Worcester, Massachusetts; H. G. O. Blake’s Parlors
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: In a 1 January 1859 letter to H. G. O. Blake, Thoreau included a reference to his latest project: “My last essay, on which I am still engaged, is called Autumnal Tints. I do not know how readable (i.e., by me to others) it will be” (C, p. 537). On 19 January, responding to an invitation, Thoreau wrote to Blake: “As for the lecture, I shall be glad to come. I cannot now say when, but I will let you know, I think within a week or ten days at most, and will then leave you a week clear to make the arrangements in. I will bring something else than ‘What shall it profit a Man?’ My father is very sick, and has been for a long time, so that there is the more need of me at home. This occurs to me, even when contemplating so short an excursion as to Worcester.” He added, “I am expecting daily that my father will die, therefore I cannot leave home at present. I will write you again within ten days” (C, p. 540). Thoreau’s promised letter was finally penned on 7 February, four days after his father’s death: “I will come and read you an extract from ‘Autumnal Tints,’ on Tuesday the 15th, of this month, if that is agreeable to you,—leaving here probably at noon. Perhaps you had better acknowledge the receipt of this” (C, p. 542). On 12 February, however, Thoreau mentioned, in a letter to Daniel Ricketson, “I am going to Worcester to read a parlor lecture on the 22nd, and shall see Blake & Brown. What if you were to meet me there! or go with me from here! You would see them to good advantage” (C, p. 547). Further relevant correspondence has not been recovered, but Thoreau, in any case, did give his postponed “Autumnal Tints” lecture in Worcester on 22 February, when he delivered it in Blake’s parlors, located either at Blake’s school at 1 Warren Block on Pearl Street or in his home at 3 Bowdoin Street. While reading the section of the lecture dealing with the Scarlet Oak leaves, Thoreau displayed a “very large & handsome one … on a white ground,” which he said did him “great service with the audience” (C, p. 637).
In his journal entry for 22 February, a Tuesday, Thoreau wrote simply, “Go to Worcester to lecture in a parlor” (J, 11:453). That night he gave “Autumnal Tints,” followed on Wednesday evening by a second lecture, possibly on the Maine Woods. He left Blake’s Worcester home on Thursday morning. Thoreau’s journal entry for 23 February, the second day of his visit, says nothing of lecturing, reporting instead on a walk that day to Quinsigamond Pond with Blake, “where was good skating yesterday, but this very pleasant and warm day it is suddenly quite too soft.” However, the swift and graceful gyrations of a gentleman and lady skating on a hill-shaded portion of the pond reminded Thoreau of “the circling of two winged insects in the air, or hawks receding and approaching.” He also noted the presence of bluebirds, which, he says, perhaps “have not reached Concord yet.” Fish, too, are recorded—a just-caught brook pickerel from Quinsigamond, which he describes in detail to distinguish it from the common pickerel, and little shiners caught for bait in nearby Bell Pond (J, 11:453-54)
In the 26 October 1896 Worcester Telegram, an anonymous correspondent included these comments in an article on Worcester’s early literary days:
His [Thoreau’s] humorous, sarcastic, but ever entertaining talks, rather than lectures, were received with more favor, but with perhaps even less comprehension [than Emerson’s]…. His close intimacy with Emerson, however, rather tended to bring him into disfavor with those of the church clique in the old Worcester, and it was not until the world outside of New England began to discover in the countryman from Concord a new genius in the world of letters that sentiment changed in his favor….
Thoreau’s few visits to Worcester were made generally at the invitation of his friends, the Browns, Chamberlains, Blakes, John Wyman and Augustus Tucker, who formed the nucleus of what might have been called the Literary Salon of the infant city of Worcester. His lectures were delivered principally in city hall, Brinley hall (where the State Mutual building now stands), and in the drawing room of his friend, Harrison Gray Otis Blake.
These were never well attended. If at the earnest solicitations of his friends an audience of 100 people could be gotten together to hear him, it was considered a compliment to him, and he was well satisfied. For these lectures he asked nothing, only stipulating that his expenses should be paid. He, like Alcott, cared nothing for money, and it was one of his proudest boasts that he had once lived a year on an actual cash expenditure of $65.99. People could not understand him, and in his secret consciousness he was inclined to be proud of the fact.
He made no effort whatever to pay regard to the conventionalities. On his visits to Worcester he never troubled to bring a trunk or even a traveling bag. His hostess would often be mortified, after his arrival, to find his personal belongings reposing on the table in the hall tied up in a red bandanna, or in a greasy sheet of brown paper.1
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: Several responses to Thoreau’s lecture have survived, including that of Thoreau himself, who wrote in his journal on 25 February, “All the criticism which I got on my lecture on Autumnal Tints at Worcester on the 22nd was that I assumed that my audience had not seen so much of them as they had. But after reading it I am more than ever convinced that they have not seen much of them,—that there are very few persons who do see much of nature” (J, 11:457). Judged by other recovered comments, Thoreau’s sense of his reception may have been unduly pessimistic. Bronson Alcott wrote in his diary on 24 February, “Thoreau has just read a couple of lectures here in Blake’s parlours to a small company and to general admiration. Blake is still his enthusiastic disciple and quotes his master’s words as oracles.”2 Alcott, who may or may not have been there to hear Thoreau’s lectures, also wrote in a 28 February letter to his wife, “Thoreau left Blake’s last Thursday morning. He read two lectures in B.’s parlours, and won many praises from his auditors. Mr. B. as true and devoted as ever.”3
While Alcott was sometimes overly charitable in his assessment of Thoreau’s popular reception, corroborating testimony suggests that this was not one of those occasions. On 4 March 1859, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn remarked in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “You missed hearing one of the best lectures in not hearing Thoreau’s ‘Autumnal Tints’ at Worcester the other night.”4 One attendee, Sallie Holley, an anti-slavery advocate and lecturer, wrote in a 28 February 1859 letter to one Mrs. Porter of Woonsocket, Rhode Island:
This month we have spent with (when I was not in surrounding villages lecturing) a very dear circle of friends in Worcester, who have taken us to rare lectures, entertainments of music, pictures, libraries, skating partiers, etc.
The last two evenings we had in Worcester, we were at two parlour lectures given by Mr. Henry D. Thoreau, the author of that odd book, Walden, or Life in the Woods. The first lecture was upon “Autumnal Tints,” and was a beautiful and, I doubt not, a faithful report of the colours of leaves in October. Some of you may have read his “Chesuncook,” in the Atlantic Monthly; if so you can fancy how quaint and observing, and humorous withal, he is as traveller- or excursionist-companion in wild solitudes. Several gentlemen, friends of his, tell us much of their tour with him to the White Mountains last summer, of his grand talk with their guide in “Tuckerman’s Ravine,” where they had their camp. He paid us the compliment of a nice long morning call after we heard him read his. “Autumnal Tints,” and remembered our being once at his mothers to tea, and Miss Putnam’s looking over his herbarium with his sister.5
Caroline H. Dall, a leading feminist of the day and the wife of Thoreau’s college classmate Charles Dall, also was there and wrote in her journal on 22 February 1859, “At 1/2 past 7 went to Mr. Harry Blake’s to hear Thoreau—read a paper on ‘autumnal tints.’ It was as dear Miss Putnam said, a very charming report, but I did not carry away a very high idea of Thoreau himself.”6 Dall did not record the basis for her less-than-high idea of Thoreau. Later, however, as a correspondent for the Buffalo Daily Courier, she stated in an 1881 dispatch:
The pure sweet books of Thoreau are a great addition to our literature. “Then I read them I always hear his own sweet sensitive voice and am conscious of the shyness that half regrets they should be printed. The first time I ever saw Thoreau I heard him read one of his “Autumn” papers in Harry Blake’s parlor in Worcester. If it is good to read these things for one’s self, it was still better to hear him read them. Never since have I been in the country at that season when his description of the royal ranks of the purple poke berries and the steady beaming of the yellow hank weed on the hillside has not risen in my mind. He fascinated everyone of us, and yet he had been so hard to persuade!7
One assumes that the reference to persuasion has to do with a perceived difficulty in getting Thoreau to lecture in Worcester.
Caroline Dall gave a lecture of her own in Concord in December of 1859. Thoreau, who attended only after remarking to Emerson that women never have anything to say, corrected himself after hearing her speak. “But this woman had something to say!” he reportedly admitted to his friend and mentor. Indeed, apparently so impressed was he that he persuaded Dall to stay another day in Concord and visit with his family (Days, p.412). In a 26 July 1862 letter to Sophia Thoreau, Dall said of Henry, who had died on 6 May, “His tongue—like a Damascus blade—was hardly fit for ordinary use, but it shaped or severed at a blow—the substances, which most weapons—do only tear.” She added, “No thinking would improve the words it wielded.”8
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: This lecture is the first fruit of at least two (and probably more) large natural history projects that Thoreau worked on assiduously in his last years but did not live to complete. He began his late natural history work, which was more scientifically oriented than his earlier work, in the fall of 1851 when he “accidentally” but regularly began recording in his journal the natural phenomena he observed during his walks. One of the extant manuscripts that he used to compile data from his journal about “The Flowering of Plants,” for instance, reads “accidentally observed in 51, with considerable care in 52….”9 Like other of his lectures, “Autumnal Tints” is part of a larger project Thoreau continued to work on for the remainder of his life. In several of his late natural history manuscripts, Thoreau referred to this larger project as “The Fall of the Leaf,” but because no one has yet studied all the late natural history manuscripts, it is not yet clear if Thoreau kept that particular project separate or if he subsumed it into one of his other projects, such as his Wild Fruits project. In any event, on 18 February 1862, just two days before submitting his “Autumnal Tints” manuscript to the publishers Ticknor and Fields for publication as a two-part essay in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, Thoreau requested that they return the manuscript to him “since I have no duplicate, & what I send will be culled out from a very large imperfect essay, whose integrity I wish to restore.”10 Thoreau had responded to Ticknor and Fields’ initial inquiry about publishing certain of his lectures on 11 February (C, pp. 635-36), so even though he was extremely ill, he prepared his manuscript for publication in a very short time, which suggests that the published essay retains much of the character of the lecture. See the “Description of Topic” section of lecture 63 below for further evidence that the lecture text closely resembled the published essay.
2. Alcott, MS “Diary for 1859.” entry of 24 February. MH (*59M-308).
3. Alcott, Letters, p 300.
4. Quoted from the manuscript of the letter, MB.
5. Sallie Holley, A Life for Liberty, ed. John White Chadwick (New York: Putnam, 1899), p. 167.
6. Quoted from Dall’s manuscript journal MHi.
7. Reprinted in Joseph Slater, “Caroline Dall in Concord,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 62 (Winter 1958): 1.
8. “Sophia Thoreau’s Scrapbook: From the Collection of George L. Davenport, Jr.,” ed. Walter Harding, Thoreau Society Booklet, no. 20 (1964): 47.
9. Quoted from the title leaf of a twenty-four-leaf manuscript in the Berg Collection, NN. Most of the late natural history manuscripts are in the Berg Collection, but many of them—particularly the large charts or “calendars” he compiled in his last years-are at NNPM.
10. Quoted from the original manuscript, CU-SB.
Reprinted with permission