Lynn, Massachusetts; John B. Alley’s Parlor
“AN EXCURSION TO THE MAINE WOODS” (?)
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: In his journal entry for 13 January 1858 Thoreau wrote, “Go to Lynn to lecture, via Cambridge” (J, 10:243). On the way he stopped at Harvard Library and charged out, for his research on North American exploration and settlement, a volume from the Collections of the New York Historical Society and two volumes from the Jesuit Relations.1 His entry continues, “4:30 P. M.—At Jonathan Buffum’s, Lynn. Lecture in John B. Alley’s parlor” (J,10:243). Although the lecture is not mentioned again, the richly detailed journal record of Thoreau’s two-day visit to Lynn is another demonstration of his ranging interest in human history, natural history, and the conjunction of the two. It also demonstrates once again that he tried to improve the opportunity of his lecture trips by making them serve more than just Mammon.
In his 14 January entry, Thoreau wrote, “Mr. Buffum says that in 1817 or 1819 he saw the sea-serpent at Swampscott, and so did several hundred others. The road from Boston was lined with people directly, coming to see the monster. Buffum says he has seen him twenty times…. Buffum is about sixty, and it should be said, as affecting the value of his evidence, that he is a firm believer in Spiritualism” (J, 10:243-44). The entry also describes two naturalist excursions that same day. A morning junket with Buffum to the beach at Nahant called forth comments on ornithology, geology, and forestry. An afternoon ride with J. Buffum, Parker Pillsbury, and an amateur Lynn geologist named Mr. Mudge inspired detailed observations of rock formations and, a human counterpart, the formation of rocks into millstones by erstwhile residents (J, 10:244-46).
Near the end of his journal account, after noting a stop at the Lynn Quarry, Thoreau enlarged his perspective from the ground then underfoot to this timeless oceanic panorama peopled with aborigines and explorers still visible in his mind: “From these rocks and wooded hills… we had an extensive view of the ocean from Cape Ann to Scituate, and realized how the aborigines, when hunting, berrying, might perchance have looked out thus on the early navigators sailing along the coast,—thousands of them,—when they little suspected it,—how patent to the inhabitants their visit must have been. A vessel could hardly have passed within half a dozen miles of the shore…without being seen by hundreds of savages.” Here Thoreau’s trip to Lynn is implicitly yoked to his reading about exploration and contact, the impressions he formed from life and from literature evoking and coloring each other. Next, after recording some rock specimens given him by Mudge and Buffum, the Journal offers this tidbit of folk-and-nature lore: “Mr. Buffum tells me that they never eat the sea-clams without first taking out ‘the worm,’ as it is called, about as large as the small end of a pipe-stem. He supposes it is the penis” (J, 10:246-47).
For 15 January, the day of Thoreau’s return to Concord, his journal entry is devoted to natural history. At the “Natural History Rooms, Boston,” he examined, among other specimens, a “velvet duck … commonly called ‘coot’ on salt water,” the same species that he thought he might have seen the previous day (J, 10:243-47). Not recorded in the journal is his checking out, from the Boston Society of Natural History Library, a volume of Schoolcraft’s Indian Tribes of the United States.2
On 16 January, the day after his return to Concord, Thoreau wrote in a letter to John Lewis Russell, a well-known lichenist who lived in Salem:
I received your note inviting me to Salem after my lecture Wednesday evening. My first Impulse was to go to you; but I reflected that Mr [Parker] Pillsbury had just invited me to Lynn, thro’ Mr Buffum, promising to be there to meet me, indeed, we had already planned some excursions to Nahant, &c—and he would be absent on Friday;—so I felt under obligations to him & the Lynn people to stay with them. They were very kind to me, and I had a very good time with them Jonathan Buffum & Son, Pillsbury & Mr. [Benjamin?] Mudge—My reason for not running over to Salem for an hour, or a fraction of the day, was simply that I did not wish to impair my right to come by & by when I may have leisure to take in the whole pleasure & benefit of such a visit—for I hate to feel in a hurry.3
Thoreau added in this letter, “I suppose that I saw the genista tinctoria in the N.W. part of Lynn—on my way to the boulders & the mill-stone ledge” (C, p. 504).” Later, in a 22 March 1858 letter to Cambridge, Massachusetts, resident Mary Loomis, Sophia Thoreau confirmed that “Henry had a good time at Lynn….”5
For 24 January 1858, Bronson Alcott recorded in his journal, “Evening: We are at Thoreau’s, my wife and myself, for an hour. Thoreau has been lately to Lynn and read some papers of his in drawing rooms to a good company there.”6 In a 25 January letter to Ainsworth R. Spofford of Cincinnati, Alcott noted, “Last evening I saw Thoreau, who is trenchant and masterly as ever. He had been reading some papers in Drawing rooms to a good company lately at Lynn.” Alcott also mentioned that “I am to go to Lynn and New Bedford presently.”7 A clue to the size and character of the gathering at Thoreau’s lecture is perhaps afforded by Alcott’s journal entries for 1 and 2 March 1858 concerning his own visit to Lynn, during which he, like Thoreau, held forth at John B. Alley’s: “I leave for Boston and Lynn this morning, dine at M. Sewall’s and go out to Lynn at 6. Sup at Mr. Alley’s, and meet a good company of thirty persons there in the evening. Discourse on Private Life till after 10, and go home with Shackford and spend the night.”8 Alcott’s journal entry for the next day adds to the description of this good company, especially Alley himself:
Talk with Shackford and wife till dinner. We ride into the village, and I find the same company with additions assembled at Mr. Alley’s. These persons are thoughtful, catholic, and meet our questions generally in a becoming temper. I am rather well pleased with them, and with our evenings. I pass the night at Mr. Alley’s and find him intelligent and on the right side of things. He has been an active and leading member of the Massachusetts Senate, is an intimate of Sumner and Wilson, and stands a fair chance of being elected to Congress. He is of Quaker descent, and has many of the plain qualities of that persuasion.9
Both the Reverend Charles C. Shackford and Alley were active in the Lynn Library Association, which may have sponsored the visits of Thoreau and Alcott, although the fact that both men lectured at Alley’s home suggests that the lectures may not have been sponsored by any formal organization.10
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On 18 September 1857 the New-York Daily Tribune again included Thoreau’s name in an announcement of lecturers available for bookings in the upcoming fall-through-spring season.
A belated and implicit response to this lecture is the fact that Shackford later invited Thoreau back to Lynn to deliver another lecture before a public, rather than a private, audience (see lecture 63 below).
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: Our conjecture that Thoreau read his third Maine Woods lecture, the one that was published posthumously as the third chapter of The Maine Woods, in Lynn at this time is based primarily on the fact that he had just recently completed writing out his lecture text. On 1 January 1858, he told his cousin George Thatcher, I have written out a long account of my last Maine journey—part if which I shall read to our Lyceum …” (C, p. 502). With a new lecture in his portfolio, we regard it as unlikely Thoreau would opt to read one of the older lectures that he had available at this time: “Moosehunting,” “Walking, or the Wild,” and “What Shall It Profit.”
2. Borst, Thoreau Log, p. 469.
3. C, pp. 503-504; the editors of Thoreau’s correspondence mistakenly conjectured that Thoreau sent this letter to another Salem resident, Jones Very.
4. For more on Russell, including an argument that Russell was the recipient of Thoreau’s letter, see Bradley P. Dean, “A Sketch of Thoreau’s Friend, John Lewis Russell,” Thoreau Research Newsletter, 2 (April 1991): 4-5.
5. Quoted from the manuscript letter in the Loomis-Wilder Collection. CtY. We are grateful to Thomas Blanding for bringing this letter to our attention.
6. Alcott, Journals, p. 304.
7. Alcott, Letters, p. 279
8. Alcott, MS “Diary for 1858,” entry of 1 March, MH (*59M-308).
9. Alcott, MS “Diary for 1858,” entry of 2 March, MH (*59M-308).
10. Both Shackford and Alley are mentioned in most of the notices for the Lynn Library Association that ran in the Lynn Weekly Reporter throughout the gall and winter of 1857-58.
Reprinted with permission