Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 16



20 December 1848, Wednesday; 7:30 P.M.
Gloucester, Massachusetts; Town Hall


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: The circumstances of Thoreau’s invitation to lecture in, and resulting visit to, Gloucester are not known; however, the success of his nearby Salem lecture a month before probably was the catalyst. The records of the Gloucester Lyceum show that Thoreau’s 20 December 1848 lecture was the third in a course of ten that included presentations by Emerson, Charles Sumner, and William H. Channing.1 Interestingly, Thoreau, Emerson, and Arthur S. Train each received fifteen dollars for their lectures, while the seven other speakers were given twelve dollars each.2
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: The Gloucester News and Semi-Weekly Messenger reported on 20 December 1848, “Mr. Thoreau lectures before the Lyceum this evening. This lecturer is one of the eccentric characters of the age, of whom Ralph W. Emerson predicted a few years since, that ‘He would be heard from.’ From the notices we have seen of Mr. Thoreau, we think an original and highly entertaining lecture may be expected.”
Notwithstanding the high expectations, two full reviews in local papers suggest that the lecture that had played so well in Salem was less well received in Gloucester. The 23 December Gloucester Telegraph took umbrage at Thoreau’s suggestion that “there were probably many present who were in debt for some of their dinners and clothes, and were then and there cheating their creditors out of an hour of borrowed time” by noting that “If such was the case, we can only regret that any patrons of the Gloucester Lyceum are of that complexion.” Thoreau’s remarks about Concord were greeted with equal skepticism by this extraordinarily literal-minded reviewer: “The lecturer gave a very strange account of the state of affairs at Concord. In the shops and offices were large numbers of human beings suffering tortures to which those of the Bramins are mere pastimes. We cannot say whether this was in jest or in earnest. If a joke, it was a most excruciating one—if true, the attention of the Home Missionary Society should be directed to that quarter forthwith.” Other excerpts from this review suggest that the lecture, despite a few high spots, was generally perceived as a failure for its suspect philosophy:

The lecturer spoke at considerable length of society, men, manners, travelling, clothing, etc., often ‘bringing down the house’ by his quaint remarks. Now and then there was a hard hit at the vices and follies of mankind, which ‘told’ with considerable effect. There were hits, too, not remarkably hard….
 From the details which he gave of indoor life, we should suppose that his housekeeping was in rather a primitive style. Compared with this, Robinson Crusoe must have fared sumptuously every day. We know of no benefit likely to accrue to society from it, other than that yeast is a superfluous article.
 The experience of the lecturer had taught him that a man may live very comfortably by six weeks labor per annum. Probably this is no new thing to many, for there is a good deal of living with less labor than that, though perhaps questionable independence.
 He concluded with some remarks about the benevolent and reforming spirit of the day, of which he seemed to entertain a very poor opinion. Much of it was described as a moral simoon from whose approach he should flee for dear life. No immediate diminution to the numbers of our benevolent societies need be apprehended. Neither may a material alteration in their character be anticipated from an infusion of the ideal reforming spirit described.
 We believe that concerning this lecture there are various opinions in the community. With all deference to the sagacity of those who can see a great deal where there is little to be seen—hear much where there is hardly anything to be heard—perceive a wonderful depth of meaning where in fact nothing is really meant, we would take the liberty of expressing the opinion that a certain ingredient to a good lecture was, in some instances, wanting.

A review in the Gloucester News, also published on 23 December 1848, praised the entertainment value of the lecture but pronounced it educationally worthless; the reviewer also expressed irritation with Thoreau’s presumedly intentional aping of Emerson’s manner. Because almost all of this review constitutes an appraisal of the lecture rather than just a summary, the entire article is quoted here:

The lecture on Wednesday evening was delivered by Henry S. Thoreau of Concord, as he announced, on the subject of economy. We conceived his object to be an attempt to prove that there is no necessity for mankind to labor but a small portion of their time, to earn the necessaries of life; and to show how their moral, intellectual and physical condition may be improved. In his introduction, which was somewhat long, he attacked with keen but good natured sarcasm, the customs and fashions of the present age, and ridiculed with much force the folly of men, who voluntarily undertake labors more than Herculean, and absolutely interminable, in pursuit of an object that can be attained with comparatively little cost and exertion.
 To illustrate his theory, he gave a humorous account of his doings, during a period of more than two years, spent in seclusion, on the shores of a pond in Concord. This sketch of a hermit’s life was highly entertaining, being interspersed with beautiful descriptions of natural scenery, well told anecdotes, many philosophical digressions, and quaint sentiments[.] He proved by his experiment that a man can build a house with his own hands, in a few months, that will afford him all the shelter, warmth and comfort a mortal actually needs, at an expense of only about twenty-five or thirty dollars; that good, wholesome food, sufficient for one hermit can be procured for four cents a week; that to pay all the needful expenses of such a life, it is necessary to labor only six weeks in a year. The remainder of his time may be devoted to reading, and the development of his moral and intellectual nature.
 We would not object to live on Mr. Thoreau’s plan a year or two, but in the present state of society, its general adoption would be rather impracticable, had men a taste for it; but only the ardent devoted lover of nature could endure it three weeks. Mr. Thoreau and a few other men in the world, can despise the pleasures of society, worship God out doors in old clothes, can hear his voice in the whistling or gently sighing wind, and read eloquent sermons from the springing flowers; but the great mass of men do, and, will always laugh at such pursuits.
 The lecturer’s remarks on the actual cost of living, were not at all startling,—there are, we have been often told, families of eight or ten souls in this town, who live a year on one hundred and fifty dollars, which falls considerably within Mr. T.’s estimate. We were pleased with his observations on philanthropy; doing good, he said, does not agree with his constitution; and if he should see a man coming towards his house with such intentions towards himself, he would run for his life.—There are many people in this world whose spiritual constitutions seem to lack all the elements of good, and when they undertake to be philanthropic, if they do not burn buildings in heaven and make deserts on earth, or commit any other havoc, ascribed to Phaethon by Mr. Thoreau, and not mentioned in Ovid,—they scorch the souls of the hapless victims of their charity, and exert an influence fatal as the Sirce, on whatever they approach.
 Mr. Thoreau’s lecture certainly lacked system, and some of his flights were rather too lofty for the audience; but in originality of thought, force of expression, and flow of genuine humor, he has few equals. His frequent and apposite classical allusions allowed that he is well versed in ancient lore, and possesses a retentive memory. His style and enunciation—alternately dwelling on, and jerking out his words—are decidedly Emersonian, and it is evident that in this respect, he is an imitator; a consideration which always detracts much from the force of genius: the affectation of another’s style creates in the mind feelings akin to those which arise on beholding an ambitious urchin dressed in his father’s coat and boots. We guess Mr. Thoreau often relieved the “tedium” of his secluded life by frequent intercourse with his neighbor, Mr. Emerson. Some of the lecturer’s Latin Antitheses, and quaint puns, we fear, were not exactly appreciated; and many local allusions might have been omitted, having no interest for a Gloucester audience.
 On the whole, though the lecture was entertaining and original, it was not calculated to do much good, and we think may be considered rather a literary curiosity, than a practical dissertation on economy.

In a letter to his cousin George Thatcher, penned apparently on 26 December 1848, Thoreau remarked on his Gloucester notoriety, “I hear that the Gloucester paper has me in print again, and the Republican—whatever they may say is not to the purpose only as it serves as an advertisement of me. There are very few whose opinion I value” (C, p. 234).
The Salem Observer marked Thoreau’s neighboring lecture with this observation on 23 December 1848: “H. S. Thoreau lectured in Gloucester on Wednesday evening.”
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 15 above.

 1. MS notebook, Records of the Glouster Lyceum, MGI.
 2. MS notebook, Records of the Glouster Lyceum, MGI.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission