Nantucket, Massachusetts; Nantucket Lyceum
“WHAT SHALL IT PROFIT”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: (See also lecture 47 above.) On 25 November, Thoreau wrote to Andrew Whitney of the Nantucket Atheneum and offered to lecture there during the second week of December. Whitney responded two days later by writing, “We cannot have you between the 4 & 15th of Dec. without bringing two lecturers in one week which we wish to avoid if possible.” He went on to suggest, “If you cannot come on the 28th of Dec. will the 2nd week in January … suit you?—if not, perhaps you can select a day in the 4th week of January” (C, pp. 352-53). As Whitney’s response indicates, Thoreau was apparently still attempting to schedule his local lecture engagements so as not to conflict with his planned tour of the Midwest and Canada during late December and January. This must have been a problem for him because even as late as the last week of November his itinerary for the proposed tour was not fixed. Eventually, he must have concluded that he would not be able to secure enough lecture engagements in the Midwest and Canada to make a lecture tour worthwhile because sometime in early December he abandoned his plans and began accepting the pitifully few offers from lyceums closer to home, including Andrew Whitney’s invitation to lecture at the Nantucket Atheneum on 28 December.1
Thoreau’s sail from Hyannis to Nantucket on 27 December must have broken the spell of his previous day’s woodland idyll at Brooklawn and renewed worries, expressed in his 22 December letter to Blake, “of being weather-bound at Nantucket” (C, p. 3.58). His journal entry for the voyage reports not cold and snow but “mist and rain” and a head wind making for a “rather rough passage of three hours” (J, 7:91). Indeed, as he later wrote to Daniel Ricketson, “I was obliged to pay the usual tribute to the sea …. [T]hough I went neither before nor behind the mast, since we hadn’t any—I went with my head hanging over the side all the way.” He hastened to assure Ricketson, though, that his rocky start “was more than made up to me by the hospitality of the Nantucketers” (C, p. 362).
On the island Thoreau was the guest of Captain Edward W. Gardiner, who, he noted in his journal entry for 27 December, regaled him with stories of whaling lore and island culture such as, “you must have been a-whaling there before you could be married, and must have stuck a whale before you could dance.” Thoreau’s apprehension about being weather-bound may underlie his journal comment: “As for communication with the mainland being interrupted, Gardiner remembers when thirty-one mails were landed at once, which, taking out Sundays, made five weeks and one day. The snow ten days ago fell about two inches deep, but melted instantly” (J, 7:91-92). Thoreau’s journal entry for Thursday, 28 December, says nothing of his lecture but a great deal about Nantucket, which he saw under the auspices of the obliging Gardiner. In a “misty rain as yesterday,” they drove in Gardiner’s carriage to Siasconset, en route visiting Gardiner’s extensive pine tree plantations. Thoreau’s usual observations of flora and fauna are spiced with vignettes of the island’s human life such as the description of a “Singular old hermit and genealogist” who “knows the genealogy of the whole island” and “at last lives in a very filthy manner, and G. helped clean his house when he was absent. … They took up three barrels of dirt in his room.” Thoreau also “Ascended the lighthouse at Sancoty Head” and “Visited the museum at the Athenaeum” with its exotic South Seas holdings “brought home by whalers.” The day’s last recorded image must have cast a shadow over his otherwise pleasant impressions of the island, ‘The last Indian, not of pure blood, died this very month, and I saw his picture with a basket of huckleberries in his hand” (J, 7:92-96).
Thoreau’s 7:30 p.m. lecture that same day was the third in a projected course of eleven lectures by such noted speakers as Horace Greeley and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Tickets for the entire course cost one dollar. The Nantucket Inquirer reported on 1 January 1855: “Notwithstanding the damp, uncomfortable weather of Thursday evening, and the muddy streets, a large audience assembled to listen to the man who has rendered himself notorious by living, as his book asserts, in the woods, at an expense of about sixty dollars per year, in order that he might there hold free communion with Nature, and test for himself the happiness of a life without manual labor or conventional restraints.” According to the Nantucket Inquirer, after the audience was informed that the next speaker in the course would be Horace Greeley, Esq., of New York, “Mr. Thoreau began by remarking that he had been led to ask if he had spent as profitable a year as the farmer.”
In his journal entry for 29 December, Thoreau described his return to the mainland that morning by steamship, a crossing dramatized by a “fog so thick that we were lost on the water; stopped and sounded many times.” The whistle of a locomotive and the bell of a life boat finally directed them to the shore (J, 7:96).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: Thoreau’s lecture was advertised in the Nantucket Inquirer on 13 December, and on 1 January the same newspaper printed an account of the talk, which declared, “His lecture may have been desultory and marked by simplicity of manner; but not by paucity of ideas.” The reviewer then went on to summarize the lecture in 128 sentences, one of the lengthiest contemporary newspaper summaries of any of Thoreau’s lectures. “What Shall It Profit”‘ was obviously well received by the Nantucketers. Thoreau gave his impression of the audience’s reception in his 6 January letter to Ricketson: “In spite of all my experience I persisted in reading to the Nantucket people the lecture which I read at New Bedford, and I found them to be the very audience for me” (C, p. 362)
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 46 above.
Reprinted with permission