Worcester, Massachusetts; Brinley Hall
“WALKING, OR THE WILD”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: Thoreau’s 13 February 1857 lecture in Worcester before the Lyceum and Library Association was long in the arranging. On 1 November 1856, Thoreau wrote to his sister Sophia from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where he was surveying the Eagleswood community and giving lectures (see lectures 51-53 above). Recounting his journey, he reported having missed seeing H. G. O. Blake during a stopover in Worcester, but added that “I have just received a letter from him, asking me to stop at Worcester & lecture on my return” (C, p. 439). Thoreau wrote back to Blake himself from Eagleswood on 19 November:
I have been here much longer than I expected, but I have deferred answering you, because I could not foresee when I shall return. I do not know yet within three or four days….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. (C, p. 441)
Later, on 31 December, he again wrote to Blake, this time indefinitely postponing his visit and expressing his disillusionment with public lecturing:
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. (C, p. 461)
See lecture 54 above for further discussion of this letter and related matters.
In the new year, however, Thoreau changed his mind. On 6 February 1857 he wrote to Blake:
I will come to you on Friday Feb. 13th with that lecture. You may call it “The Wild”—or “Walking” or both—whichever you choose. I told [Theo] Brown that it 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. Nevertheless, I should like to have it understood by those whom it concerns, that I am invited to read in public (if it be so) what I have already read, in part, to a private audience. (C, p. 465)1
Brinley Hall, the site of Thoreau’s 1857 Worcester lecture, was recalled in 1896 by Thomas Wentworth Higginson as “the natural home of abolitionists and reformers generally.” It had been, in fact, “the military, social, theatrical, and political center of the universe, so far as Worcester was concerned,” said Higginson. A large three-story structure, Brinley Hall contained a bank, offices, and stores in addition to the lecture hall which apparently was located on the third floor.2 Since Thoreau’s last lectures in Brinley Hall itself, given in April and May of 1849 (see lectures 22-23 in the “Before Walden” calendar), the building had been extensively renovated.3 The Worcester Lyceum merged in 1856 with the Worcester Library Association, continuing its long-standing annual lectures series under the new name of the Worcester Lyceum and Library Association.4
In his journal entry for 12 February, Thoreau noted:
I observe that the Nashua in Lancaster has already fallen about three feet, as appears by the ice on the trees, walls, banks, etc., though the main stream of the Concord has not begun to fall at all. (It is hardly fallen perceptibly when I return on the 14th. Am not sure it has.) The former is apparently mostly open the latter all closed. (J, 9:253-54)
His entry for the fourteenth includes a conversation in Worcester with T. W. Higginson:
Higginson told me yesterday of a large tract near Fayal and near Pico (Mountain), covered with the reindeer (?) (as I suggested and he assented) lichens, very remarkable and desolate, extending for miles, the effect of an earthquake, which will in course of time be again clothed with a larger vegetation. Described at length the remarkable force of the wind on the summit of Pico. Told of a person in West Newbury, who told him that he once saw the moon rising out of the sea from his house in that place, and on the moonlight in his room the distinct shadow of a vessel which was somewhere on the sea between him and the moon!!
It is a fine, somewhat springlike day. The ice is softening so that skates begin to cut in, and numerous caterpillars are now crawling about on the ice and snow, the thermometer in the shade north of house standing 42°. So it appears that they must often thaw in the course of the winter, and find nothing to eat. (J, 9:254-55)
In his entry for the fifteenth, Thoreau referred to the Worcester lecture by way of introducing a lengthy passage on one of Concord’s oldest homes that had burned down while he was out of town. He wrote, in part:
When I returned from Worcester yesterday morning, I found that the Lee house, of which six weeks ago I made an accurate plan, had been completely burned up the evening before, i.e.,the 13th, while I was lecturing in Worcester. (It took fire and came near being destroyed in the night of the previous December 18th, early in morning. I was the first to get there from town.) In the course of the forenoon of yesterday I walked up to the site of the house, whither many people were flocking, on foot and in carriages. There was nothing of the house left but the chimneys and cellar walls. The eastern chimney had fallen in the night. On my way I met Abel Hunt, to whom I observed that it was perhaps the oldest house in town. (J, 9:256)
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On 11 February 1857, the Worcester Daily Spy published an item praising Thoreau’s recent Fitchburg lecture on “The Wild” and announcing its upcoming presentation in Worcester; see lecture 55 above.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 55 above.
2. Higginson’s recollections about Brinley Hall are quoted extensively in Brinley Rail Album and Post 10 Sketchbook, ed. Edward Kimball (Worcester, Mass.: F. S. Blanchard, 1896), pp. 16-21.
3. The renovations are reported in the Worcester Palladium, 5 June 1850.
4. Charles Nutt, History of Worcester and Its People, 4 vols. (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing, 1919), 2:757-58.
Reprinted with permission