Worcester, Massachusetts; City Hall
“WHAT SHALL IT PROFIT”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: The course of lectures for the winter 1854-55 season of the Worcester Lyceum was supposed to include nine lectures by such prominent lecturers as Henry Ward Beecher, Cassius M. Clay, William Lloyd Garrison, and Horace Greeley. Clay, however, had been advertised only as “probable,” and it was his 4 January 1855 slot that Thoreau took over for the series’ fifth lecture.1 The cost of tickets for the whole course was one dollar for men and fifty cents for women, while tickets to individual lectures could be purchased at the door for 12 1/2 cents.2
In a letter to H. G. O. Blake dated 22 December 1854, Thoreau wrote, “I will lecture for your Lyceum [in Worcester] on the 4th of January next; and I hope that I shall have time for that good day out of doors” (C, p. 358). The day before he wrote to Blake, Thoreau wrote in his journal:
What a grovelling appetite for profitless jest and amusement our countrymen have! Next to a good dinner, at least, they love a good joke,—to have their sides tickled, to laugh sociably, as in the East they bathe and are shampooed. Curators of lyceums write to me:—
DEAR SIR,—I hear that you have a lecture of some humor. Will you do us the favor to read it before the Bungtown Institute? (J, 7:89)
Apparently these unidentified correspondents did not want to hear the sort of lecture Thoreau had spent three of the previous six weeks writing.3 Nevertheless, Thoreau delivered “What Shall It Profit” for a fourth time on Thursday evening, 4 January 1855, before the Worcester Lyceum at City Hall. Doors opened at 7:00 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. lecture.
Thoreau’s journal entry for 4 January commences “To Worcester to lecture” but speaks mostly of a visit to the “Antiquarian Library” with its alcove containing “Cotton Mather’s library, chiefly theological works, reading which exclusively you might live in his days and believe in witchcraft” (J, 7:99). The entry briefly mentions two of Thoreau’s auditors that night but does not comment on the lecture itself.
The journal entry for 5 January indicates just the sort of “good day out of doors” that Thoreau had wished for in his letter to Blake. A morning walk to Quinsigamond Pond inspired, among other notations, a detailed account of “the straw-built Wigwam of an Indian from St. Louis (Rapids?), Canada,—apparently a half-breed.” This same walk also generated a similarly detailed account of more recently evolved technology: “the wire rolling and drawing mill” at Quinsigamond Village turning out “twenty miles of telegraph-wire in a day.” Following hard upon these two related, yet contrasting, examples of Thoreau’s tinkerer’s interest in the physical world, the transcendental counterpart to that interest is suggested: “[T. W.] Higginson showed me a new translation of the Vishnu Sarma” (J, 7:100-102).
Twice in later years—in 1856 and again in 1859—Blake would invite Thoreau to read the lecture again in Worcester, but both times his efforts to have Thoreau return for that purpose were unsuccessful (C, pp. 441, 540). But in a letter to Blake dated 19 November 1856, he wrote: “I feel some objection to reading that “What shall it profit’ lecture again in Worcester; but if you are quite sure that it will be worth the while (it is a grave consideration), I will even make an independent journey from Concord for that purpose” (C, p. 441). On both occasions, however, Thoreau read other lectures when he got to Worcester (see lectures 56, 59, and 60 below).
Thoreau’s engagements in New Bedford, Nantucket, and Worcester were the closest he was ever to come to a lecture tour, no doubt a bitter disappointment to him after his earlier plans for a tour of the Midwest and Canada. However disappointed he was by the low demand for his lectures in the months after Walden was published, he put the best face on the matter when he wrote to Thomas Cholmondeley a month after his Worcester engagement: “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? I do my work clean as I go along, and they will not be likely to want me anywhere again. So there is no danger of my repeating myself and getting to a barrel of sermons which you must upset & begin again with” (C. p. 372).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: The Worcester National Aegis printed a fifty-sentence “outline” of the lecture on 10 January, but the article contains no hint of how the lecture was received. Nevertheless, at least one of Thoreau’s auditors recorded his impression of the lecture. Sixteen-year-old Stephen C. Earle wrote in his journal that night:
Went in the evening to a lyceum lecture by Thorough of Concord. It was a strange sort of a lecture. The subject was ‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul.’ His lecture did not seem to have much to do with his subject. I slept part of the evening.4
Finally, on 17 January, a commentator for the Worcester Palladium misattributed to Thoreau’s lecture a statement praising good newspapers and used this mistaken pronouncement as the springboard for an editorial calling for more sophisticated newspapers and newspaper readers. “Thoreau in his latest lecture before the Lyceum, said that he had but one newspaper, and that it took him a whole week to read that.” Thoreau, in fact, said nothing of the kind and thought that the best newspaper to read was none at all. “Read not the Times,” Thoreau had said in the lecture, “Read the Eternities.”5
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 46 above.
2. Broadside titled “WORCESTER LYCEUM … COURSE OF LECTURES, For the Winter of 1854-5,” MWA.
3. Dean. “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” p. 288, asserts that Thoreau had begun working on the lecture in late October.
4. The Journals of Stephell C. Earle, 1853-1858, ed. Albert B. Southwick (Worcester, Mass.: Worcester Bicentennial Commission, 1976), p. 30.
5. “What Shall It Profit,” in Dean, “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life Without Principle’ Lectures,” p. 331.
Reprinted with permission