Perth Amboy, New Jersey; Unionists’ Hall, Eagleswood Community
“WHAT SHALL IT PROFIT”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: (See lectures 51 and 52 above.) Thoreau’s third lecture at Eagleswood was almost certainly delivered on 16 November, the fourth Sunday of his visit. This dating assumes the continuing Eagleswood pattern of Sunday readings, by Thoreau and others, and eliminates Sunday, 9 November as a possibility because he and Bronson Alcott were away from the community at that time, Thoreau’s last known letter from Eagleswood, written to H. G. O. Blake on 19 November 1856, documents his third lecture and summarizes his recent activities:
I have been here much longer than I expected, but have deferred answering you, because I could not foresee when I shall return. I do not know yet within three or four days. This uncertainty makes it impossible for me to appoint a day to meet you, until it shall be too late to hear from you again. I think therefore, that I must go straight home, 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, I have read three of my old lectures (that included) to the Eagleswood people, and, unexpectedly with rare success—i.e., I was aware that what I was saying was silently taken in by their ears.
You must excuse me if I write mainly a business letter now, for I am sold for the time,—am merely Thoreau the surveyor here,—and solitude is scarcely obtainable in these parts.
Alcott has been here three times, and, Saturday before last, I went with him and [Horace] Greeley, by invitation of the last, to G.’s farm, thirty-six miles north of New York. The next day A. and I heard [Henry Ward] Beecher preach; and what was more, we visited Whitman the next morning (A. had already seen him), and were much interested and provoked….
I shall probably be in Concord next week; so you can direct to me there, (C, pp. 441-42)
It is interesting to note that both of Thoreau’s letters from Eagleswood—to Blake and, earlier, to Sophia (see lecture 51 above)—chafe at the preference for society over solitude at Eagleswood. Not surprisingly, Thoreau demonstrated that he did not possess a communal temperament, even for the short run.
Thoreau’s journal entries for the last two weeks of his Eagleswood excursion, apparently recorded after his return to Concord, are a sketchy kaleidoscope of botanical and other observations (“The wire fence was something new, and the tongue used by an Irishwoman to wipe a cinder out of her son’s eye”) with little mention of the New York trip and none of his surveying itself. After a full month’s absence he effused, in a synoptically evocative image both Thoreauvian and Whitmanesque, “Am glad to get back to New England, the dry, sandy, wholesome land, land of scrub oaks and birches and white pines, now in her russet dress, reminding me of her flaxen-haired children” (J, 9:139), His sole entry for Tuesday, 25 November, reads, “Get home again this morning” (J, 9:137-39),1
That Thoreau’s Eagleswood excursion may justifiably be regarded as a surveying-and-lecturing trip rather than a surveying trip with some incidental lecturing thrown in is supported by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comment in an 18 November 1856 letter to James Elliot Cabot: “he [Thoreau] is at Marcus Spring’s New Jersey Colony, surveying farms & I believe lecturing to the colonists:”2 Emerson’s words underscore Thoreau’s earlier communication to Spring that he would be “bringing compass & lectures as you request” (see lecture 51 above).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On 10 November 1856, the New-York Daily Tribune again included Thoreau’s name in its annual list of available speakers for the coming lecture season. An expanded version of the list also including Thoreau, appeared in the paper’s 20 November issue.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 46 above.
2. The Letter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., ed. Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor M. Tilton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939; 1990-95), 5:42.
Reprinted with permission