Providence, Rhode Island; Railroad Hall
“WHAT SHALL IT PROFIT”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On or about 18 October, Thoreau received a letter from Asa Fairbanks asking if he would allow his name to appear in a program of reform lectures scheduled to commence in Providence, Rhode Island, on 1 November. Fairbanks informed Thoreau that “every Lecturer will choose his own Subject, but we expect all … will be of a Reformatory Character” (C, p. 345). After indicating that remuneration to the course lecturers would be an expected “expenses and fifteen to twenty dollars” or “perhaps better,” Fairbanks pressed the issue of reform as a required topic:
The Anthony Burns affair and the Nebraska bill, and other outrages of Slaver has done much to awaken the feeling of a class of Minds heretofore quiet, on all questions of reform[.] In getting up these popular Lectures we thought at first, it would not do as well to have them too radical, or it would be best to have a part of the Speakers of the conservative class, but experience has shown us in Providence surely, that the Masses who attend such Lectures are better suited with reform lectures than with the old school conservatives. (C, p. 346)
The independent Thoreau may have bristled at the reform stipulation, as the editors of his correspondence suggest, but he responded within a short time and accepted the offer.
Fairbanks’s letter of 6 November suggests that letters had passed between him and Thoreau in which efforts to establish a date were being made:
I am in receipt of yours of the 4th inst, You stating explicitly that the 6th December would suit you better than any other time …. Had you named the last Wednesday in Nov. or the second Wedn[e]sday in December, I could have replied to you at once or any time in Janu[a]ry or Feb[ruary] it would have been the same[,] I shall regret the disappointment very much but must submit to it if you have such overtures as you cannot avoid. (C, pp. 348-49)
Fairbanks’s cryptic reference to “such overtures as you cannot avoid” is no doubt an indication that Thoreau’s schedule for the next four months was so full that he could not be as flexible as Fairbanks wished. He was scheduled to deliver one of his two “Walking, or the Wild” lectures in Philadelphia on 21 November; and he was planning to make a western lecture tour in late December, January, and—if the demand he encountered warranted an extension—February, Very likely, then, 6 December was the only Wednesday between mid-November 1854 and February 1855 that he expected to be available. Interestingly enough, on 17 November Thoreau wrote to a William E. Sheldon announcing that he was “still at liberty” to read “a lecture either on the Wild or on Moosehunting as you may prefer” before an unspecified “Society” on the evening of 5 December, the day before his Providence engagement (C, p. 351). There is no record of this proposed lecture taking place (see Appendix A below). Moreover, on 27 November, Andrew Whitney wrote from Nantucket in response to a letter Thoreau had sent two days earlier: “We cannot have you between the 4 & 15th of Dec. without bringing two lecturers in one week—which we wish to avoid if possible” (C, p. 352). This suggests that as late as 25 November Thoreau did not regard the 6 December Providence engagement as firmly established.
On 6 December, Thoreau took the train to Providence, where, his journal reports, he was “struck with the Providence depot, its towers and great length of brick” (J, 7:79). The depot’s hall was also the site of his evening talk. A month earlier, on 2 November, the Providence Daily Journal had cautioned that the new building’s steep entry with no handrail was a peril, especially to ladies during the impending winter. It is not known if the problem had been corrected by the date of the lecture. Advertisements in the Liberator and in all four of Providence’s major newspapers indicate that Thoreau’s lecture was the fourth of a scheduled ten, commencing with Theodore Parker and including talks by Thomas W. Higginson, Cassius M. Clay, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and others. Tickets for the entire course cost one dollar, while single-lecture admission cost Twenty-five cents. The doors to Railroad Hall opened Wednesday evening at 6:30 for the lecture, which was scheduled to begin an hour later. Thoreau made the most of his two-day Providence visit by inspecting Roger Williams’ Rock on the Blackstone River and an old fort overlooking Narragansett Bay, both in the company of Emerson’s friend Charles King Newcomb, and by walking through the countryside west of Providence (J, 7:79-80).
The only indications of how the audience responded to the lecture come, rather obliquely, from Thoreau himself. In a journal entry of that evening, he wrote:
After lecturing twice this “Winter I feel that I am in danger of cheapening myself by trying to become a successful lecturer, i.e., to interest my audiences. 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. I feel that the public demand an average man, average thoughts and manners,—not originality, nor even absolute excellence. You cannot interest them except as you are like them and sympathize with them, I would rather that my audience come to me than that I should go to them, and so they be sifted; i.e., I would rather write books than lectures. That is fine, this coarse. To read to a promiscuous audience who are at your mercy 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)
This appraisal of what his audiences demanded of him and what he was willing to give suggests that “What Shall It Profit” may not have been well received in Providence. Moreover, Thoreau was out of sorts from having been forced to abandon his plans for a lecture tour and from having spent most of the preceding four months at his desk writing lectures for “promiscuous” audiences. Indeed, his unusually rigorous schedule had prevented him even from seeing the winter come in. “I see thick ice and boy’s skating all the way to Providence,” he wrote in his journal on 6 December, “but [I] know not when it froze, I have been so busy writing my lecture” (J, 7:79). 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)
Thoreau’s reference to writing lectures as “merely getting your living” is a fine touch of self-directed irony, for in almost the entire first half of “What Shall It Profit”—the very lecture he had just finished writing and delivering—he argues that “A man had better starve at once than lose his innocence in the process of getting his bread.”1 Subsequently, in a 19 December 1854 letter to H. G. O. Blake, Thoreau punningly testified to his “truly providential meeting with Mr T[heophilus] Brown; providential because it saved me from the suspicion that my words had fallen altogether on stony ground, when it turned out that there was some Worcester soil there” (C, p. 354). Since Thoreau had yet to give his Worcester lecture, he here clearly refers to Brown’s fortuitous presence in his Providence audience.
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: The lecture was advertised in the Liberator on 1 December and, the day before and the day of the lecture, in all four of Providence’s major newspapers-the Daily Post, Daily Journal, Bulletin, and Daily Tribune. The Liberator remarked that “The people are anticipating the remaining lectures with a great deal of interest, and the names of the lecturers are a sufficient guarantee that their anticipations will not be disappointed.” On the day Thoreau lectured the Post and the Tribune also ran brief articles in which Thoreau was described as “a young man of high ability, who built his house in the woods, and there lived five years for about $30 a year, during which time he stored his mind with a vast amount of useful knowledge—setting an example for poor young men who thirst for learning, showing those who are determined to get a good education how they can have it by pursuing the right course.”
In a diary entry of 11 December 1854, Bronson Alcott wrote, “Monday 11. I pass the morning and dine with Thoreau, who read me parts of his new Lecture lately read at Philadelphia and Providence[.]”2 Alcott was mistaken about Thoreau having read “What Shall It Profit” in Philadelphia: Bradley P. Dean’s detailed study of Thoreau’s composition process for the lecture3 and Thoreau’s own journal remark about being extremely busy writing his lecture, indicate that he was just able to finish writing the lecture before delivering it in Providence. It is also unlikely that Thoreau would have changed the lecture topic that had been advertised in the Philadelphia newspapers (see lecture 45 above).
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: Using textual and physical evidence from the extant lecture manuscripts, as well as newspaper summaries of Thoreau’s several deliveries of “What Shall It Profit” and its later (1859-60, see lectures 64 and 72 below) manifestation, “Life Misspent,” Bradley P. Dean was able to trace in remarkable detail Thoreau’s composition process from the time Thoreau first conceived of the lecture to the time he mailed the final draft of “Life without Principle” to James T. Fields, editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, “What Shall It Profit” contained precisely one hundred paragraphs, fifty-four of which remained in the text and were eventually published in “Life without Principle.”4
2. Alcott, MS “Diary for 1854,” entry of 11 December, MH (*59M-308).
3. Dean’s study is summarized in his “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” pp. 286-91; for its more detailed counterpart, see the first volume of his two-volume M.A. thesis, “The Sound of a Flail: Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” Eastern Washington University, 1984. Copies of Dean’s thesis; are available at WaChenE, CtU, the Thoreau Textual Center at CU-SB, and the Thoreau Society Archives at MCo.
4. Seven of these fifty-four lecture paragraphs Thoreau conflated to three paragraphs in the essay. Dean’s “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” p. 337, contains a graph showing the structural changes between the lectures and the essay.
Reprinted with permission