New Bedford, Massachusetts; New Bedford Lyceum
“WHAT SHALL IT PROFIT”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: Thoreau wrote to his new friend Daniel Ricketson on 19 December, confirming, through Ricketson, his next week’s lecture before the New Bedford Lyceum and accepting Ricketson’s invitation to stay at his house:
I wish to thank you again for your sympathy. I had counted on seeing you when came to New Bedford, though I did not know exactly how near to it you permanently dwelt; therefore I gladly accept your invitation to stop at your house.
I am going to lecture at Nantucket the 28th and as I suppose I must improve the earliest opportunity to get there from New Bedford, I will endeavor to come on Monday that I may see yourself and New Bedford before my lecture.
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. However perhaps I shall have time to see something of your country I am aware that you have not so much snow as we. There has been excellent sleighing here ever since the 5th ult….
Will you be so kind as to warn Mr Mitchell that I accepted at once his invitation to lecture on the 26th of this month, for I do not know that he has got my letter. (C, p. 356)
On 20 December, Ricketson replied:
Yours of the 19th came to hand this evening. I shall therefore look for you on Monday next.
My farm is three miles north of New Bedford. Say to the conductor to leave you at the Tarkiln Hill station, where I or some of my folks will be in readiness for you on the arrival of the evening train. Should you intend coming earlier in the day, please inform me in time.
I will get word to the Committee of the N. B. Lyceum, as you desire.
If I do not hear from you again, I shall prepare for your arrival as before. (C, p. 357)
On 22 December, three days before his departure for New Bedford, Thoreau wrote to H. G. O, Blake in Worcester, announcing his impending two-lecture excursion and expressing concern for the wintry island weather, “They say there is some danger of being weather-bound at Nantucket but I see that others run the same risk” (C, p. 358).
Such apprehensions notwithstanding, Thoreau journeyed to New Bedford by train on Christmas Day, 1854, noting in his journal the dense cedar swamps and other features of the level country along the Taunton & New Bedford Railroad (J, 7:90). That same afternoon, Ricketson, who was removing snow from his front steps, was surprised by what he took to be a rather undistinguished peddler walking up his driveway, portmanteau and umbrella in hand. Only over dinner table conversation that evening did his disappointment over Thoreau’s physical appearance yield to a thenceforth burgeoning appreciation for his character and intelligence (Days, p. 344). That night at Brooklawn, the Ricketson family home, Thoreau added the missing lines to his host’s copy of A Week, the flyleaf of which Ricketson adorned with a pencil sketch of its author (Days, pp. 343-44).
Thoreau’s second delivery of “What Shall It Profit” took place on Tuesday evening, 26 December 1854, at the New Bedford Lyceum. Daniel Ricketson noted in his diary the activities of his family and their guest on that “mild spring like day”: “Walked thro’ the woods to Tarkiln Hill & thro’ Acushnet to Friends Meeting House with Henry D. Thoreau, Author of Walden Rode this p.m. with H.D.T. round Whites Factory. Louisa & children except Wally attended Lyceum this Evg. Lecture by Mr. Thoreau—Subject ‘Getting a Living,’ I remained at home not feeling well enough to attend.”1 In his journal entry for the twenty-sixth, Thoreau said nothing of his lecture but offered a paean to New Bedford weather suggesting that more than Mammon had been served that day:
I do not remember to have ever seen such a day as this in Concord. There is no snow here … but it is very muddy, the frost coming out of the ground as in spring with us. I went to walk in the woods with R. It was wonderfully warm and pleasant … I felt the winter breaking up in me, and if I had been at home I should have tried to write poetry. They told me that this was not a rare day there, that they had little or no winter such as we have, and it was owing to the influence of the Gulf Stream, which was only sixty miles from Nantucket at the nearest, or one hundred and twenty miles from them…. There is a difference of about a degree in latitude between Concord and New Bedford, but far more in climate. (J, 7:90-91)
After his return to Concord, Thoreau, in a 6 January 1855 letter, assured his erstwhile host that he had indeed “had a very pleasant time at Brooklawn” (C, p. 362). This rather restrained assurance, typical of Thoreau’s distanced relationship to Ricketson, gives little indication of the journal passage’s near euphoric response to that springlike December day.
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: Thoreau’s lecture was advertised on 26 December in the New Bedford Evening Standard and in the New Bedford Daily Mercury, the former mentioning Thoreau as “a writer of considerable reputation” and the latter referring to him as the “author of ‘Walden,’ ‘A week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers,’ and several of the earlier pages in Putnam’s Monthly.” The day after the lecture, the Evening Standard observed that the lecture “displayed much thought, but was in some respects decidedly peculiar.” Ricketson wrote to Thoreau later and said that he had “heard several sensible people speak well of your lecture,” but he concluded that the lecture “was not generally understood” (C, p. 363). Ricketson’s conclusion was shared by Charles W. Morgan, who had heard Thoreau lecture and wrote in his journal afterward: “evening to the Lyceum where we had a lecture from the eccentric Henry J. Thoreau—The Hermit author very caustic against the usual avocations & employments of the world and a definition of what is true labour & true wages—audience very large & quiet—but I think he puzzled them a little—“2
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 46 above.
2. Charles W. Morgan, “Diary 1854-1855,” entry of 26 December 1854; Charles W. Morgan Papers, Coll. 27, vol. 7, G. W. Blunt White Library’, CtMyMHi.
Reprinted with permission