Thoreau’s Lectures After Walden: Lecture 61



2 March 1859, Wednesday; 7:30 p.m.
Concord, Massachusetts; Brick or Centre School House, High School Room


 NARRATIVE OF EVENTS: According to the records of the Concord Lyceum, Thoreau’s 2 March 1859 lecture on “Autumnal Tints” was the next-to-last lecture in a season’s course of fifteen (MassLyc, p. 174).
 ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On 3 March, Ellen Tucker Emerson, writing to her sister, Edith, offered the following praise: “Last night Mr Thoreau lectured a grand lecture on Autumnal Tints. Father and Mother, Mr Sanborn and Eddy were equally delighted. It was funny and Father said there were constant spontaneous bursts of laughter and Mr Thoreau was applauded.” Even if this appraisal is hearsay, which it appears to be, the firsthand source is impeccable.1
 Although Thoreau himself did not comment specifically on his 2 March lecture, his journal entry the next day on lecturers and audiences must have been to some extent a response to that event. He wrote:

 Talk about reading!—a good reader! It depends on how he is heard. There may be elocution and pronunciation (recitation, say) to satiety, but there can be no good reading unless there is good hearing also. It takes two at least for this game, as for love, and they must coöperate. The lecturer will read best those parts of his lecture which are best heard. Sometimes, it is true, the faith and spirits of the reader may run a little ahead and draw after the good hearing, and at other times the good hearing runs ahead and draws on the good reading. The reader and the hearer are a team not to be harnessed tandem, the poor wheel horse supporting the burden of the shafts, while the leader runs pretty much at will, while the lecture lies passive in the painted curricle behind. I saw some men unloading molasses-hogsheads from a truck at a depot the other day, rolling them up an inclined plane. The truckman stood behind and shoved, after putting a couple of ropes one round each end of the hogshead, while two men standing in the depot steadily pulled at the ropes. The first man was the lecturer, the last was the audience. It is the duty of the lecturer to team his hogshead of sweets to the depot, or Lyceum, place the horse, arrange the ropes, and shove; and it is the duty of the audience to take hold of the ropes and pull with all their might. The lecturer who tries to read his essay without being abetted by a good hearing is in the predicament of a teamster who is engaged in the Sisyphean labor of rolling a molasses-hogshead up an inclined plane alone, while the freight-master and his men stand indifferent with their hands in their pockets. I have seen many such a hogshead which had rolled off the horse and gone to smash, with all its sweets wasted on the ground between the truckman and the freight-house,—and the freight-masters thought that the loss was not theirs.
 Read well! Did you ever know a full well that did not yield of its refreshing waters to those who put their hands to the windlass or the well-sweep? Did you ever suck cider through a straw? Did you ever know the cider to push out of the straw when you were not sucking,—unless it chanced to be in a complete ferment?An audience will draw out of a lecture, or enable a lecturer to read, only such parts of his lecture as they like. A lecture is like a barrel half full of some palatable liquor. You may tap it at various levels,—in the sweet liquor or in the froth or in fixed air above. If it is pronounced good, it is partly to the credit of the hearers; if bad, it is partly their fault. Sometimes a lazy audience refuses to coöperate and pull on the ropes with a will, simply because the hogshead is full and therefore heavy, when if it were empty, or had only a little sugar adhering to it, they would whisk it up the slope in a jiffy. The lecturer, therefore, desires of his audience a long pull, a strong pull, and all pull together. I have seen a sturdy truckman, or lecturer, who had nearly broken his back with shoving his lecture up such an inclined plane while the audience were laughing at him, at length, as with a last effort, set it a-rolling in amid the audience and upon their toes, scattering them like sheep and making them cry out with pain, while he drove proudly away. Rarely it is a very heavy freight of such hogsheads stored in a vessel’s hold that is to be lifted out and deposited on the public wharf, and this is accomplished only after many a hearty pull all together and a good deal of heave-yo-ing. (J, 12:9-11)

One is tempted to conjecture that this rather overdrawn, metaphorically tangled harangue is, in fact, an allusive commentary on the preceding evening’s lecture. If that is the case, one may also conjecture that Thoreau was offended by the same audience laughter that Emerson had taken for high approval. In his journal, at least, Thoreau could take fantastic revenge on his presumedly offending neighbors, squashing—literarily, if not literally—their unworthy toes.
 DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 59 above.

 1. The Letters of Ellen Tucker Emerson, 2 vols., ed. Edith E. W. Gregg (Kent State University Press, 1982), 1:174.