Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 11



17 February 1847, Wednesday; 7:00 P.M.
Concord, Massachusetts; Unitarian Church, VESTRY


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: The records of the Concord Lyceum state, “Concord Feb 17 1847 A lecture was delivered by Henry D Thoreau of Concord. Subject—Same as last week. A. G. Fay Sec[retary]” (MassLyc, p. 162). The lecture was the twelfth of the season’s sixteen offerings (MassLyc, p. 162).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: See lecture 10 for a discussion of Prudence Ward’s favorable comments on this lecture, which she reported, perhaps erroneously, to be a repetition of Thoreau’s lecture of the previous week. Lyceums very rarely allowed repeat performances, and at this time Thoreau almost certainly had a draft of the second of his three early Walden lectures. But whether Prudence Ward was right or wrong about the duplication, this second lecture attracted “a very full audience” as Ward reported (quoted in Days, p. 187), and was well received.
Two other letters, one by Emerson and one by Bronson Alcott, ambiguously refer to one or another of these lecture performances, with a slight favoring of the 17 February possibility. In a 28 February 1847 letter to Margaret Fuller, Emerson comments, “Miss Ripley & other members of the opposition came down the other night to hear Henry’s Account of his housekeeping at Walden Pond, which he read as a lecture, and were charmed with the witty wisdom which ran through it all.”1 The Alcott letter, to his daughter Anna, was penned on a “Wednesday Night” in February 1847, the day of one of the two lectures. In a response to Anna’s query about how she might help her mother and father through the family’s present difficult circumstances, Alcott assures her that self-improvement guided by her own conscience is the path to follow. He concludes with a tantalizingly cryptic endorsement of the lecture she would hear that evening. His apparent familiarity with what Thoreau will say suggests that he either had had private access to the material or had already heard it delivered, either as a private reading or a public lecture. If the latter, his opportunities would have been in Lincoln on 19 January, assuming that Thoreau gave his “History of Myself’ lecture then, or in Concord on 10 February, assuming the unusual: that Thoreau did deliver the same lecture on both the 10th and 17th. Alcott’s letter to Anna reads in part:

Your Note was the first thing I saw this morning, when I came in to make my study fire: and I was glad to find, all I knew, of your earnest desire to help us in these times of trial, confirmed in your own handwriting. You wish me to tell you what you can do to lighten your mother’s cares, and give your father a still deeper enjoyment in yourself, and your sisters….Life is a lesson we best learn and almost solely too, by living. The Conscience within is the best, and, in the end, the only Counseller…. Tis that first of all duties[,] Self-improvement, to which end life, and the world, and your friends are all given. I think I speak truly when I say that you wish this most of all things….As for me, and my thoughts—Great is my Peace, if in going at night to my Pillow, I have the sense of having earned my faculties, or limbs even, by thinking One Thought, speaking one word, doing one deed, that my task master approves, or the nearest or remotest Person or Time shall adopt, repeat, or enjoy.—
 Dear Anna, this from your thoughtful, yet careful-minded Father. For the rest, our friend Henry shall answer and explain in the Lecture you hear this evening.2

DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: Very likely the second of Thoreau’s two earliest “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” lectures, the text of this lecture is, for the most part, the second fifty-odd pages (paged “1” through “53” using Thoreau’s pagination on the manuscript leaves) of “the text of the first version” of Walden recovered by J. Lyndon Shanley.3 The following sentence suggests the sense of immediacy the lecture likely created among Thoreau’s auditors: “I trust that none of my hearers will be so uncharitable as to look into my house now—after hearing this, at the end of an unusually dirty winter, with critical housewife’s eyes, for I intend to celebrate the first bright & unquestionable spring morning by scrubbing my house with sand until it is as white as a lily—or, at any rate, as the washerwoman said of her clothes, as white as a ‘wiolet.'”4 As with the first of his two lectures, Thoreau continued to revise this text and published it seven-and-a-half years later as the second chapter of Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” although several paragraphs of the lecture text consist of passages published in the “Reading” and “Sounds” chapters.

 1. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 9 vols. to date, ed. Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor M. Tilton New York: Columbia University Press. 1939; 1990- ), 3:377-78.
 2. The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, pp. 128-29.
 3. Shanley, Making of Walden, pp. 137-57.
 4. Shanley, Making of Walden, p. 153.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission