Thoreau’s Lectures After Walden: Lecture 75




11 December 1860, Tuesday; 8:00 p.m.
Waterbury, Connecticut; Hotchkiss Hall


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: The recovered correspondence concerning Thoreau’s 11 December delivery of “Autumnal Tints” consists of three letters, the first from A. S. Chase, corresponding secretary for a lecture series at Waterbury’s Young Men’s Institute. On 5 October, Chase wrote, “I have yours of the 22nd ult—We accept your offer to lecture here and have assigned you for Tuesday evening December 11th. We have Rev. H. H. Bellows for the 4th & Bayard Taylor for the 18th. Please name your subject in advance of the time if convenient as we would like to be able to state it” (C, p. 591). Two months later, on 2 December, Thoreau wrote to his friend H. G. O. Blake in Worcester, “I am going to Waterbury Ct. to lecture on the 11th inst. If you are to be at home, & it will be agreeable to you, I will spend the afternoon & night of the 10th with you & Brown” (C, p. 601).
Edmund A. Schofield insists that “Thoreau must have realized that he could not make the round trip to Waterbury without being away from Concord for three nights at a minimum, and so had decided to stop in Worcester, stay overnight “with his friends, and get a fresh start early the next day. Six railroad lines converged in Worcester, and a 9:20 A.M. train to Springfield on the Western Railroad, with connections south into Connecticut, would get him to Waterbury in plenty of time for his lecture.” The day of Thoreau’s arrival in Worcester, 10 December, was stormy and raw, with alternating snow and rain from what Schofield calls “a rather soggy early-season nor’easter.”1 That evening, according to Schofield, several visitors assembled at Blake’s house:

Among them, of course, were Thoreau and Harry and Nancy Blake, and the Reverend David Atwood Wasson, who often filled [Thomas Wentworth] Higginson’s pulpit at the Free Church and later succeeded him in it. Present also, since they were members of the Blake household, may have been Blake’s nineteen-year-old daughter by his first marriage, Sarah C. Blake, and twenty-three-year-old Catharine Kelly (born in Ireland), the Blakes’ domestic…. Almost certainly Theo and Sarah Ann Brown, who lived within hailing distance of the Blakes, were present as well.

Other possible guests, Schofield suggests, included Martha LeBaron and her husband-to-be, Delano A. Goddard, the former a Blake neighbor and local newspaper columnist and the latter a newspaper assistant editor.2
Also very much present was E. Harlow Russell, who in 1898 would inherit Thoreau’s manuscripts from their mutual friend Blake. That evening in Blake’s house at 3 Bowdoin Street, Worcester, Russell met Thoreau for the first and only time. In 1891, from notes taken soon after that meeting, he wrote a paper entitled “An Evening (and Thirty Years) with Thoreau,” a portion of which follows:

From what I had read of his writings, I expected to see a man of singular appearance and manners—something of an oddity, in fact. I remember wondering whether he would not greet me in some strange, unheard-of fashion, and whether his conversation would not be unintelligible or such as to throw me into dumb perplexity and embarrassment. I could scarcely imagine how I was to behave in the presence of one whose thoughts and conduct differed so widely from those of ordinary men, and whose attitude towards society and its conventionalities I knew to be so critical, not to say disdainful….
 While I was taking off my overcoat in the entry I heard from an inner room a deep musical voice which I knew to be that of a stranger and felt to be the voice of Thoreau himself. Upon being ushered into the room where the small company were assembled, my first glance fell upon a man sitting near the door whose appearance, without having anything odd about it, would yet, under any circumstances, have arrested my attention. He wore the look which we recognize as that of vitality and distinction—not unlike the late General Sherman. When I was introduced he rose quickly, almost nimbly, to his feet, stood very erect, and extended his hand, saying, I think, “I am glad to see you, Mr. Russell.” There was in his salutation more of the tone and manner of cordiality than I expected. He seemed of rather less than the medium height, compact, well-proportioned, and noticeably straight and erect. His shoulders were not square, but sloping, like those of Mr. Emerson. His head was not large, nor did it strike me as handsome; it was covered with a full growth of rather dark hair. His face was very striking, whether seen in the front or profile view. Large, perceptive, blue I think, eyes, large and prominent nose; his mouth concealed by a full, dark beard, worn natural but not untrimmed; these features pervaded by a wise, serious and dignified look. His countenance was not severe or commanding, but it certainly gave no hint of shallowness or trifling. He was attired in plain, dark clothes, not ill-fitting, but well removed from anything like “style.” He wore a turned-over linen collar and a black cravat that was tied without skill, and I remember noticing on his feet blue woolen socks, and a pair of slippers that I thought might have been lent him for the evening by his host. I have already said that his voice was deep-toned and musical; its effect in conversation was agreeable. In speech he was deliberate and positive. The emphatic words seemed to hang fire or to be held back for an instant as if to gather force and weight. Although he resembled Emerson in this, there was no appearance of affectation about it; he appeared to be looking at his thought all the time he was selecting and uttering his words. Perhaps he talked rather like one who was more accustomed to be listened to than to listen, though this was by no means prominent, and there was not the slightest lack of courtesy in his manner. His conversation was easy and interesting, but it was of the kind that proceeds by a succession of short paragraphs deliberately constructed, rather than by suggestive sentences and phrases neatly and sympathetically adjusted to what is said by others. He gave you a chance to talk, attended to what you said, and then made his reply, but did not come to very close quarters with you or help you out with your thought after the manner of skilled and practiced conversers. Emerson says of him that “he coldly and fully stated his opinion without affecting to believe that it was the opinion of the company.” He was always interesting, often entertaining, but never what you would call charming.
 The conversation on the evening I am speaking of did not take a very high range, but Thoreau’s inclination was to treat everything seriously. We were speaking of boats, and I mentioned that I had used one the previous summer on Lake Winnepesaukee made of canvas which served very well. He seemed interested in this and asked several questions about it. Then he said that the birch bark canoe made Indian fashion was for its uses superior to anything that had been invented since. This led him to speak of Indians, their skill in woodcraft, and particularly their persistence in being Indians. He spoke from experience and sympathy, as well as from very wide reading. The white man, he said, when he tried outdoor life fell a long way behind the Indian. “We sometimes camp out,” he exclaimed, “the Indian rarely camped in.” He spoke in great disparagement of the missionary labors of white people among the Indians, observing with emphasis that our ways of living were no better fitted to them than theirs to us. He then related an account of some native Greenlanders who were kidnapped and carried on board a European vessel. They immediately began to jump overboard and swim ashore. Those who could be prevented were then confined below decks and kept there until the ship had proceeded hundreds of miles on her homeward voyage, when they were allowed to come upon deck; whereupon they straight-way ran to the stem, jumped into the sea and struck out boldly and confidently for home! He gave a graphic description of the wonderful dexterity displayed by Greenlanders in the management of their kayaks or skin boats. In the Course of the evening he got into some discussion with the late D. A. Wasson, who was present, on the subject of missionaries. I have forgotten what the disputed point was, but I distinctly remember how firmly and persistently, though courteously, Thoreau maintained his side, as though it were a matter of long-settled conviction in his mind. He happened to speak, in some connection, of a man named Hawkins who had lately called to
solicit his subscription to a life of his [Hawkins’] father, a noted temperance lecturer. “I told him,” said Thoreau “that I was not much interested in the subject, as my intemperance did not lie in the direction of ardent spirits.” I remember his saying also that he seldom bought a book until he had read it. When I came to take leave of him he gave me his hand again in a pleasant and cordial manner, and I thought he showed pleasure, though I do not remember what he said, when I told him that I was engaged in reading his books, and expressed more, probably, by manner than by words, the deep interest I was growing to feel in them.
 I have always remembered with sadness the hoarseness and cough from which he was suffering at this time, for although supposed to be temporary, it marked the beginning of the malady that proved fatal about a year and a half afterwards. He was not quite forty-six [sic] when he died. I had looked forward to a camping excursion with Thoreau in the summer of 1862, and had of course anticipated a memorable experience; but his failing health deferred any hopes, and his death, in May of that year, extinguished them forever.3

In an August 1901 letter to Franklin B. Sanborn, Russell remarked, “Thoreau was suffering from that cold on the evening I spent with him at Mr. Blake’s house here in Worcester; I remember his hoarseness, though nothing else that bespoke illness.”4 Walter Harding states that the cold was considerably worse than Russell had supposed: “His cold had rapidly developed into bronchitis. His friends and the family doctor all urged him to cancel the lecture, but he insisted that he had an engagement to fulfill and journeyed to Waterbury to read ‘Autumnal Tints’ despite their advice.” Adds Harding, “The strain of the journey worsened Thoreau’s condition and he returned to Concord a seriously ill man” (Days, p. 441).
Edmund Schofield has offered an alternative to the prevailing assumption that Thoreau caught his ultimately fatal cold on 3 December while counting tree rings on stumps at Fairhaven Hill, suggesting instead that he contracted his illness from an already sick Bronson Alcott during a 29 November conversation about a proposed commemoration of John Brown’s execution (see lecture 68 above). Schofield says:

It is a measure of Thoreau’s resolve (or stubbornness) that he would begin against all counsel—an arduous, 290-mile journey at the very height of an illness, at the stage of a cold that had kept Bronson Alcott from so much as writing in his Diary. Thoreau might not have survived even had he not gone to Waterbury, of course, but given his and his family’s inherited susceptibility to lung problems, and the apparent severity of the cold, it was nothing short of folly for him to have left home. The weather during the trip—snowy, rainy, windy, and cold by turns—only compounded the effects of his error in judgment, though of course he could not have known beforehand what the weather would be because there was no weather bureau to issue forecasts.
 Thoreau, and certainly Alcott, would never realize the fearful consequences of their innocent conversation about John Brown on Thanksgiving Day 1860. Ironically it was their shared devotion to the martyred Brown that brought them together at that inauspicious moment: in a sense, then, the hanging of John Brown in December 1859 is the first identifiable link in the chain of events leading to Henry Thoreau’s death in May 1862. If Bronson Alcott indeed did pass the cold on to Thoreau in November 1860, then his touching gesture on the day before Thoreau died, when he leaned over and kissed Thoreau’s fevered brow, becomes symbolic.
 The conclusion is clear: Thoreau’s ecological field work did not do him in; on the contrary, it actually shielded him from direct exposure to a virulent cold virus brought to Concord by strangers. It took an intermediary, albeit an unwitting and surely unwilling one—Amos Bronson Alcott—to convey the virus to Thoreau. If Thoreau must be faulted for anything, it is his ill-considered lecture trip to Waterbury.5

If Schofield is right, then the following journal entry for 15 December by Bronson Alcott lends ironic closure to this account: “Call on Thoreau, who has returned from Waterbury where, with a severe cold on him, he read his lecture on ‘Autumn Tints’ to the Lyceum on Wednesday evening.”6
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: The 16 November 1860 Waterbury American contained this advertisement for a lecture series:

INSTITUTE LECTURES—The Executive Committee have their engagements nearly completed for the ninth annual course of Lectures before the Young Men’s Institute, the ensuing season. Judging from the list of names so far as engaged—embracing some of the old favorites, together with a judicious selection from among the popular lecturers whom we have not yet had the pleasure of hearing—we think the course will prove to be fully equal to the best yet given. It is expected that the opening lecture will be given by the Rev. Henry W. Bellows, D. D., of New York, the first week in December. He will be followed by Henry D. Thoreau, esq., of Concord, Mass., the well-known author; Rev. Thos. K. Beecher, of Elmira, N.Y., (a brother of Henry Ward); B. P. Shillaber, esq., of the Boston Post, (Mrs. Partington); Geo. W. Curtis, esq.; Rev. Dr. Chapin; Rev. T. L. Cuyler, and one or two others to be announced hereafter.

In another column, an advertisement for the Bellows lecture notes that tickets for the entire course of lectures, which included use of the Institute’s library cost $2 for men and $1.50 for ladies, while a ticket for a single lecture cost twenty-five cents. Doors to the lectures would open at 7 p.m., and the lectures would commence an hour later.
Thoreau’s lecture followed that of Bellows, whose lecture on “Direction, or the Face we Turn to the World” was declared a “very good beginning of the course” in the 7 December Waterbury American. The paper reported that despite a snow storm, there had been “a fair audience in the Hall” to listen to Bellows’ lecture, which “appeared to give general satisfaction.” Thoreau, however, did not fare so well at the hands of his reviewer for the 14 December issue of this paper, who wrote as follows:

INSTITUTE LECTURE.—The second lecture of the course before the Young Men’s Institute was delivered on Tuesday evening last, by H. D. Thoreau, of Concord, Mass. Mr. Thoreau, as the author of two or three very entertaining books, one of which at least, descriptive of ‘Life in the Woods,’ has passed through several editions, has acquired a deservedly high reputation, but as a popular lecturer is evidently out of his element. In fact, as Artemus Ward would say, lecturing is not his ‘fort.’ The subject—‘Autumnal Tints’—is a suggestive one, and in some hands would have formed the basis of a very interesting lecture,—as it was, it was dull, commonplace and unsatisfactory. There was nothing of the practical and very little of the poetical discoverable in it. It is possible, however, that the monotonous style in which it was delivered prevented the audience from duly appreciating whatever of real merit it contained as a composition. On the whole, probably no lecture[r] before the Institute has so thoroughly disappointed his auditory. However, there are favorite lecturers to follow, and we may look for some rich entertainments before the lecture season is over. The next lecture of the course, we believe, is to be on the 8th of January.

It is unfortunate that Thoreau’s final public lecture should have been considered not just inferior but, indeed, arguably the nadir in a long-running annual lecture series. One is tempted to attribute his alleged “monotonous style” to the serious, ultimately terminal illness under which he labored. However, more than a year before, his penultimate rendition of “Autumnal Tints” in Lynn, Massachusetts, had also been criticized for its uninspired manner. Then, at least, the reviewer had found compensation in the content for Thoreau’s lackluster delivery. The truth seems to be that Thoreau was not a particularly engaging public speaker, perhaps because he cared far more for instructing his audiences than for entertaining them and, as a consequence, made little effort to cater to their expectations oratorically. In any case, Thoreau lectured during a reign of eloquence enforced by an army of professional public speakers, an age when lucrative lecture engagements were the prize for lively and entertaining lecturers. He must have realized that to be oratorically lusterless during such an age was to be underemployed, no matter the graces of one’s writing or the genius of one’s ideas. Franklin B. Sanborn, somewhat uncharacteristically, was probably correct when he remarked of Thoreau’s lecturing abilities, “He had few of the arts of the orator, in which Emerson and Phillips excelled; his presence on the platform was not inspiring, nor was his voice specially musical…. But for the thought and humor in his lectures they would have been reckoned dull,—and that was the impression often made.”7
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 59 above.

 1. Schofield, “Time Recovering Itself,” pp. 32-33.
 2. Schofield, “Time Recovering Itself,” pp. 33-34. For information on Martha LeBaron, see Kent P. Ljungquist, “Martha Le Baron Goddard: Forgotten Worcester Writer and Thoreau Critic,” Concord Saunterer, 2, no. 1 (Fall 1994), pp. 149-56.
 3. E. Harlow Russell, “An Evening (and Thirty Years) with Thoreau,” in Thomas Blanding and Edmund A. Schofield, “E. Harlow Russell’s Reminiscences of Thoreau,” Concord Saunterer, 17, no. 2 (August 1984), pp. 8-11.
 4. Quoted in Blanding and Schofield, “E. Harlow Russell’s Reminiscences of Thoreau,” p. 8.
 5. Schofield, “The Origin of Thoreau’s Fatal Illness,” 2.
 6. Alcott, Journals, p. 330.
 7. F. B. Sanborn, The Personality of Thoreau (Boston: Goodspeed, 1901), p. 37.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission