Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 15



LECTURE 15

 

22 November 1848, Wednesday; 7:30 P.M.
Salem, Massachusetts; Lyceum Hall
“STUDENT LIFE IN NEW ENGLAND, ITS ECONOMY”

 

NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On 19 May 1848, Thoreau wrote a letter to his friend Horace Greeley, the editor of the widely read New-York Tribune (C, pp. 223-25). In it he included a long paragraph on the economy of his life in the woods at Walden Pond, a paragraph that paraphrased portions of “Economy,” his first “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” lecture. Much impressed, Greeley printed the slightly revised passage in his newspaper, along with some of his own laudatory remarks, under the title “A Lesson for Young Poets.” Greeley’s 25 May 1848 article reads:

We are continually receiving letters from young gentlemen who deem themselves born to enlighten the world in some way—to “strike the sounding lyre,” or from the Editorial tripod dispense wisdom and guidance to an instructed and admiring world. These generally want to know why they cannot be employed in our establishment, or find a publisher for their poems, or a chance in some shape to astonish mankind and earn a livelihood by letters.—To this large and increasing class, we wish to propound one question: “Suppose all who desire to live by Literature or Trade could find places, who would hoe the needful corn or dig the indispensible potatoes?”—But we purposed in beginning to ask their attention to
the following extract from a private letter we have just received from a very different sort of literary youth—a thorough classical scholar, true poet (though he rarely or never wrote verses,) and never sought to make a livelihood by his writings, though there are not six men in America who can surpass them. We feel indeed honored by his friendship, and in the course of a private letter we have just received from him he casually says:
 ”For the last five years, I have’supported myself solely by the labor of my hands. I have not received one cent from any other source; and this has cost me so little time—say, a month in the Spring and another in the Autumn—doing the coarsest work of all kinds, that I have probably enjoyed more leisure for literary pursuits than any contemporary. For more than two years past, I have lived alone in the woods, in a good plastered and shingled house entirely of my own building, earning only what I wanted, and sticking to my proper work. The fact is, man need not live by the sweat of his brow—unless he sweats easier than I do—he needs so little. For two years and two months, all my expenses have amounted to but 27 cents a week, and I have fared gloriously in all respects. If a man must have money—and he needs but the smallest amount—the true and independent way to earn it is by day—labor with his hands at a dollar a day. I have tried many ways and can speak from experience.
 ”Scholars are apt to think themselves privileged to complain as if their lot were a peculiarly hard one. How much have we heard about the attainment of knowledge under difficulties—of poets starving in garrets—of literary men depending on the patronage of the wealthy, and finally dying mad! It is time that men sang another song.—There is no reason why the scholar, who professes to be a little wiser than the mass of men, should not do his work in the ditch occasionally, and, by means of his superior wisdom, make much less suffice for him. A wise man will not be unfortunate. How otherwise would you know that he was not a fool?”
 —We trust our friend will pardon the liberty we have taken in printing the foregoing, since we are sure of effecting signal good thereby. We have no idea of making a hero of him. Our object is simply to shame the herd of pusillanimous creatures who whine out their laziness in bad verses, and execrate the stupidity of publishers and readers who will not buy these maudlin effusions at the paternal estimate of their value, and thus spare them the dire necessity of doing something useful for a living. It is only their paltriness that elevates our independent friend above the level of ordinary manhood, and whenever they shall rise to the level of true self-respect, his course will no longer be remarkable.
 ”What!” says one of them, “do you mean that every one must hoe corn or swing the sledge—that no life is useful or honorable but one of rude manual toil.”—No, Sir; we say no such thing.—If anyone is sought out, required, demanded, for some vocation specially intellectual, let him embrace it and live by it. But the general rule is that Labor—that labor which produces food and clothes and shelter—is every man’s duty and destiny, for which he should be fitted, in which he should be willing to do his part manfully. But let him study, and meditate, and cultivate his nobler faculties as he shall find opportunity; and when ever a career of intellectual exertion shall open before him, let him embrace it if he be inclined and qualified. But to coin his thoughts into some marketable semblance, disdain useful labor of the hands because he had a facility of writing, and go crying his mental wares in the market, seeking to exchange them for bread and clothes—this is most degrading and despicable. Shall not the world outgrow such shabbiness?

Greeley’s article attracted much national attention and comment (for discussion, see lecture 20 below). Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was living in Salem at the time, may have informed the managers of the local lyceum that Thoreau was the anonymous author of the two paragraphs in the Tribune and that those paragraphs were part of a lecture Thoreau had written about his life in the Walden woods. In any event, soon after the Tribune article appeared, the managers voted to invite Thoreau to deliver this lecture. The invitation, however, didn’t reach him until October, when Hawthorne himself, as the new corresponding secretary of the Salem Lyceum, sent the following letter on the twenty-first:

The Managers of the Salem Lyceum, some time ago, voted that you should be requested to deliver a Lecture before that Institution, during the approaching season. I know not whether Mr Chever, the late corresponding Secretary, communicated the vote to you; at all events, no answer has been received, and, as Mr Chever’s succesor in office, I am instructed to repeat the invitation. Permit me to add my own earnest wishes that you will accept it—and also, laying aside my official dignity, to express my wife’s desire and my own that you will be our guest, if you do come.
 In case of your compliance, the Managers would be glad to know at what time it will best suit you to deliver the Lecture. (C, pp. 230-31)

Hawthorne added in a postscript, “I live at No 14, Mall Street—where I shall be very happy to see you. The stated fee for Lectures is $20” (C, p. 231). Very likely this was the first lecture Thoreau was actually paid to deliver.
After receiving Thoreau’s acceptance, Hawthorne wrote to him again on 20 November to request his almost immediate presence in Salem:

I did not sooner write you, because there were pre-engagements for the two or three first lectures, so that I could not arrange matters to have you come during the present month. But, as it happens, the expected lectures have failed us; and we now depend on you to come this very next Wednesday. I shall announce you in the paper of tomorrow, so you must come. I regret that I could not give you longer notice.
 We shall expect you on Wednesday, at No 14 Mall. Street. (C, p. 233)

After his signature, Hawthorne added two more thoughts:

If it is utterly impossible for you to come, pray write me a line so that I may get it Wednesday morning. But, by all means, come.
 This Secretaryship is an intolerable bore. I have travelled thirty miles, this wet day for no other business. (C, pp. 233-34)

Short notice notwithstanding, Thoreau answered Hawthorne’s call and, two days after the letter was penned, gave the second lecture in a course of twenty before the Salem Lyceum. Other lecturers that year included Daniel Webster, Louis Agassiz, Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sumner, and Horace Mann (MassLyc, p. 19).
The day after his lecture, Thoreau accompanied Hawthorne to Craigie House, the Cambridge home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, where they dined with Longfellow and Ellery Channing. On 21 November Hawthorne had written to Longfellow about Thoreau, remarking, “You would find him well worth knowing: he is a man of thought and originality; with a certain iron-poker-ishness, and uncompromising stiffness in his mental character, which is interesting, though it grows wearisome on close and frequent acquaintance.”1 Longfellow, however, had likely already formed his own impression of Thoreau, for the two men had dined together at Emerson’s house only a week earlier (Days, p. 237).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On the last day of October and throughout the first half of November 1848, the Salem Register, Salem Observer, and Salem Tri-Weekly Gazette announced a partial list of “eminent lecturers” who would appear in the course. Among them were Webster, Agassiz, Mann, Emerson, and “Henry S. Thoreau, of Concord, N.H.” (For the Wednesday evening lectures, the “whole number of tickets has been limited to six hundred and thirty,” the Register reported.) Although Hawthorne had told Thoreau he would advertise Thoreau’s appearance at the Salem Lyceum in the local newspapers beginning on 21 November, we have been unable to locate any advertisements in Salem newspapers for that or the following day.
The Salem Observer on 25 November 1848 carried the following review, praising Thoreau’s lecture, identifying him as the reclusive scholar of New-York Tribune fame, and remarking—not uncharitably—Thoreau’s likeness to Emerson:

Mr. Thoreau, of Concord, gave his auditors a lecture on Wednesday evening, sufficiently Emersonian to have come from the great philosopher himself. We were reminded of Emerson continually. In thought, style & delivery, the similarity was equally obvious. There was the same keen philosophy running through him, the same jutting forth of “brilliant edges of meaning” as Gilfillan has it. Even in tone of voice, Emerson was brought strikingly to the ear; and in personal appearance also, we fancied some little resemblance. The close likeness between the two would almost justify a charge of plagiarism, were it not that Mr. Thoreau’s lecture furnished ample proof of being a native product, by affording all the charm of an original. Rather than an imitation of Emerson, it was the unfolding of a like mind with his; as if the two men had grown in the same soil and under the same culture.
 The reader may remember having recently seen an article from the N. Y. Tribune describing the recluse life led by a scholar, who supported himself by manual labor, and on a regime which cost only twenty seven cents a week, making it necessary to labor but six weeks to provide sufficient of the necessaries of life to serve the balance of the year. Mr. Thoreau is the hero of that story—although he claims no heroism, considering himself simply as an economist.
 The subject of this lecture was Economy, illustrated by the experiment mentioned.—This was done in an admirable manner, in a strain of exquisite humor, with a strong under current of delicate satire against the follies of the times. Then there were interspersed observations, speculations, and suggestions upon dress, fashions, food, dwellings, furniture, &c.&c., sufficiently queer to keep the audience in almost constant mirth, and sufficiently wise and new to afford many good practical hints and precepts.
 The performance has created “quite a sensation” amongst the Lyceum goers.

Another newspaper review of sorts was the summary of the then-concluding lecture season in the area by a correspondent to the Boston Daily Evening Traveller. Without specifying which of Thoreau’s Salem lectures was intended—he had given another there on 28 February 1849-the correspondent on 16 March 1849 cited “a delectable compound of oddity, wit and transcendentalism, from Mr. Thoreau, of Concord,” among a few other worthy presentations.
Notably, on the day of Thoreau’s second Salem lecture that season, Sophia Hawthorne, in a letter to Mrs. Horace Mann, praised his earlier November delivery as follows:

This evening Mr. Thoreau is going to lecture and will stay with us. His lecture before was so enchanting; such a revelation of nature in all its exquisite details of wood-thrushes, squirrels, sunshine, mists and shadows, fresh, vernal odors, pinetree ocean melodies, that my ear rang with music, and I seemed to have been wandering through copse and dingle! Mr. Thoreau has risen above all his arrogance of manner, and is as gentle, simple, ruddy, and meek as all geniuses should be; and now his great blue eyes fairly outshine and put into shade a nose which I once thought must make him uncomely forever.2

DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: During the twenty-one months that had elapsed since Thoreau’s delivery of “History of Myself” in mid-February 1847, he had carefully revised his earlier “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” manuscript. As J. Lyndon Shanley points out, “The effect and apparent intention of his work … was to tidy up and to increase the clarity and force of the first version, which he had written at the pond.”3 Shanley also notes that the second version of the manuscript is not much longer than the first (both versions contained the text of three lectures, although Thoreau never delivered a third lecture from the earlier manuscript) and that Thoreau’s handwriting in the second version “is the most clearly formed in the whole manuscript” of Walden.4 But because Shanley sees the Walden manuscript almost solely as an evolving book, he failed to consider why the earlier (Shanley’s “version I”) and later (his versions II and III) manuscripts are about the same length and why Thoreau wrote the later of the two manuscripts more carefully. The reason is not that Thoreau was simply revising a book
manuscript but that he was using the earlier version of the manuscript, version I, as the basis for preparing the reading drafts for a course of three lectures, versions II and III. Once written, he apparently planned to keep those reading drafts intact as lectures so that he could read from them while continuing to expand the larger “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” manuscript into a book. If that was indeed his plan, it was well-founded, for the first lecture in that course, his early “Economy” lecture, shares with his early “Life without Principle” lecture the honor of being his most frequently delivered lecture, each being delivered nine times.
The lecture Thoreau delivered in Salem on this date is much shorter than but nonetheless quite similar to the “Economy” chapter of Walden. A small amount of material in the lecture was subsequently deleted from the published chapter. For example, a close summary of a later delivery of this same lecture text published in the Portland Transcript of 31 March 1849 (see lecture 20 below) includes the paraphrase, “Here we walked cautiously about the earth, but in Typee trees grew to the height of 60
feet, and the natives easily ran up to their tops.”
With just a few exceptions, the manuscript pages Thoreau read from in Salem are now housed at CSmH (HM 924). Many of those pages refer to the “audience” or those who “hear” the “lecture,” whereas in the published version of those passages in Walden the corresponding references are to “readers” or those who “read” the “book.” Thoreau also made a few minor changes for this lecture, or possibly a later delivery of this lecture, to accommodate his audience. For instance, where he had originally written “I have travelled a good deal in Concord,” he interlined over “Concord” in pencil “my native town”; and elsewhere in the manuscript he changed “this town” (Concord) to “this city” (either Salem or a later venue).


 1. Samuel Longfellow, The Life of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, 2 vols. (Boston: Ticknor,
1886), 2:136.
 2. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Memories of Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1897), pp.
92-93.
 3. Shanley, Making of Walden, p. 28.
 4. In Making of Walden, p. 28, Shanley makes what we regard as a misleading distinction between versions II and III of the Walden manuscript. After noting that Thoreau “revised [version II] and then wrote version III so close upon II that they almost seem one piece,” Shanley says, “It is certain, however, that there are two versions here and that Thoreau wrote III after II; not only are the ink and handwriting different, but also III contains revisions of parts of II” (p. 28). We submit that Thoreau wrote version II sequentially, from front to back, as three clear-text reading drafts for lecturing and that version III represents various types of revisions to those reading drafts. For instance, the first eight pages of version II are not extant, but the first five pages of version III are. Because the pin perforations in the center-left margins of the leaf containing version II, page 9, match exactly the pin perforations of the leaves containing version III, page 5, Thoreau clearly used both versions in a single text at one time, and we can surmise that he derived the text of version III, pages 1-5, from revising the text on the now non-extant pages 1-8 of version II. Generally speaking, Thoreau’s organic or incremental method of composition, by which we mean the way he added material to and deleted material from his constantly evolving texts over time rather than simply rewrote his revised texts, renders misleading almost any description employing mechanical terms, such as “draft,” “stage,” or “version.” For descriptions and discussions of Thoreau’s method of composition, see William L. Howarth, The Literary Manuscripts of Henry David Thoreau (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974), pp. xxix-xxx; Bradley P. Dean, “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” STUDIES IN THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE 1987, pp. 288-91; and Dean, “The Sound of a Flail: Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” M.A. thesis, Eastern Washington University, 1984, pp. 99-118. Copies of Dean’s thesis are available at WaChenE; CtU; the Thoreau Textual Center, CU-SB; and the Thoreau Society Archives, MCo.

 

Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission