Boston, Massachusetts; Music Hall
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On 5 September 1859 Thoreau wrote to E. C. Dudley, “I will read a lecture to your company on the 9th of October, for the compensation named. I should prefer, however, to bring one which I call ‘Life Misspent,’ instead of ‘Autumnal Tints'” (C, p. 557). The company referred to was Boston’s Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society, whose regular pastor, Theodore Parker, had gone to Europe in a vain attempt to regain his health. While Parker was away, Dudley was charged with finding substitutes for the pulpit, and both Sanborn and Emerson had suggested that he ask Thoreau to deliver “Autumnal Tints” (Days, p. 414). The next recovered mention of this lecture is Bronson Alcott’s diary entry for 15 September, wherein Alcott wrote, “I see Thoreau and [the Reverend David A.] Wasson awhile this forenoon. Thoreau is invited to read something to Parker’s people in October and consents.”1 I Thoreau himself, in a 26 September letter to H. G. O. Blake, noted, “I have engaged to read a lecture to Parker’s society on the 9th of October next” (C, p. 559).
The Sunday morning lecture at the Music Hall, delivered to a large audience, was accorded only this brief mention by Thoreau in his journal entry for the day:
Oct. 9. P. M.—Boston.
Read a lecture to Theodore Parker’s society. (J, 12:374)
The “P. M.” notation is either an uncharacteristic reference to the time of the entry or a mistaken indication of an afternoon lecture, mistaken as both advertisements and reviews document a morning delivery. An entry (in another hand) in the preaching record kept by Theodore Parker is also brief, simply listing Thoreau as having given a 9 October 1859 address on “Mis Spent Lives.”2
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEW, AND RESPONSES: On 9 September 1859 the New-York Daily Tribune again included Thoreau’s name in its annual list of lecturers presumed to be available for engagements during the coming season. A month later, Thoreau’s Music Hall lecture was advertised in the religious columns of at least two Boston papers. On 8 October, the day before the lecture, the Boston Evening Transcript noted, “Rev. Theodore Parker’s congregation will be addressed to-morrow forenoon, at Music Hall, by Henry D. Thoreau, of Concord, on ‘Misspent Lives.'” An advertisement that same day in the Boston Daily Traveller cited the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society as the audience but did not mention Parker.
Four Boston papers ran accounts of the lecture, offering mixed opinions of its content and reception. On 10 October a Boston Daily Courier report began:
MISSPENT LIVES.—Mr. Henry D. Thoreau delivered an address on “Misspent Lives,” yesterday morning, before the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society, at the Music Hall. Mr. Thoreau commenced by saying that when he was called upon to deliver an address, he always supposed the audience wanted to hear what he thought, and not merely things which might please the listeners; he should therefore give them a strong dose of himself.
An eight-sentence summary of the lecture was followed by this unflattering commentary:
Mr. Thoreau has a way of treating the most trivial things in a grave, philosophical way, which reminds one of Touchstone. He appears to be philosophical to excess. A sort of Diogenes, to whom everything but nature appears to be just what it should not be. His manner of speaking resembles that of Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The Boston Atlas and Daily Bee report, also published on 10 October, opened more favorably:
A HERMIT IN THE PULPIT—AN ADDRESS ON MISSPENT LIVES. Henry D. Thoreau, who is sometimes called “The Hermit of Concord,” supplied the desk at Music Hall yesterday. Mr. Thoreau is an eccentric individual having lived until within a short time, in a hut, in the woods, between Concord and Lincoln. He is at present a resident of the Village of Concord, follows surveying as a business, and is an intimate friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His subject yesterday was “The Way in Which we Spend Our Lives.” It was an original, racy, and erratic production, and was listened to the close with interest.
(Two days later, on 12 October, the New-York Daily Tribune reprinted this same portion of the report.) After a fourteen-sentence summary of the lecture, the Atlas and Daily Bee story concluded, “We have merely made a note or two of the lecture, which was a singular, but in some respects, an able production.”
An unidentified clipping, kept by both Bronson Alcott in his diary and Daniel Ricketson in his personal copy of Walden,3 begins quite favorably:
THOREAU TALK. Henry D. Thoreau of Concord, the hermit of Walden Pond, and the model cynic of modern times, occupied the Music Hall platform on Sunday, and for an hour and a half discoursed upon what he considers to be “Misspent Lives.” Mr. Thoreau has a fine voice, and a prompt, effective style of oratory that fixes the attention of the hearer.
The account then summarized the lecture in forty-seven sentences. On 11 October 1859 the Boston Post printed the following contemptuous review of Thoreau’s lecture, a review whose outraged author nonetheless conceded the apparent approval of the Music Hall audience at large:
The writer had the curiosity last Sunday to attend the services, or exercises rather, which took place in the Music Hall, under the auspices of Theodore Parker’s Society, it having been announced that Henry D. Thoreau would deliver a discourse upon the subject of misspent lives, at the usual hour of morning service. For the information of our readers, who were unable to attend upon the occasion referred to, we present the following report of Mr. T.’s discourse. The gentleman commenced his remarks with a general attack upon all forms of individual industry—followed the same with deprecatory remarks upon the subject of mechanical improvements, with special reference to the steam engine—proceeded to arraign one after another, in incoherent succession, the following facts, circumstances and things—generally and specifically—with more or less of billiousness of temper, as the case might be, namely: The Church; the State of California, on account of its material progress; Virginia, because of slavery; Government, as a general thing—our own in particular; then legislation, then war, then politics—(taking pride in the fact, as he said, that he never had read a President’s Message in his life); then newspapers, (God save the mark!); then science, then the expedition of Dr. Kane, then Free Masonry, then the Lyceum, then Kossuth, and the enthusiasm attending his career in the United States; then Camp Massachusetts; and then and lastly, the Judicial system—Judges, jurors, and all. And this was the Sabbath service upon which a large and apparently approving audience of the good city of Boston attended on Sunday last. What wonder that fanaticism should rule the hour when such sentiments can find a response in any considerable portion of the public mind.
Finally, an undated account from the Boston Banner of Light, kept by Bronson Alcott,4 contains a sixty-one sentence summary of Thoreau’s lecture. Objectively presented overall, this summary assumes what might be interpreted as a momentarily sarcastic tone in the sentence, “He [Thoreau} never reads the political columns of the newspapers; and the time and labor bestowed by our Presidents on their messages seems to have been in great part wasted, as Mr. Thoreau has never read one of them.” The account ends on a positive note, however, declaring that “The lecture, notwithstanding its very peculiar views, elicited much interest from the epigrammatic style in which it was clothed.”
A few sentences in the various summaries of the lecture reveal that some of what Thoreau said was entirely misunderstood, at least by the reporters. One of the sentences Thoreau read, for example, was “The chief want, in every State I have been into, was a high and earnest purpose in its inhabitants.”5 But the reporter for the Atlas and Daily Bee rendered this sentence in his summary as “The chief merit among us as a people … was a higher aim in life.” In spite of such lapses on the part of at least a few auditors, Thoreau’s performance was apparently good enough to hold his audience’s attention for the seventy or so minutes that he spoke.6 Indeed, although Thoreau was seldom praised for his oratorical skills, most of the reports suggest that his audience at the Music Hall found him engaging.
Whatever success the Music Hall lecture achieved was met with apparent relief by Emerson, who had recommended Thoreau as a speaker. An 11 October 1859 letter from Emerson to Daniel Ricketson expresses some relief that Thoreau’s lecture of two day’s earlier had gone well. “We were all concerned that Mr. Thoreau should prosper at the Music Hall on Sunday,” wrote Emerson. He added that “From private reports I infer that he made a just impression.”7
Some scholars have interpreted the invitation that Thoreau received two weeks later to deliver “A Plea for Captain John Brown” in Boston on 1 November as an indication of the success of “Life Misspent.” Such an interpretation seems to us doubtful, however, because the sponsors of the John Brown meeting secured Thoreau as an emergency stand-in for Frederick Douglass, who was then on his way to Canada to escape arrest for alleged involvement in Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. The invitation, therefore, is probably not a reliable indication of how “Life Misspent” was received in Boston. More reliable are the remarks in the newspapers, and these remarks suggest that Thoreau’s lecture, while seemingly well received, was not an unqualified success, especially as judged by the reporters themselves.
A decidedly negative opinion of Thoreau’s lecture was registered exactly two weeks after its delivery by the Reverend D. C. Eddy of Boston’s Harvard Street Church. The 24 October Boston journal reported on Eddy’s lecture of the previous evening, noting that:
The speaker referred to a recent lecture delivered in this city, by Henry D. Thoreau, on “Misspent Lives,” conceiving that the lecturer had given no true idea of a model life, wither in his lecture or in himself; and turned from him to one wiser than Solomon in all his glory—and the estimate by Christ of a misspent life, as one who hearing and not doing his sayings, was likened to a man building his house upon the sand—turning from the epigrammatic nonsense of the Walden Pond cynic and the transcendental mysticism of Emerson to the Great Teacher whose language was as transparent as his life, and his life an illustration of his teachings….
In a likely reference to Thoreau and Emerson, Eddy was reported to have said:
The world is none the better for many a man who has lived in it. How many men with language glowing with eloquence, leave but misspent lives; they have shown their literature and their learning, but the wounds which have festered on the breast of humanity do not heal for anything they have done.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: “Life Misspent” represents Thoreau’s fairly significant revision of his earlier “What Shall It Profit” lecture. He dropped forty-two paragraphs, added seven new paragraphs, and changed his title or thesis paragraph from “My text this evening is ‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?'” to “Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives,” the latter change in particular accounting for the change of lecture titles.8
2. Parker’s MS “Sermon Record Book” MB. “We are grateful to Joel Myerson for bringing this item to our attention. For a view of the large, ornate interior of the Music Hall in Boston, see STUDIES IN THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE 1994, p. 107.
3. Alcott MS “Diary for 1859,” entry of 9 October, MH (*59-308); rpt. Walter Harding, “Thoreau at the Boston Music Hall” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 105 (Fall 1968): 7, and Kenneth Walter Cameron, “Thoreau in the Pulpit: Report of a Lost Address,” American Transcendental Quarterly, 20, supplement, part 1 (Fall 1973): 1. Cameron suggested in the headnote to his reprinting that this review probably was clipped from the Boston Post, although that source has not been confirmed.
4. “Autobiographical Collections.” vol. 7, MH (*59M-307) [6:87]: rpt., Dean “Thoreau’s Sermon to the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society,” Thoreau Society Bulletin. no. 170 (Winter 1985): 4-5.
5. Quoted from a description of the differences between “What Shall It Profit,” “Life Misspent,” and Life Without Principal” in Dean, “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures.” p. 341.
6. The clipping from the unidentified newspaper (see note 3 above) mentions that Thoreau “discoursed” for an hour and a half, but the reporter very likely exaggerated the time because the reconstructed “Life Misspent” can be read aloud at a normal pace in about seventy minutes.
7. Quoted from a transcript of the letter in the collection of Thomas Blanding.
8. See Dean, Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life Without Principle’ Lectures.” p. 299, for a more detailed description of the changes Thoreau made when revising “What Shall It Profit” in the weeks before he first delivered “Life Misspent.” For the differing thesis paragraphs. see Dean. pp. 312, 336.
Reprinted with permission