sunday after next, that is Oct 1st, if that will do,—and look out for you at the Depot.
I do not like to promise now more than one discourse. Is there a good
precedent for 2? (C, p. 338)
The acceptance is no surprise at all, but Thoreau’s question is. In 1852, on both of his previous lecture trips to Plymouth, Thoreau had made two lecture presentations on each visit. Thoreau’s concern over presenting the requested two lectures is understandable, however, as at that time he had only one lecture that he wished to use, and all indications are that it was not yet written.1
Thoreau faced a larger problem at this time than the need to hurry a lecture into shape for a just-made engagement. He was, in fact, caught in a dilemma, on the one hand wanting to take advantage of Walden‘s publication to propel his career as a lecturer, on the other hand fearful of the loss of authentic life that stepped-up lecturing might entail. His journal entry for 19 September, the day of his acceptance message to Watson, conveys these two conflicting attitudes, one overtly, and the other at least in part by implication:
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, and imbibe whatever nutriment they had for me; I have spent a couple of years, for instance, with the flowers chiefly, having none other so binding engagement as to observe when they opened; I could have afforded to spend a whole fall observing the changing tints of the foliage. 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)
Between Thoreau’s questioning, in his letter to Marston, of the precedent for a second Plymouth lecture and this same day’s journal questioning of the unprecedented tradeoffs demanded by a more ambitious career as lecturer, there is perhaps less distance than one would first assume. Despite these expressed doubts, however, one should not overlook in this journal lament for the impending loss of a personal Golden Age the suggested reasons for this loss. First, Thoreau presumed that the post-Walden public would want to hear him speak; and, second, he apparently proposed to do so. Indeed, on 21 September, two days after his message to Watson and his journal elegy for innocence, Thoreau elaborated on his predicament in a letter to H. G. O. Blake in Worcester. Here he made explicit his intention to pursue lecturing as never before.
I have just read your letter, but I do not mean now to answer it, solely for want of time to say what I wish…. As for the excursion you speak of [apparently to Mt. Wachusett], I should like it right well,—indeed I thought of proposing the same thing to you and [Theo] Brown, some months ago. Perhaps it would have been better if I had done so then; for in that case I should have been able to enter into it with that infinite margin to my views,—spotless of all engagements,—which I think so necessary. As it is, I have agreed to go a-lecturing to Plymouth, Sunday after next (October 1) and to Philadelphia in November, and thereafter to the West, if they shall want me; and, as I have prepared nothing in that shape, I feel as if my hours were spoken for. (C, p. 339)
While still reflecting his doubts, this letter clearly acknowledges his plan to go on the road as a lecturer, traveling a great deal elsewhere than in Concord.
Pressed for time as he was, Thoreau must have been relieved by Watson’s letter of 24 September, postponing the lecture and, incidentally, commissioning a survey of his extensive garden.
There is to be a meeting here on Oct 1st that we think will interfere with yours, and so if the Lord is willing and you have no objections we will expect you on the next Sunday 8th October.
I think Mr. A[lcott]. will stay till that time.
I have been lately adding to my garden, and now have all that joins me—so I am ready to have it surveyed by you; a pleasure I have long promised myself. So, if you are at leisure and inclined to the field I hope I may be so fortunate as to engage your services.
Watson added in a postscript, “The survey might be before the Sunday or after as you please, and I will meet you at the Depot any time you say—” (C, pp. 339-40).
Watson’s next letter to Thoreau, written on 30 September (but misdated 30 October), acknowledges Thoreau’s acceptance through an intermediary of the new lecture date and the request for a survey:
I am glad to learn from Mr Spooner that you are really coming down, with the tripod too, which is so good news that I hardly dared to expect it. It seems a little uncertain whether you intend to read in the morning as well as evening, and so I write to enquire, that there may be no mistake in the announcement. Please let me know by return mail which will be in time. (C, p. 340)
The intermediary mentioned here was James Walter Spooner, who had met Thoreau and heard him lecture in Plymouth on at least one previous occasion, recording their May 1852 contact in his diary (see lecture 40 in the “Before Walden” calendar). Spooner, who became an ardent admirer, was one of the sponsors of Thoreau’s upcoming lecture. Spooner visited Thoreau in Concord ten days before the lecture, joining him in a lengthy walk on 29 September. Thoreau noted the walk in his journal but did not mention his companion, while Spooner’s own account, in a letter to his parents written that evening from Concord’s Middlesex House, is richly detailed.2 The next day he returned to Plymouth and made his report to Watson.3
In a letter misdated Wednesday, 3 October 1854 (Wednesday was the fourth), Bronson Alcott confirmed Watson’s 24 September impression that he would stay in Plymouth to hear Thoreau lecture. Writing to his Wife from Watson’s home, “Hillside,” Alcott confessed his delinquency but gave several reasons for protracting his visit, among them that
as…Henry Thoreau is to be here surveying and to read something to a circle of Watson’s neighbors on Sunday next, and so into the week, they have persuaded me somewhat against my sense of duty to you and the Girls, to remain and see him back to Boston sometime in the week, by Wednesday say, or Thursday at farthest, I should think; and you may then expect me, if you have or can get to send the $1.50…for road ticket, and 37 1/2 for hack to bring me and my copied reams to your board again 4
On 4 October, Thoreau wrote again to Watson, clearing up once and for all the question of how many lectures he intended to give in Plymouth. His two-sentence letter declares, “I meant to read to you but once;—in the evening, if it is convenient for all parties. That is as large a taste of my present self as I dare offer you in one visit.”5 Two letters to Blake, both involving the Plymouth trip and its impact on their planned excursion to Mt. Wachusett, complete the extant correspondence relating to this lecture. On 5 October; Thoreau wrote:
After I wrote to you Mr. Watson postponed my going to Plymouth one week i.e. till next Sunday, and now he wishes me to carry mm instruments & survey his grounds, to which he has been adding. Since I want a little money, though I contemplate but a short excursion, I do not feel at liberty to decline this work. I do not know exactly how long it will detain me—but there is plenty of time yet—& I will write to you again—perhaps from Plymouth—
Thoreau then mentioned his new friend Cholmondelev and told Blake, “He is a well-behaved person, and possibly I may propose his taking that run to Wachusett with us—if it will be agreeable to you” (C, pp. 342-43). In a letter from Concord dated Saturday p. m., 14 October, Thoreau wrote again to Blake, saying in part:
I have just returned from Plymouth, where I have been detained surveying much longer than I expected.
What do you say to visiting Wachusett next Thursday? (C, p. 344)
Blake must have said yes as Thoreau’s journal entry for Thursday, 19 October, records his trip to the mountain, where the next day they “saw the sun rive from the mountain-top” (J, 7:65).
Thoreau gave his lecture to a small audience of friends, among them Bronson Alcott, James Spooner, Marston Watson and his wife, Mary Russell Watson, in whom Thoreau had had a romantic interest in the early 1840s and for whom he wrote the poem “To the Maiden in the East.”6 In view of the duration of his Plymouth lecture trip and the correspondence it generated, Thoreau’s journal record is a disappointment. His entry dated 7 October begins, “Went to Plymouth to lecture and survey Watson’s grounds. Returned the 15th.” His brief account mentions a few botanical encounters on or near Watson’s property and calls “Spooner’s garden a wilderness of fruit trees” (J, 7:63-64), but says nothing of the lecture or anything else. While the apparent misdating of his return from Plymouth (see 14 October letter to Blake) perhaps suggests a belated journal entry, the sparseness of information here is indicative of the time shortage he faced that fall.
Bronson Alcott’s diary entries add more information but do not include the entire time of Thoreau’s stay. Wrote Alcott:
Saturday 7 [October 1854]….Evening, Thoreau arrives to supper and we discuss the Genesis till bed time, Thoreau sleeping with me in my chamber.
Sunday 8. We walk about Hillside, and ride around Billington Sea after dinner. Evening, Thoreau reads an admirable paper on “Moonlight” to a small circle at Leyden Hall.
Monday 9. I help Thoreau survey Hillside, also discuss matters generally.
Tuesday 10. Again survey with Thoreau and Watson. Evening, Company at Hillside and a conversation on Health, Thoreau and some of the ladies, Mrs Watson, the Misses Kendall’s, taking part.
Wednesday 11. Carry Chain in surveying “the Orchard” With Thoreau: also, about Hillside Walks. Orchard contains 6 1/3 acres.7
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, RESPONSES: The growing importance of lyceum-style lectures in America, and of Henry Thoreau as a lecturer, is indicated by a notice in the 20 September 1854 New-York Daily Tribune, which reads in part:
Our advices by letter and otherwise justify the inference that the Lecture Season of 1854-5 will be more brilliant than any of its predecessors—that there will be more Popular Lectures delivered, and to larger audiences, than during any preceding autumn and winter. Nearly every City in the Free States, with many of the Southern, will have its regular Course or Courses; some of them as many as three; while at least half the considerable villages throughout the North and West will have at least one Course. The most acceptable lecturers are overrun with invitations, and are proffered compensation at much higher rates than were current a few years ago. The largely increased attendance last winter over that of any former season justified this advance; and, even at the highest rate, two or three of those most in request will be unable to answer all the demands upon their time.
We proceed to give, as last year, the names and post office address of those hitherto widely invited as Lecturers, for the convenience of those who are now making out their lists and addressing invitations….
…. We believe the popular taste for this sort of exercise has sensibly increased of late, and that buffoonery and clap-trap are at considerable discount from the early quotations, while solid information and grave, practical suggestion are more generally sought and appreciated. We believe this tendency will be more and more evinced, until the Winter Course of Lectures of each city and village shall come to be truly regarded as an important and beneficent instrumentality for dispelling intellectual stagnation and training the American Mind to habits of healthful activity, fearless investigation, and generous, manly thought.
Included in this notice was a list of thirty-one lecturers available for the coming season, one of whom was “HENRY D. THOREAU, Concord, Mass.” While Thoreau’s friendships with New-York Daily Tribune editor Horace Greeley and the influential Emerson may have influenced his inclusion here, his own past lecturing experience coupled with the recent publication of Walden, his second book, presumably would have warranted his initial listing in any case. Updated and expanded annually, this list thereafter included Thoreau’s name till 1861, the year he became too ill for lecturing.
Other than Alcott’s above mentioned comment that Thoreau’s lecture was “admirable,” the only recovered response to this 8 October 1854 lecture is the implied praise in this undated letter from Mary Moody Emerson, presumably from later that same month. Miss Emerson, who apparently had heard some favorable report of Thoreau’s talk, wryly addressed her envelope to Mr H. D. Thoreau[,] Proffessor of lectures.” She wrote:
If Mr. Thoreau took the least dislike at the close of his last visit to me—why it is not the home of genius to notice trifles. Why not have visited my deeper solitude? Why not bring me the Plymouth lecture? And a budget of literary news? Are you under no obligation to benefit or gratify your neighbours? Age loves the old fashion of catechising the young. Love to your parents & Aunts & forget not
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: Anticipating that he would be able to capitalize on the success of Walden; or, Life in the Woods by lecturing around New England and in the Midwest, Thoreau began a wholesale revision of his earlier “Walking, or the Wild” lecture manuscript, a portion of which involved moonlit walks (see lectures 31–32 and 40–41 in the “Before Walden” calendar). He extracted this portion of the lecture manuscript, tentatively titled the selection “The Moon,” and began searching through his journal of 1850-54 for passages about his nighttime excursions. When he located such passages, he wrote brief, descriptive citations of them on sheets of paper and used these “indexes” to arrange the passages before transcribing the passages from his journal to form a preliminary draft of the lecture, the title of which he decided would be “Moonlight (Introductory to an Intended Course of Lectures).” William L. Howarth has asserted that Thoreau originally transcribed passages from his journal in a mensal order but, encountering difficulties with such an unorthodox structure, soon changed to a more orthodox topical structure.9 In any case, based on the now widely scattered manuscript leaves surviving from this project and from other projects Thoreau was working on during the fall and winter of 1854, the lectures Thoreau had in mind for his “Intended Course” were not all related to walks at night; instead, he appears to have wanted to assemble a course of lectures relating to the various topics in his earlier 163-page draft of “Walking, or the Wild.” His published essay “Walking” retains two such topics: the joy’s and other benefits to be derived from sauntering, and the bracing effect that the tonic of wildness has upon human beings. Another lecture that grew out of “Walking, or the Wild” and that Thoreau apparently intended to include in his “Intended Course of Lectures,” the lecture that would eventually be published as “Life without Principle” (see lecture 46 below), elaborated the consequences of our failure to enjoy the benefits of periodically sauntering into the wild.10 In “Moonlight” Thoreau explored the realm that the English poet John Milton in his epic Paradise Lost referred to as “Chaos and Old Night.” The lecture describes the salutary effects on the saunterer of nocturnal excursions into familiar territory that had become de-familiarized by the perspective-altering light of the moon on the landscape, a light that compels the saunterer to experience what Emerson in Nature called “an original relation to the universe.”
2. Anne Root McGrath, “As Long as It Is in Concord,” Concord Saunterer, 12, no. 2 (Summer 1977), pp. 9-11.
3. Francis B. Dedmond, “James Walter Spooner: Thoreau’s Second (Though Unacknowledged) Disciple Concord Saunterer, 18, no. 2 (December 1985), p. 38; see also Dedmond, “Thoreau as Seen by an Admiring Friend: A New View,” American Literature, 56 (October 1984): 334-43.
4. The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, ed. Richard L. Herrnstadt (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1969), pp. 185-86.
5. Although the Thoreau Textual Center, CU-SB, has a photocopy and a typescript of this letter, the location of the original letter is unknown. We quote here from the typescript.
6. Quoted in Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), p. 143. Hereafter cited in the text as Days.
7. Alcott, MS “Diary for 1854,” entries of 7-11 October, MH (*59M-308).
8. The Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson, ed. Nancy Craig Simmons (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993), p. 551. Based on Thoreau’s lecture at Plymouth on 22 February 1852 (see lectures 35-36 in the “Before Walden” calendar) and on Thoreau’s visits to Miss Emerson on 13 November 1851 and 8 January 1852, Simmons conjectures that this letter was written in 1852 rather than in 1854.
9. Howarth, “Successor to Walden?,” 94, 98.
10. Bradley P. Dean found that Thoreau drew nineteen of the paragraphs used in his first lecture version of “What Shall It Profit” from his earlier “Walking, or the Wild” lecture manuscript; see Dean, “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” STUDIES IN THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE 1987, p. 291.
Reprinted with permission