Worcester, Massachusetts; Washburn Hall, Mechanic’s Hall Building
“THE CHARACTER AND ACTIONS OF CAPT. JOHN BROWN”
I spoke to my townsmen last evening on “The character of Capt. Brown, now in the clutches of the slaveholder.” I should like to speak to any company in Worcester who may wish to hear me, & will come, if only my expenses are paid. I think that we should express ourselves at once, while Brown is alive. The sooner the better. Perhaps [T. W.] Higginson may like to have a meeting.
Wednesday evening would be a good time.
The people here are deeply interested in the matter.
Let me have an answer as soon as may be.
Thoreau added in a postscript, “I may be engaged toward the end of the week” (C, p. 563).
Blake quickly rented Washburn Hall, an eighty-by-fifty-foot meeting room on the second floor of the new gas-lighted and steam-heated Mechanics Hall Building, opened in 1857.1 The lecture actually took place on Thursday evening instead of the Wednesday Thoreau had requested. While the reason for the change is not known, the delay would seemingly have benefitted Thoreau, who spoke in Boston on the preceding Tuesday evening as a last-minute substitute for Frederick Douglass (see lecture 66 above). The 31 October telegram requesting his stand-in lecture presumably arrived after his letter to Blake went off that same day (C, pp. 653-54).
Bronson Alcott noted Thoreau’s Worcester address in two journal entries. For 1 November Alcott recorded, “Thoreau goes to read his lecture tonight at the Music Hall and again on Monday night at Worcester.”2 (Alcott’s reference to “Monday” is an error.) Alcott’s 4 November entry praises Thoreau and likens him to John Brown:
Thoreau calls and reports about the reading of his lecture on Brown at Boston and Worcester. Thoreau has good right to speak fully his mind concerning Brown, and has been the first to speak and celebrate the hero’s courage and magnanimity. It is these which he discerns and praises. The men have much in common: the sturdy manliness, straight-forwardness and independence. It is well they met, and that Thoreau saw what he sets forth as no one else can. Both are sons of Anak, and dwellers in Nature—Brown taking more to the human side and driving straight at institutions whilst Thoreau contents himself with railing at them and letting them otherwise alone. He is the proper panegyrist of the virtues he owns himself so largely, and so comprehends in another.3
In a curiously hybridized journal entry of 15 November 1859, Thoreau’s glancing comment about Worcester marks a shift from passages of nature observations to passages about John Brown, followed by alternating nature observation and politics to the entry’s close. Of his Worcester visit, Thoreau wrote, “I noticed on the 3d, in Worcester, that the white pines had been as full of seed there as here this year. Also gathered half a pocketful of shagbarks, of which many still hung on the trees though most had fallen” (J, 12:443-47).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: The 3 November Worcester Daily Spy carried two announcements of Thoreau’s lecture, both doubtless submitted by Blake. The briefer of the two simply gave the particulars of the event:
JOHN BROWN.—Henry D. Thoreau of Concord, will speak on the character of John Brown of Ossawatomie, at Washburn Hall, on Thursday Evening, Nov 3, a[t] 71/2 o’clock. Price of admission 10 cents.
On the same page of the paper was this related comment:
H. D. THOREAU ON JOHN BROWN.—An advertisement in another column announces that Mr. Thoreau of Concord will speak in Worcester, this evening, and that his topic will be John Brown and his doings. The lecture will be delivered in Washburn Hall; and, as Mr. Thoreau never deals in common places,—as he considers John Brown a hero,—and as he has been so moved by the Harper’s Ferry affair, as to feel compelled to leave his customary seclusion in order to address the public, what he has to say is likely to be worth hearing.
On 4 November, the day after the lecture, the Worcester Daily Spy ran this account of Thoreau’s talk:
EULOGY OF JOHN BROWN.—Henry D. Thoreau of Concord repeated his Fraternity Lecture on John Brown of Ossawatomie, at Washburn Hall, last evening. The lecture reviewed briefly the leading events of Brown’s personal history, and passed an unqualified eulogy upon his character and his sacrifices. Speaking of his approaching execution he said, “No man has yet appeared in America who loved his fellow man so well, and treated them so well. For him he took up his life; for him he will lay it down. This event advertises us that there is such a thing as death. There has been before no death in America, because there has been no life. Men have only rotted and sloughed along. The best only run down as a clock. They say they will die. I defy them; they cannot do it; they only deliquesce, and leave a hundred eulogists mopping the spot where they left off. These men at Harper’s Ferry, in teaching us how to die, have taught us how to live. Their deed is the best news America has ever heard.” Mr. Thoreau closed with reading portions of Brown’s conversation at the Armory, and his speech to the court before his sentence. These scenes, he said, will stand in history with the landing of the Pilgrims and the Declaration of Independence. It will be the ornament of future national galleries when slavery shall be no more.
A day after this summary, the Fitchburg Semi-Weekly Reveille noted, “H. D. Thoreau delivered a lecture in Worcester, Wednesday evening, subject: ‘John Brown.'” The Wednesday ascription is an error.
In a 6 November 1859 letter to Daniel Ricketson of New Bedford, Bronson Alcott attested to the success of Thoreau’s lecture in Worcester as well as Concord:
Thoreau has just come back from reading a revolutionary Lecture on John Browne of Ossawatomee, a hero and Martyr after his own heart and style. It was received here by our Concord folks with great favor, and he won praise for it also at Worcester. I wish the towns might become his auditors throughout the states and country.4
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: As with his two earlier deliveries of this lecture in Concord and Boston, Thoreau’s text in Worcester was very similar to the one later published as “A Plea for Capt. John Brown,” although for the Worcester delivery he made a few minor changes. Toward the end of his reading draft, he altered the sentence “Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung” to “Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; on the 2nd of December Brown will be hung.”5 He also added the following sentence at the end of the lecture’s (and the essay’s) penultimate paragraph: “And you have read today his speech to the court that sentenced him; clear as a cloudless sky; true as the voice of nature is.”6 Our examination of Thoreau’s extant lecture manuscripts for this and his other lectures indicates that he very often tinkered with his texts before his deliveries in order to customize his reading drafts for particular times and particular locations.
2. Alcott, Journals, p. 320.
3. Alcott, Journals, p. 321.
4. Alcott, Letters, p. 306.
5. In RP, pp. 342-43, Wendell Glick mistakenly suggested, based on Thoreau’s later revision of this sentence back to its original form (a revision reflected in the “MS paged “57,” HM 13203, CSmH), that Thoreau had added the clause “this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung” before the Worcester delivery of the lecture, when in fact it was not until after the Worcester delivery that Thoreau changed this sentence back to the original form, which we know was the original form because the original sentence was very closely paraphrased in the 2 November Boston Daily Advertiser summary of the lecture: “About eighteen hundred years ago, said the speaker, Christ was crucified,—this morning, perhaps, John Brown was hanged.” Also, it was not until 2 November, the day after Thoreau’s Boston lecture and the day before his Worcester lecture, that newspapers in New England reported the previous day’s court proceedings in Virginia, during which Brown was sentenced to death by hanging on 2 December 1859.
6. Quoted from MS paged “60,” HM 13203, CSmH. Thoreau inserted an asterisk next to the word “today” in this sentence and, in a footnote at the bottom of the leaf, wrote, “This sentence was added at Worcester Nov 3d.” Both the quoted sentence and the footnote are canceled in pencil.
Reprinted with permission