Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Introduction


SINCE WALTER HARDING PRESENTED his “Check List of Thoreau’s Lectures” in 1948,1 he and many other scholars have discovered a great deal more information about Thoreau’s lecturing activities. For one thing, we now know that Thoreau delivered at least seventy-five public lectures, nine more than those recorded in 1948. No doubt a great deal more material awaits discovery, especially in the newspapers of the time, in lyceum records, and in manuscript diaries and letters. Nonetheless, enough new information is now available to warrant the publication of this updated calendar, which brings together virtually all of the information currently known about Thoreau’s activities as a lecturer and which we present in two parts, with the publication of Walden on 6 August 1854 forming the dividing line between those parts. For the purposes of this calendar, a lecture is Thoreau’s (or, in one instance, a representative’s) continuous and public delivery of a text that Thoreau himself composed in advance of delivery. We do not regard as lectures, then, Thoreau’s unscheduled and apparently frequent private readings to small groups of friends or family members. And we regard as two separate lectures Thoreau’s deliveries of what were apparently single lecture texts that he split for particular occasions, reading half in the morning, for instance, and the other half later in the day. A separate section after each of the two parts of the checklist, each for the relevant period, notes private readings, impromptu speeches, possible but unconfirmed lecture deliveries, and reported deliveries that have been proven spurious or are otherwise problematic.
Analysis of the updated checklist confirms the long-standing impression that Thoreau’s career as a lecturer was less successful than he had hoped, especially when measured by the number of lectures he delivered and the financial reward he received for delivering them. Over the twenty-three years of his seventy-five lecture career, he averaged just over three lectures per year, a paltry figure for someone who aspired to be a professional lecturer in an age when many men made a substantial income from lecturing. Even if we do not begin counting until 1843, which was Thoreau’s first multiple-lecture year and the commencement of his thereafter continuous annual engagement as a lecturer, his lectures-per-year average rises to only a bit more than four.
Before the publication of Walden, Thoreau’s lecturing career was promoted by Emerson, who, had he not thought to do so on his own, was urged to that end by his wife, Lidian (see lecture 3 below). Also of pre-Walden benefit was the celebrity—and notoriety—resulting from Horace Greeley’s endorsement in the New-York Tribune of Thoreau’s contemplative pondside life (see lecture 20 below). Somewhat surprisingly, the publication of Walden apparently had only a marginal effect on the frequency of Thoreau’s lecturing. Before Walden‘s publication, Thoreau gave a total of forty-three lectures over seventeen years, averaging 2.5 a year, or a more noteworthy but still unimpressive 3.7 per year if we begin with his two Concord lectures in 1843. After the publication of Walden, in the six-and-a-half years through his last lecture in late 1860, Thoreau gave thirty-two lectures or an average of 4.9 per year. In other words, assuming that he continually sought lecturing assignments throughout these years, the record indicates that whatever success Walden achieved translated into a relatively insignificant increase of lecture engagements. This is a bit of a puzzle considering that in 1854, just after the book’s publication, Thoreau’s name appeared for the first time in the lists of popular lecturers that the New-York Tribune printed every autumn, an inclusion repeated every year thereafter till the end of his career.2 Thoreau himself had anticipated a considerable boost to his lecturing from Walden‘s publication, for immediately after the book was in print he began preparing lectures for a proposed tour the subsequent winter to the West and Canada. He was compelled to abandon his plans, however, because of insufficient invitations.3
The lectures-per-year average is somewhat misleading because it obscures some highly successful years—and year-overlapping lecture seasons4—that Thoreau enjoyed both before and after the publication of Walden. His busiest calendar years as a lecturer were 1859 with ten lectures; 1852 with eight; 1849 and 1860 with seven each; and 1848, 1851, and 1854 with six each. In terms of lecture seasons, his busiest were 1848-49 and 1851-52 with nine lectures each, 1854-55 and 1859-60 with seven each, and 1850-51 and 1856-57 with six each.
Thoreau’s most frequently delivered lectures were those in his “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” course. He delivered one or another of the three lectures in this course a total of seventeen times. The first of the three “Economy” was his staple and, delivered on at least nine occasions, was one of his two most frequently presented lectures. The more philosophical second lecture of the “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” course, a lecture Thoreau once described as “Reality rather transcendentally treated” (C, p. 279), was presented five times, while the third lecture had just three readings—at least in part, it would seem, because his second lecture had the effect of failing to get him invited back to deliver the third. Notably, he never repeated a lecture once it had reached published form, and he made no exception for the lectures from his course on “Walden; or, Life in the Woods.”
Thoreau’s other most frequently delivered lecture—like “Economy,” delivered nine times—was “What Shall It Profit,” later called “Life Misspent” and eventually published as “Life without Principle.” His third most frequently delivered lecture was “Walking,” which he delivered eight times, Thoreau may well have regarded these two lectures as lectures rather than nascent essays or chapters because they are the only ones he delivered over a number of years and never moved toward publication, at least not until he knew he was close to death. Perhaps he wanted to keep them in his lecture portfolio because together they present his principal views on nature (“Walking”) and humankind (“What Shall It Profit”).
As a lecturer, Thoreau traveled a good deal in Concord. Of his seventy-five known presentations, twenty-six of them—more than one-third—were before his townspeople, and all but three of those as an unpaid guest of the local lyceum. He gave his first Concord Lyceum lecture, on “Society,” in 1838 at the Masonic Hall (see lecture 2 below), and thereafter moved with the Lyceum to other venues,” presenting his last lecture before the Lyceum, “Wild Apples,” in 1860 at Concord’s red-brick Centre School House, probably in the high-school room. During the excitement over John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry the previous year, Thoreau delivered two independent or non-lyceum lectures in Concord, and on 20 September 1860 he delivered his other non-lyceum lecture in Concord, “The Succession of Forest Trees,” before a largely hometown audience at the Middlesex Cattle Show. He was certainly not paid for either of his two John Brown appearances, and there is no record of him having been paid for the appearance at the Cattle Show.
Besides lecturing for the Concord Lyceum, Thoreau took an intermittently active role in Lyceum affairs.6 He served as secretary from 18 October 1838 until 15 December 1840. He was also elected curator on 7 November 1838. On 20 November 1840, he was elected but declined to serve as secretary and curator. Elected curator again on 18 November 1842, he once more declined to serve, although, as Hubert H. Hoeltje discovered, “the unpublished manuscript Cash Book seems to indicate otherwise.”7 Subsequently, on 5 March 1845, two curators resigned to protest an invitation to abolitionist Wendell Phillips to lecture before the Lyceum. Thoreau, Emerson, and Samuel Barrett were chosen as replacements.” Finally, on 2 November 1853, Thoreau was elected curator but once more declined. Curiously, Thoreau’s cohorts in the Concord Lyceum often attributed his lecture presentations to “David Henry Thoreau,” or “D. H. Thoreau,” rejecting, at least symbolically, his attempt to redefine himself. Indeed, while Thoreau’s average of more than one Concord Lyceum lecture a year over two decades compares well enough with Emerson’s two per year over four decades, suggesting a good reputation in his hometown, he complained in his journal about the perceived unwillingness of his townspeople to recognize him as a professional lecturer (see lecture 42 below).
With regard to Thoreau’s self-image and public stature as a professional lecturer, there is a telling difference between him and Emerson, a difference belied by the frequent appearances of both men before their home audiences. Simply stated, with Concord removed from the equation, their lecturing careers are not at all equivalent. Away from Concord, Emerson lectured far, wide, often, profitably, and to international acclaim. Thoreau, away from Concord, delivered just fifty-two lectures in almost twenty-three years, with only five beyond New England and none outside the United States. Indeed, he lectured outside his home state on only nine occasions. Fifty of Thoreau’s seventy-four post-collegiate lectures were delivered in just five Massachusetts communities—twenty six in Concord, nine in Worcester, six in Boston, five in Plymouth, and four in neighboring Lincoln. Whereas Emerson made a good income lecturing on “Wealth” and other topics, Thoreau was paid for only about forty of his lectures—and on only one or two occasions for more than twenty-five dollars, but usually just ten to twenty dollars including transportation from Concord. Pro-rated over the length of his career, his income from lecturing was a pittance.8
With regard to numbers alone—of lectures given and dollars earned—one may fairly say that Thoreau’s career as a lecturer did not amount to much. It would be a mistake and an injustice, however, to extend this same conclusion to more than a merely quantitative appraisal. The final measure of these lectures’ worth is the stature of the essays and books that they became that were in a sense, their apotheosis. Thoreau himself described his method of composition as an evolution from field observations to journal entries to lecture gleanings to fully realized texts, an organic growth in which each phase advanced the maturation process (see lecture 8 below). Viewed in this light, his lecture presentations were an integral part of his authorship: an opportunity to vet ideas before audiences, a chance to hear himself think out loud.
We need not, however, divert judgment from the spoken texts to their published successors in order to construe Thoreau as a successful lecturer. Nor do we have to over-rely on the inference, however logical, that he was a good enough lecturer to have made twenty-three appearances before his Concord neighbors, who liked what they heard well enough to come back for more, time and time again. To be sure, the clearest indication that Thoreau was a successful lecturer is the responses to his lectures by those who heard them delivered. Included in this checklist, these responses—whether newspaper reports or anecdotal comments in letters and diaries—suggest that Thoreau, more often than not, was well received by a significant portion of his audience and that many of his lectures drew enthusiastic responses from an apparent majority. While Thoreau’s platform performance could not match Emerson’s (despite charges, particularly frequent before 1850, that he aped Emerson’s manner), the expanded record does not support Henry S. Canby’s charge in 1939 that “He was a bad lecturer—never successful except with individuals.”9 Indeed, although his lecturing style was sometimes criticized, there is enough recorded praise to suggest that many found him an engaging speaker. A survey of all known responses reveals, not surprisingly, that those who found a measure of sense in Thoreau’s often controversial ideas tended to enjoy both the lecture and the lecturer, whereas those who rejected the ideas were likely to dismiss the news and its bearer as foolish, offensive, or both.10
The compilers of this calendar will publish “Thoreau’s Lectures After “Walden: An Annotated Calendar” in the next volume of STUDIES IN THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE. We also plan to update the combined calendar when sufficient new information warrants. Anyone discovering such information is invited to submit findings to the calendar compilers for possible publication in either The Thoreau Society Bulletin or The Concord Saunterer. This material will also be included in any cumulative updates of the calendar.

 1. Walter Harding, “A Check List of Thoreau’s Lectures,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 52. (February 1948): 78-87.
2. Horace Greeley, the editor of the New-York Daily Tribune, printed the first of these annual lists on 27 September 1853, but Thoreau’s name was not mentioned until the following year’s list, printed in the Tribune on 20 September 1854. The last time Thoreau’s name appeared in the Tribune‘s annual list was on 27 October 1860. Thoreau probably notified the Tribune the following summer or fall that he was too ill to lecture during the 1861-62. lecture season.
3. On 21 September 1854, in a letter to H. G. O. Blake, Thoreau pointed out that he planned to travel to the West to deliver lectures sometime after delivering a lecture in Philadelphia on 21 November 1854 (The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode [New York: New York University Press, 1958], p. 339; hereafter cited in the text and notes as C). We have at least a partial record of his attempts to arrange lecture engagements for the tour in Hamilton, Canada West (Ontario), and in Akron, Ohio (C, pp. 347, 352-53). Judging from these attempts, he appears to have planned the tour for late-December 1854 and January 1855.
4. The lecture season in mid-nineteenth-century America began in the late autumn, usually late November, and ended at the beginning of spring, usually mid April.
5. Identifying the venue for each of the lectures Thoreau delivered before the Concord Lyceum is problematic because the Lyceum secretaries, who over the years were responsible for maintaining the Lyceum records, rarely identified where a particular lecture was delivered. However, the secretaries almost always identified the venue for the Lyceum’s first meeting of a given season, and we know, the venue for quite a few lectures from a variety of other sources, such as letters and diary entries. Because of the high degree of correlation between the known venues for lectures and the recorded venues for the first meetings of the seasons, we have assumed, unless we had evidence to the contrary, that Thoreau delivered his Concord Lyceum lectures at the same venues where the first meetings of the seasons were held.
6. Hubert H. Hoeltje summarizes Thoreau’s administrative positions in the Concord Lyceum in “Thoreau as Lecturer,” New England Quarterly, 19 (December 1946): 490n9.
7. Hoeltje, “Thoreau as Lecturer,” 490n9.
8. Based on all the evidence we have been able to gather, we speculate that Thoreau earned approximately $700 from lecturing during his twenty-three-year career, an average of about $27 annually.
9. Henry Seidel Canby, Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Miff1in, 1939), p. 135.
10. Hoeltje makes substantively this same point in “Thoreau as Lecturer.” 489, 494.