Lynn, Massachusetts; Frazier Hall
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: In an apparently incomplete palimpsest draft of a 13 April letter to the Reverend Charles C. Shackford of Lynn, Thoreau wrote, “I answered your note of Ap. 6th on the 7th, by saying that I would come to Lynn [ ] either the 12th, or 13th if you desired it—Not having word from you I supposed that both my letter and yours [ ] I therefore write you to say [ ] 19th if….”1 Shackford, who with John B. Alley had apparently been instrumental in inviting Thoreau to lecture in Lynn fifteen months earlier (see lecture 57 above), had graduated as first scholar in the Harvard College class of 1835, a class that included H. G. O. Blake, who was fourth scholar, and Concordian Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar.2 At the time of his correspondence with Thoreau, he was also a member of the Lynn Library Association.3 Three days later, in a draft of a letter to Jonathan Buffum, Thoreau wrote:
Will you excuse me for giving you some trouble Ap. 6th I received fr Mr Shackford an invitation to lecture in Lynn—& I accordingly have written to him now on the subject—directing to “C C Shackford Lynn Mass.” but it would seem that both my letters have miscarried—As Mr Emerson thinks it worth the while—I still wish to say to Mr. S., that I will come to Lynn on either the 21-22nd—26th of this month-if he wishes it—& will inform me at once of his decision
Will you be so kind as to forward this or communicate its contents to Mr. S.—4
In a Tuesday (probably 19 April) letter from Shackford, Thoreau was informed that “You are to come the first Tuesday in May, May 3d, and I thought that I set it down so, in a note to you. At any rate, that is the time fixed, and I shall expect you then.”5
Miscommunications notwithstanding, Thoreau did finally lecture in Lynn, not on 3 May but on Tuesday, 26 April. William Ellery Channing, who accompanied Thoreau, wrote in his journal on 26 April, “To Boston; Lynn. H. lectured, wind e.” The next day, Channing capsulized their return, “H. through Swampscot, Lynn, Saugus to Concord, wind e, porphyry, sienite, grave-yd[.]”6
Thoreau began his own journal entry for 26 April by noting, “Start for Lynn.” Later in the entry, he remarked, “P.M.—Walked with C. M. Tracy in the rain in the western part of Lynn, near Dungeon Rock.” In a note, he added, “This is the last of the rains (spring rains!) which invariably followed an east wind,” and he continued, “Crossed a stream of stones ten or more rods wide, reaching from top of Pine Hill to Salem. Saw many discolor-like willows on hills (rocky hills), but apparently passing into S. humilis; yet no eriocephala, or distinct from discolor. Also one S. rostrata. Tracy thought his neighborhood’s a depauperated flora, being on the porphyry. Is a marked difference between the vegetation of the porphyry and the sienite.” He also recorded doing some botanical collecting, with at least one attempt at relocation to Concord, “Also got the Nasturtium officinale, or common brook cress, from Lynn, and set it in Depot Field Brook” (J, 12:164). The reference to Depot Field Brook makes clear that this journal entry was recorded sometime after his return to Concord.
In his entry for 27 April Thoreau turned his attention from botany to ornithology. Of a walk “along Swampscott Beach from Red Rock northeast,” he reported, “Hear and see the seringo in fields next the shore. No noticeable yellow shoulder, pure whitish beneath, dashed throat and a dark-brown line of dashes along the sides of the body.” In a note he compares this bird in great detail with the same species in his hometown, finding many differences, including their song, “Also note of ours apparently more feeble, first part like a watch-spring, last more ringing and clear in both birds.” Thoreau’s entry continues to mix comments on his route with observations on the natural phenomena, particularly birds, encountered along the way. “Struck inland and passed over the west end of High Rock, through the cemetery, and over Pine Hill, where I heard a strange warbler, methought, a dark-colored, perhaps reddish-headed bird. Thence through East Saugus and Saugus to Cliftondale, I think in the southern part of Saugus.” His observations include a “little brown snake … just killed in the road” and details of fishes and their behavior at “the Aquarium in Bromfield Street, “where “a little pout incessantly nibbles at the dorsal fin of the common perch, also at apparently the mucus on its back.” His entry concludes with the comment, “Toads ring and, no doubt, in Concord also” (J, 12:165).
Noteworthy, and perhaps revelatory about the two men, is the difference between Channing’s sparse, elliptical jottings for these two days and the rich detail of Thoreau’s account. Indeed, never one to overlook an opportunity, Thoreau also managed on this same trip a stop at Harvard Library, where he checked out Penhallow’s History of the Wars of New England, Bossu’s Nouveau Voyages dans l’Amerique Septentrionale, and Nouveaux Voyages aux Indes Occidentales.7
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On 21 April 1859 the Lynn Bay State advertised “A course of five lectures” at Frazier Hall, the course to begin on 12 April and to consist of George Sumner (12 April), Wendell Phillips (19 April), the Reverend T. Starr King (26 April), Henry D. Thoreau (3 May), and the Reverend Charles C. Shackford (10 May). Tickets for the course cost fifty cents, no tickets would be sold the evenings of the lectures, and the lectures themselves were to begin promptly at 7:30 p.m. On 28 April the Boston Daily Evening Traveller published a dispatch dated 25 April from its Lynn correspondent, who referred to the “liberal lectures” that were being held in the Hall at the new Frazier block.
In a full and generally favorable review of Thoreau’s lecture, the Lynn Weekly Reporter on 30 April praised its colorful content but condemned what the reviewer perceived as Thoreau’s colorless delivery:
The third lecture of this series was delivered on Tuesday evening, by HENRY THOREAU, better known, perhaps, as the “Concord Hermit.” By the published programme of the course, Rev. T. Starr King was announced as the third lecturer, but circumstances preventing his appearance, Mr. Thoreau came as his substitute. As most of our readers know, Mr. Thoreau is an enthusiastic lover of nature—nature unadorned, unaided by art—nature in her wildest moods—in her own glorious, grand, sublime beauty, as she developes herself far away from the haunts of men, in the forest, the field, and the meadow, on the hillside and in the deep glen, by the still lake and the running stream. His theme, on this occasion, was of course his favorite one, for “out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh.” He took his hearers with him in an imaginary stroll through his favorite haunts, the fields and forests in the vicinity of Concord, where he himself has spent the best part of his life, less in communication with man than with the birds and the trees and the flowers that spring up for man’s enjoyment without man’s cultivation or consent.
We wish Mr. Thoreau had communicated some of the enthusiasm of his heart to his words, for then we think his lecture would have interested many more than it did. We feel compelled to say that we think he is a far better writer than reader or lecturer; and it is to us rather a mystery how a man with so much real fire so much wholesome love of the beautiful in nature, can be so tame, so dull, even, in expressing the thoughts that fill his soul and pervade every part of his being. It is an anomaly in human nature undoubtedly designed for some good purpose, but wholly beyond our comprehension.
It is utterly useless for us to attempt to give anything like a sketch of the lecture. We fear it would be dryer than the dry leaves the lecturer talked (or rather read) about, and in which he saw so much poetry and beauty. He first enumerated the various kinds of grasses that had attracted his attention in his rambles, and commented on the peculiar beauty of each. He expatiated largely, and sometimes eloquently, upon the glowing colors of the pokeweed and its berries, and drew therefrom a lesson in humanity. He spoke of the maples, those brilliant harbingers of an early autumn, and of the elms, whose graceful branches and thick foliage add so much of beauty, elegance and comfort to many hundreds of the towns and villages of New England. The lecture, though not in all respects suited to the popular taste, and as we have intimated, somewhat dry in its details, was not without its witty points; and a broad smile overspread the features of his audience when he alluded to the trees of Concord, which, from tall, straight “beanpoles,” had grown into magnificent lines [lanes?] of grateful shade, worth all they cost, though one of the selectmen had come to his death from a cold taken while engaged in setting them out!
The lecturer discoursed most poetically of the dry leaves that strew the ground in autumn, gracefully and calmly descending to their bed of earth, giving themselves generously as a sacrifice, that their parent tree may thereby be nourished and sustained. He waited for the time when man should descend to his narrow bed, as gracefully and uncomplainingly, leaving no lying epitaphs to deceive future dwellers on the earth. He viewed the autumnal tints of the maples, the elms, and the oaks, as the decorations of nature for her autumnal fair,—her autumn holidays,— put up without expense, yet more brilliant and beautiful than art can conceive, much more execute, and changing from day to day, until stripped by the winds and laid like a carpet, crisp and delicate, upon the floor of the mother earth. He drew a vivid picture of villages with trees, and villages without trees, the truth of which we are sure his audience must have felt most forcibly. The scarlet oak came in for a large share of the lecturer’s admiration. and a drawing of one of its gracefully shaped leaves was exhibited to the audience, “with a running commentary on its delicate outline of curves and angles, and its gorgeous coloring of scarlet and crimson. He regarded these trees as the roses and asters of the forest, far more beautiful and attractive than those of the garden, and growing year after year, without cost or care, for the enjoyment of all who would take the pains to look and admire for themselves.
The lecturer closed with a few hints about the importance of educating the eye to see the beauties of nature, which, without such preparation. would be passed unheeded by. He spoke of the true sportsman, who finds game where none other would think of looking for it; of the angler, who never drops his line in vain; of the astronomer, who discerns planets far beyond the range of common vision; of the naturalist, who discovers beauties in the commonest things of earth; and of the simple selectman, who only sees a farm, a field, or a house-lot, that will bear a little higher rate of taxation at the next annual valuation!
Taken as a whole, we believe the lecture was enjoyed by a large proportion of the audience, and was listened to with deep attention by such, though we noticed that a few uneasy ones left the hall before it was finished. The manner, rather than the matter of the lecture is most liable to criticism from a promiscuous assembly, and in this instance we fear it was not so favorable for the lecturer as it should have been. But we certainly speak for ourselves, and we think, also, for a goodly number in the audience on Tuesday evening, when we return thanks to the committee who arranged the lectures, for the privilege afforded us of rambling for an hour with Mr. Thoreau through the fields and forests of the good old town of Concord.
That Thoreau himself believed his lecture was well received is confirmed by Bronson Alcott, who wrote in his diary entry for 3 May, “Thoreau is here and stays till 10. in the evening. He has read his lecture on ‘Leaves’ last week at Lynn, and thinks it was liked well by his company.”8
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 59 above. The twelve sentences summarizing the content of the lecture in the Lynn Weekly Reporter review quoted above indicate that the lecture closely resembled the published essay.
2. Charles C. Smith, “Some Notes on the Commencements at Harvard University, 1803-1843,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2d ser. 5 (January 1890): 214-15.
3. Shackford is listed as an officer of the Lynn Library Association in various notices that ran in the Lynn Bay State and other Lynn newspapers throughout the winter of 1858-59.
4. This MIS is at NNPM, item MA 606.
5. This MS is at MCo.
6. Quoted from a transcript of Channing’s MS journal made by and in the Collection of Thomas Blanding.
7. Borst. Thoreau Log, p. 526.
8. Alcott, MS “Diary for 1859,” entry of 3 May, MH (*59M-308).
Reprinted with permission