Fitchburg, Massachusetts; City Hall
“WALKING, OR THE WILD”
NARRATIVE OF EVENTS: In his journal entries for 3 and 4 February 1857, Thoreau notes his lecture trip to Fitchburg and more than implicitly compares path-bound Fitchburg townsmen and shore-bound Concordians to uninspirable lecture audiences whose minds will not rise to the height of a spoken truth. The entries read in part:
Feb. 3. To Fitchburg to lecture….
Though the snow was not deep, I noticed that an unbroken snow-crust stretched around Fitchburg, and its several thousand inhabitants had been confined so long to the narrow streets, some of them a track only six. feet wide. Hardly one individual had anywhere departed from this narrow walk and struck out into the surrounding fields and hills. If I had had my cowhide boots, I should not have confined myself to those narrow limits, but have climbed some of the hills. It is surprising to go into a New England town in midwinter and find its five thousand inhabitants all living thus on the limits, confined at most to their narrow mooseyard in the snow. Scarcely here and there has a citizen stepped aside one foot to let a sled pass. And almost as circumscribed is their summer life, going only from house to shop and back to house again. If, Indian-like, one examined the dew or bended grass, he would be surprised to discover how little trodden or frequentedthe surrounding fields were, to discover perhaps large tracts wholly untrodden, which await, as it were, for some caravan to assemble before any will traverse them. It is as if some vigilance committee had given notice that if any should transgress those narrow limits he should be outlawed and his blood should be upon his own head. You don’t see where the inhabitants get sufficient exercise, unless they swing dumb-bells down cellar. Let a slight snow come and cover the earth, and the tracks of men will show how little the woods and fields are frequented….
Yet along that sled-track (vide the 3d) they will have their schools and lyceums and churches, like the snow-heaps crowded up by the furrow, and consider themselves liberally educated, nontwithstanding their narrow views and range. And the bare track that leads to the next town and seaboard, only six inches breadth of iron rails! and a one-eighth inch wire in the air!
I sometimes hear a prominent but dull-witted worthy man say, or hear that he has said, rarely, that if it were not for his firm belief in “an overruling power,” or a “perfect Being,” etc., etc. But such poverty-stricken expressions only convince me of his habitual doubt and that he is surprised into a transient belief. Such a man’s expression of faith, moving solemnly in the traditional furrow, and casting out all free-thinking and living souls with the rusty mould-board of his compassion or contempt, thinking that he has Moses and all the prophets in his wake, discourages and saddens me as an expression of his narrow and barren want of faith. I see that the infidels and skeptics have formed themselves into churches and weekly gather together at the ringing of a bell.
Sometimes when, in a conversation or a lecture, I have been grasping at, or even standing and reclining upon, the serene and everlasting truths that underlie and support our vacillating life, I have seen my auditors standing on their terra firma, the quaking earth, crowded together on their Lisbon Quay, and compassionately or timidly watching my motions as if they were the antics of a ropedancer or mountebank pretending to walk on air; or here and there one creeping out upon an overhanging but cracking bough, willing to drop to the adamantine floor beneath, or perchance even venturing out a step or two, as if it were a dangerous kittly-bender, timorously sounding as he goes. So the other day, as I stood on Walden, drinking at a puddle on the ice, which was probably two feet thick, and thinking how lucky I was that I had not got to cut through all that thickness, I was amused to see an Irish laborer on the railroad, who, had come down to drink, timidly tiptoeing toward me in his cowhide boots, lifting them nearly two feet at each step and fairly trembling with fear, as if the ice were already bending beneath his ponderous body and he were about to be engulfed. “Why, my man,” I called out to him, “this ice will bear a loaded train, half a dozen locomotives side by side, a whole herd of oxen,” suggesting whatever would be a weighty argument with him. And so at last he fairly straightened up and quenched his thirst. It was very ludicrous to me, who was thinking, by chance, what a labor it would be to get at the water with an axe there and that I was lucky to find some on the surface.
So, when I have been resting and quenching my thirst on the eternal plains of truth, where rests the base of those beautiful columns that sustain the heavens, I have been amused to see a traveller who had long confined himself to the quaking shore, which was all covered with the traces of the deluge, come timidly tiptoeing toward me, trembling in every limb.
I see the crowd of materialists gathered together on their Lisbon Quay for safety, thinking it a terra firma.
Though the farmer has been all winter teaming wood along the river, the timid citizen that buys it, but who has not stepped out of the road, thinks it all kittly-benders there and warns his boys not to go near it. (J, 9:235-39)
Thoreau’s Fitchburg lecture was the last in a season’s course of ten sponsored by the Fitchburg Athenaeum, a library and cultural organization founded in 1852. Tickets for the series cost one dollar for men and fifty cents for women, with single lecture admission priced at fifteen cents. By 1856 there were more than 150 members. The depression of 1857 ended the paid lecture series.1
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On 11 February 1857, two days before Thoreau was to give his “Walking, or the Wild” lecture in Worcester, the Worcester Daily Spy ran the following anonymous item:
HENRY D. THOREAU’S LECTURE.—Last week I had the privilege of hearing at Fitchburg a very remarkable lecture from Henry D. Thoreau of Concord, Mass. Mr. Thoreau will, by invitation, repeat this lecture at Brinley Hall next Friday evening. His subject is “The Wild,” and his aim is to set forth the claims of nature against civilization. This lecture contains more genuine wit, wisdom, and poetry, than can be found in whole courses of lyceum lectures. It is the deep, rich outpouring of the author’s life and genius, and not something got up for the occasion. I do not believe literature furnishes an instance of a greater nearness to narure [sic], of a more unreserved and successful devotion to wisdom, than is found in this writer. It is almost as though nature herself spoke through him. Let us, for once, anticipate a little, and not leave it for posterity alone to adpreciate [sic] this man, who, like all the truly wise, does not press himself upon our attention, but rather dreads popularity. His words will surely be remembered when most of our literature is forgotten. Let us escape, if possible, for an hour, from the conventionalisms, political, religiouS, and social, in which we are involved, from the gossip of the street, the shop, and the newspaper, and give ourselves opportunity, at least, to be refreshed and ennobled by this clear, strong voice from the wild.
Edmund A. Schofield asserts that, given this announcement’s style and tone, it “could only have been the work of [H. G. O.] Blake,” who also arranged the Worcester lecture, according to Schofield.2 Schofield’s assertions are probably correct. Blake was an ardent supporter of Thoreau and took advantage of any opportunity he had to promote Thoreau’s lecturing activities. Also, Thoreau’s letter of 6 February 1857 to Blake indicates that Blake almost certainly attended the Fitchburg lecture (C, p. 465). Whoever the author was, most of the Daily Spy announcement was reprinted in the Fitchburg Sentinel on 13 February, with the following preface: “The recent lecture by Mr. Thoreau before the Athenaeum in this place, is referred to in complimentary terms by a citizen of Worcester, in the columns of the Spy.”
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: As late as 31 December 1856, Thoreau seems to have been obliged to read one of his other lectures, not “Walking, or the Wild,” in Fitchburg, for he wrote to Blake on that date, “I carried that [lecture] which I call ‘Walking, or the Wild,” to Amherst, N.H. … and I am to read another at Fitchburg, February 3″ (C, p. 461). But all indications are that Thoreau did indeed read material from the second portion of his “Walking, or the Wild” lecture at Fitchburg. Blake had heard Thoreau read a significant portion of his “Walking, or the Wild” manuscript as a lecture in Worcester on 31 May 1851 (see lecture 32 in the “Before Walden” calendar). In a letter dated 6 February 1857, however, Thoreau wrote to Blake, “I told [Theo] Brown that [“Walking, or the Wild”] had not been much altered since I read it in Worcester, but now I think of it, much of it must have been new to you, because, having since divided it into two, I am able to read what before I omitted” (C, p. 465). 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, 52, and 54 above.
2. Edmund A. Schofield, “Time Recovering Itself: E. Harlow Russell’s Thirty Years (and More) with Henry D. Thoreau,” Concord Saunterer. 17, no. 2 (August 1984), pp. 27, 44n70.
Reprinted with permission