Perth Amboy, New Jersey; Unionists’ Hall, Eagleswood Community
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: (See also lectures 52 and 53 below.) Thoreau’s three New Jersey lectures were the result of his commission to survey the proposed Eagleswood community to be developed near Perth Amboy by the wealthy Quaker abolitionist Marcus Spring. Eagleswood, situated on two hundred acres on the shore of Raritan Bay, was to be a residential community of small estates for steamboat commuters to New York City. In 1852 Spring had purchased this same land as the home for a new cooperative community incorporated as the Raritan Bay Union. Despite the construction of a large headquarters building with dormitories, apartments, and schoolrooms, the Union community did not flourish. In 1856 Spring decided to convert the Raritan Bay Union tract into Eagleswood.1 A timely mention from a Spring friend, the visiting Bronson Alcott, resulted in an invitation to Thoreau to survey the project (Days, p. 370). That Thoreau was expected to do more than survey, however, is confirmed by his palimpsest draft of an October 1856 letter to Spring, in which he stated, “bringing compass & lectures as you request.”2
Thoreau’s journal entry for 24 October reads:
Friday. 12 M.—Set out for Eagleswood, Perth Amboy, N.J.
Spent the afternoon in Worcester
By cars in evening to Allyn’s Point and Steamer Commonwealth to New York. (J, 9:133)
His 25 October entry describes another visit to P. T. Barnum’s New York museum (see lecture 45 above), where he saw “the stuffed skin of a cougar that was found floating dead in the Hudson many years ago.” Thoreau also reported having “seen a clergyman in Worcester the previous afternoon (at [T. W.] Higginson’s) who told me of one killed near the head of the Delaware, in New York State, by an acquaintance of his.” Whether the Worcester cougar account and the Barnum’s visit were coincidence or the former motivated the latter, Thoreau was sufficiently intrigued by cougars to spend part of his day in New York reading about them at the Astor Library. After recording his findings in some detail, he closed the day’s journal entry with the notation, “Arrived at Eagleswood, Perth Amboy, Saturday, 5 P. M., October 25th” (J, 9:133-34).
Sunday, 26 October 1856, the day of Thoreau’s first Eagleswood lecture, generated nothing but botanical observations in his journal, with the exception of the comment, “Saw and heard a katydid about the 1st of November” (J, 9:136). (If the November citation is accurate, Thoreau obviously penned some or all of this entry after its assigned date, a practice not unusual for him.) Whatever his journal omissions, a long, detailed letter to his sister Sophia, “Written on the Saturday evening of 1 November, recounts Thoreau’s lecture presentation and a good deal else about his excursion to that point. It also suggests an apparently good-humored skepticism about the quaint company of holdover Raritan Bay Unionists he encountered at Eagleswood.
I have hardly had time & repose enough to write to you before. I spent the afternoon of Friday (it seems some months ago) in Worcester. but failed to see [H. G. 0.] Blake, he having “gone to the horse race”! in Boston;—to atone for which I have just received a letter from him, asking me to stop at Worcester & lecture on my return—I called on [Theo] Brown & [T. W.] Higginson, & in the evening came by way of Norwich to N. Y. in the steamer Commonwealth, and though it was so windy in land, had a perfectly smooth passage, and about as good a sleep as usually at home. Reached N Y about 7 Am, too late for the John Potter (there was’nt any Jonas) so I spent the forenoon there, called on Greeley, (Who was not in) met [F. A. T.] Bellew in Broadway and walked into his workshop, read at the Astor Library &c &c—I arrived here about 30 miles from N. Y. about 5 pm Saturday, in company with Miss E[lizabeth]. Peabody, who was returning in the same covered Wagon from the Landing to Eagleswood, which last place she has just left for the winter. This is a queer place—There is one large long stone building, which cost some $40000, in which I do not know exactly who or how many work—(one or two familiar faces, & more familiar names have turned up )—a few shops & offices, an old farm house and Mr [Marcus] Spring’s perfectly private residence within 20 rods of the main building. “The City of Perth Amboy” is about as big as Concord, and Eagleswood is 1 1/4 miles S W of it, on the bay side. The central fact here is evidently Mr [Theodore] Weld’s school—recently established—around which various other things revolve. Saturday evening I went to the school room, hall, or what not, to see the children & their teachers & patrons dance. Mr Weld, a kind looking man with a long white beard, danced with them, & Mr [E. J.] Cutler his assistant, lately from Cambridge, who is acquainted [with F. B.] Sanborn, Mr Spring—and others. This Sat. eve-dance is a regular thing, & it is thought something strange if you dont attend. They take it for granted that you want Society!
Sunday forenoon, I attended a sort of Quaker meeting at the same place—(The Quaker aspect & spirit prevails here—Mrs Spring says “—does thee not?”) where it was expected that the spirit would move me (I having been previously spoken to about it) & it, or something else, did, an inch or so. I said just enough to set them a little by the ears & make it lively. I had excused myself by saying that I could not adapt myself to a particular audience. for all the speaking & lecturing here has reference to the children, who are far the greater part of the audience, & they are not so bright as N. E. children[.] Imagine them sitting close to the wall around a hall—with old Quaker looking men & women here & there. There sat Mrs. Weld (Grimke) & her sister, two elderly grayheaded ladies, the former in extreme Bloomer costume, which was what you may call remarkable; Mr [Arnold] Buffum with broad face & a great white beard, looking like a pier head made of the cork tree with the bark on, as if he could buffet a considerable wave;—James G. Birney, formerly candidate for the Presidency, with another particularly white head & beard—Edward Palmer, the anti-money man (for whom communities were made) with [word] ample beard somewhat grayish. Some of them I suspect are very worthy people. Of course you are wondering to what extent all these make one family—to what extent 20. Mrs [Caroline] Kirkland, and this [a] name only to me, I saw—She has just bought a lot here. They all know more about your neighbors & acquaintances than you suspected.
On Sunday evening, I read the moose-story to the children to their satisfaction. Ever since I have been constantly engaged in surveying Eagleswood—through woods ravines marshes & along the shore, dodging the tide—through cat-briar mud & beggar ticks—having no time to look up or think where I am—(it takes 10 or 15 minutes before each meal to pick the beggar ticks out of my clothes—burrs & the rest are left—rents mended at the first convenient opportunity) I shall be engaged perhaps as much longer. Mr Spring wants me to help him about setting out an orchard & vineyard—Mr Birney asks me to survey a small piece for him, & Mr Alcott who has just come down here for the 3d Sunday—says that Greeley (I left my name for him) invites him & me to go to his home with him next Saturday morning & spend the Sunday.
It seems a twelve-month since I was not here—but I hope to get settled deep into my den again ere long. The hardest thing to find here is solitude & Concord. I am at Mr Spring’s house—Both he & she & their family are quite agreeable.
I want you to write to me immediately— (just left off to talk French with the servant man—) & let Father & Mother put in a word….(C, pp. 439-40)
An interesting contrast to Thoreau’s opinion of the Eagleswood children as “not so bright” as their New England counterparts is Bronson Alcott’s description, in a 21 October letter to his wife, Abigail, of presumably the same children at a similar meeting the Sunday before Thoreau’s lecture. Wrote Alcott, “the children, some thirty or more, and all intelligent and attentive, and making our audiences worthy of our themes, ‘Home and Housekeeping, Marriage and Culture.”3
For a discussion of the remarks Thoreau may have made at the “Sort of Quaker meeting” he attended the morning of the day he lectured, see Appendix A below.
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: The only recovered response to the lecture is Thoreau’s impression, recorded in the above-quoted letter to his sister, that he had “read the moose-story to the children to their satisfaction.” He too was apparently satisfied.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: When he read this same lecture before his hometown lyceum on 14 December 1853 (see lecture 42 in the “Before Walden” calendar). Thoreau called it “An Excursion to Moosehead Lake,” but the few times he referred to the lecture thereafter he called it “Moosehunting.” His lecture manuscript would have taken him about an hour and a half to read. On 23 January 1858, he wrote a letter to James Russell Lowell, editor of the newly-formed Atlantic Monthly magazine, and said that the lecture “is an account of an excursion into the Maine woods in ’53; the subjects of which are the Moose, the Pine Tree & the Indian…. It consists of about one hundred manuscript pages, or a lecture & a half, as I measure” (C, p. 504). When revising the manuscript for publication as the essay “Chesuncook” in early 1858, he seems only to have added more material to fill out the narrative of his excursion.
2. Quoted from the manuscript at MCo.
3. Alcott, Letters, pp. 203-204.
Reprinted with permission