Amherst New Hampshire; Basement Vestry, Congregationalist Church
“WALKING, OR THE WILD”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: Thoreau’s lecture, which began at 7:00 p.m., was the second of the season at Amherst. Admission cost ten cents.1 A week after Thoreau’s lecture, the 25 December issue of the Amherst Farmer’s Cabinet said of the weather on that day, “Last Thursday was a snapper–opening with the thermometer at 16 to 20 below, and not allowing it to rise above 10 below during the day” In his journal entries for 18 and 19 December 1856, Thoreau gave an engagingly, anecdotal account of his Amherst lecture trip, an account that attests to the rigors of winter travel—and the crudeness of some accommodations and their providers—in rural New England.
Dec. 18. 12 M. Start for Amherst, N.H.
A very cold day. Thermometer at 8 A.M.—8° (and I hear of others very much lower at an earlier hour), -2° at 11.45.
I find the first snow enough to whiten the ground beyond Littleton, and it deepens all the way to Amherst. The steam of the engine hugs the earth very close, Is it because it [is] a very clear, cold day?
The last half the route from Groton Junction to Nashua is along the Nashua River mostly. This river looks less interesting than the Concord. It appears even more open, i.e. less wooded (?). At any rate the banks are more uniform, and I notice none of our meadows on it. At Nashua, hire a horse and sleigh, and ride to Amherst, eleven miles, against a strong northwest wind, this bitter cold afternoon. When I get to South Merrimack about 3:15 P.M., they tell me the thermometer is -3°. While the driving hand is getting benumbed, I am trying to warm the other against my body under the buffalo. Warm myself there in the shop of a tub and pail maker, who does his work by hand, splitting out the staves with a curved knife and smoothing them with curved shaves. His hoops are white ash, shaved thin. After entering Amherst territory, near the Souhegan, notice many shagbark trees, which they tell me the owners value as they do a good apple tree, getting a dozen bushels of shelled nuts sometimes from a tree. I see the nuts on some still….
I was told to stop at the U. S. Hotel, but an old inhabitant had never heard of it and could not tell me where to find it, but I found the letters on a sign without help. It was the ordinary unpretending (?) desolate-looking country tavern. The landlord apologized to me because there was to be a ball there that night which would keep me awake, and it did. He and others there, horrible to relate, were in the habit of blowing their noses with their fingers and wiping them on their boots! Champney’s U. S. Hotel was an ordinary team tavern, and the letters U. S., properly enough, not very conspicuous on the sign.
A paper called the Farmer’s Cabinet is published there. It has reached its fifty-fifth volume. I rode back to Nashua in the morning of—
Dec. 19. Knew the road by some yellow birch trees in a swamp and some rails set on end around a white oak in a pasture. These it seems were the objects I had noticed. In Nashua observed, as I thought, some elms in the distance which had been whitewashed. It turned out that they were covered from top to bottom, on one side, with the frozen vapor from a fall on the canal. Walked a little way along
the bank of the Merrimack which was frozen over, and was agreeably reminded of my voyage up it. The night previous, in Amherst, I had been awakened by the loud cracking of the ground, which shook the house like the explosion of a powder-mill. In the morning there was to be seen a long crack across the road in front. I saw several of these here in Nashua, and ran a bit of stubble into them but in no place
more than five inches. This is a sound peculiar to the coldest nights. Observed that the Nashua in Pepperell was frozen over to the very edge of the fall, and even further in some places.
Got home at 1:30 P.M. (J, 9:186-189)
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On 18 December 1856, the following advertisement appeared in the Amherst Farmer’s Cabinet:
Lecture Dec 18th, by HENRY D. THOREAU, Esq., of Concord, Mass.—SUBJECT “Getting a Living.”
Also, in his journal entry for 18 December Thoreau expressed a mixture of superficial satisfaction with, and underlying disdain for, his Amherst audience:
At my lecture, the audience attended to me closely, and I was satisfied; that is all I ask or expect generally. Not one spoke to me afterward, nor needed they. I have no doubt that they liked it, in the main, though few of them would have dared say so, provided they were conscious of it. Generally, if I can only get the ears of an audience, I do not care whether they say they like my lecture or not. I think I know as well as they can tell. At any rate, it is none of my business, and it would be impertinent for me to inquire. The stupidity of most of these country towns, not to include the cities, is in its innocence infantile. Lectured in basement (vestry) of the orthodox church, and I trust helped to undermine it. (J, 9:187-88)
The chilliness of his Amherst reception, if that is what the audience’s silence indicated, may still have been on Thoreau’s mind when he wrote to H. G. O. Blake on the last day of the month and year. Rejecting an invitation to lecture in Worcester (see lecture 56 below), he also expressed his exasperation with a lecturing career that allegedly wasted his valuable time:
I think it will not be worth the while for me to come to Worcester to lecture at all this year. It will be better to wait till I am—perhaps unfortunately—more in that line. My writing has not taken the shape of lectures, and therefore I should be obliged to read one of three or four old lectures, the best of which I have read to some of your auditors before. I carried that one which I call “Walking, or the Wild” to Amherst, N.H., the evening of that cold Thursday, and I am to read another at Fitchburg, February 3. I am Simply their hired man. This will probably be the extent of my lecturing hereabouts….
O solitude! obscurity! meanness! I never triumph so as when I have the least success in my neighbor’s eyes. The lecturer gets fifty dollars a night; but what becomes of his winter? What consolation will it be hereafter to have fifty thousand dollars for living in the world? I should like not to exchange any of my life for money.
These, you may think are reasons for not lecturing, when you have no great opportunity. It is even so, perhaps. I could lecture on dry oak leaves; I could, but who could hear me? If I were to try it on any large audience, I fear it would be no gain to them, and a positive loss to me. I should have behaved rudely toward my rustling friends.
I am surveying instead of lecturing at present….(C, p. 461)
Notable here is Thoreau’s defensive caution lest Blake should think him merely petulantly rejecting what he wants but cannot have, a successful lecturing career like that of Emerson and others. Notable also, and highly ironic, is his reference to the futility of lecturing on dry oak leaves. Some three years later, on 22 February 1859, he would give his first reading of “Autumnal Tints” to a delighted Worcester gathering arranged by Blake (see lecture 59 below).
Thoreau’s frustration staved on his mind early in the new year. Echoing the living-versus-lecturing comments in his letter to Blake, his journal entry for 7 January 1857 says in part:
I love and celebrate nature, even in detail, merely because I love the scenery of these interviews and translations. I love to remember ever creature that was at this club…. I am attracted toward them undoubtedly because I never heard any nonsense from them. I have not convicted them of folly, or vanity, or pomposity, or stupidity, in dealing with me…. In a caucus, a meeting-house, a lyceum, a club-room, there is nothing like it in my experience. (J, 9:210)
His most recent experience with a lyceum, of course, was the Amherst lecture of some three weeks past.
Four days after this entry, in his journal for 11 January, Thoreau attempted to turn lemons into lemonade, congratulating himself on his good fortune in not being a more successful professional lecture:
For some years past I have partially offered myself as a lecturer; have been advertised as such several years. Yet I have had but two or three invitations to lecture in a year, and some years none at all. I congratulate myself on having been permitted to stay at home thus, I am so much richer for it. I do not see what I should have got of much value, but money, by going about, but I do see what I should have lost. It seems to me that I have a longer and more liberal lease of life thus. I cannot afford to be telling my experience, especially to those who perhaps will take no interest in it. I wish to be getting experience…. As for the lecture-goers, it is none of their business what I think. I perceive that most make a great account of their relations, more or less personal and direct, to many men, coming before them as lecturers, writers, or public men. But all this is impertinent and unprofitable to me. I never yet recognized, nor was recognized by, a crowd of men. I was never assured of their existence, nor they of mine. (J, 9:214-15)
Despite these misgivings about lecturing, Thoreau soon lectured twice more, presenting “Walking” in February to public audiences in Fitchburg and Worcester (see lectures 55–56 below), the latter despite his erstwhile protestations to Blake. So far as we know, however, these were his last two lectures of the calendar year, and he would lecture only two times the year after that.
There is at least one other possible reference by Thoreau to his Amherst lecture experience. In a lecture draft of “What Shall It Profit?” penned at some point after his Amherst visit, Thoreau wrote:
In some lyceums they tell me that they have voted to exclude the subject of religion. But how do I know what their religion is, and when I am near to or far from it? I have walked into such an arena and done my best to make a clean breast of what religion I have experienced, and the audience never suspected what I was about. The lecture was a harmless moonshine to them.
Bradley P. Dean notes that if the specific “arena” Thoreau refers to was a church, then the Amherst Congregational Church, his only known church lecture venue before 1859, was probably the site of his personal sermon.2
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: Judging from the advertisement of this lecture that appeared in the Amherst Farmer’s Cabinet on the day of Thoreau’s lecture, he had told the corresponding secretary of the Amherst Lyceum that he would read a lecture on the subject of getting a living, which was the description he often used of his earliest “Life without Principle” lecture, “What Shall It Profit.” But as we point out above, Thoreau later told H. G. O. Blake, “I carried that [lecture] which I call ‘Walking, or the Wild,’ to Amherst, N.H., the evening of that cold Thursday … ” (C, p. 461). As though to clear up any confusion that may have resulted from the apparently last-minute switch of lecture texts. Thoreau wrote in his journal entry of 11 January 1857, “I was describing the other day my success in solitary and distant woodland walking outside the town”—a clear indication that he did indeed read the first or “Walking” portion of his now quite large two-lecture “Walking, or the Wild” manuscript. For a description of the evolution of the “Walking, or the Wild” manuscript see lectures 31–32 and 40–41 in the “Before Walden” calendar, and lectures 45 and 52 above.
2. “What Shall It Profit,” in Dean, “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Earl:, ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” p. 345; Dean. “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” p. 364n207.
Reprinted with permission