Concord, Massachusetts; Brick or Centre School House, High School Room
“WHAT SHALL IT PROFIT”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: Thoreau delivered a slightly revised version of “What Shall It Profit” before the Concord Lyceum on Wednesday evening, 14 February 1855. The manuscript notebook “Concord Lyceum, 1828-1859,” says of this lecture, “D. H. Thoreau Esq, of Concord gave a lecture from the text, ‘What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world & lose his own soul?[‘]”1 Emerson, who was one of the lyceum’s two curators that season, had initially scheduled Professor Cornelius C. Felton of Harvard College to deliver the lecture that evening, but for some reason Felton’s engagement was moved back one week. Also, although Emerson had scheduled C. H. Goddard of Cincinnati to lecture before the lyceum on 31 January, Goddard at some point apparently needed to reschedule, so Emerson scheduled Thoreau in that slot. Later, however, Emerson reinstated Goddard to the slot, and Goddard lectured before the lyceum on that date (MassLyc, p. 168-69).
Thoreau’s was the tenth in a course of sixteen lectures before the Concord Lyceum that season. In his journal five days after delivering the lecture he wrote:
Many will complain of my lectures that they are transcendental. “Can’t understand them.” “Would you have us return to the savage state?” etc., etc. A criticism true enough, it may be, from their point of view. But the fact is, the earnest lecturer can speak only to his like, and the adapting of himself to his audience is a mere compliment which he pays them. If you wish to know how I think, you must endeavor to put yourself in my place. If you wish me to speak as if I were you, that is another affair.” (J, 7:197)
It would appear from this that “What Shall It Profit” was not entirely successful in Concord.
Thoreau did not give another public lecture in 1855. Nonetheless, the New-York Daily Tribune, in a 19 October 1855 article on the coming lecture season, included him in a list of forty three “Lecturers who have hitherto been most widely invited.”
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: None known.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 46 above. Using a pencil so he could later erase the marks, Thoreau tactfully drew lines through at least two passages in the lecture that referred more or less explicitly to some of his fellow townsmen. One of the two passages discusses a Concord milk-farmer who kept in his house ten hired men, six children, a deaf wife, and his mother and father; the other passage mentions another Concord farmer “who keeps twenty-eight cows—whose hired man and boy rise daily at half past four in midwinter, and milk the cows before breakfast, which is at six o’clock by candlelight….”2
2. “What Shall It Profit,” in Dean. “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life Without Principle’ Lectures,” p. 316.
Reprinted with permission