Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 18



LECTURE 18

 

28 February 1849, Wednesday; 7:30 P.M.
Salem, Massachusetts; Lyceum Hall
“STUDENT LIFE, ITS AIMS AND EMPLOYMENTS”

 

NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On 19 February 1849, Nathaniel Hawthorne, corresponding secretary of the Salem Lyceum, wrote to his friend Thoreau:

The managers request that you will lecture before the Salem Lyceum on Wednesday evening after next—that is to say, on the 28th inst. May we depend on you? Please to answer immediately, if convenient.
 Mr. Alcott delighted my wife and me, the other evening, by announcing that you had a book in prep. I rejoice at it, and nothing doubt of such sucess as will be worth having. Should your manuscripts all be in the printer’s hands, I suppose you can reclaim one of them, for a single evening’s use, to be returned the next morning; or perhaps that Indian lecture, which you mentioned to me, is in a state of forwardness. Either that, or a continuation of the Walden experiment (or, indeed, anything else,) will be acceptable.
 We shall expect you at 14 Mall Street. (C, pp. 238-39)

Thoreau responded the next day, accepting the invitation and thanking the Hawthornes for their interest in his book:
I will come to your house in Mall street on the 28th inst. and go from thence to the Lyceum.
 I am glad to know of your interest in my book, for I have thought of you as a reader while writing it. My MSS. are not even yet in the hands of the printer, but I am doing my best to make him take them into his hands. In any case the MSS which he will begin with is not that from which I shall read.
 I wish to be remembered and read also by Mrs Hawthorne.1

Thoreau’s lecture was the sixteenth in a course of twenty before the Salem Lyceum that season (MassLyc, p. 19). Although he had been on the list of course lecturers from the beginning, he had already lectured there in November, and the invitation from Hawthorne suggests that his second lecture was something of a last-minute arrangement, an encore, as it were, to a generally successful first performance. Indeed, on the day of the second lecture Maria Thoreau wrote to Prudence Ward:

Today Henry has gone to Salem to read another lecture, they seem to be wo[n]derfully taken with him there, and next month he is to go to Portland, to deliver the same, and George [Thatcher] wants him to keep on to Bangor they want to have him there, and if their funds will hold out they intend to send for him, they give 25 dollars, and at Salem and Portland 20—he is preparing his book for the press, and the title is to be Waldien (I dont know how to spell it) or life in the woods. I think the title will take if the Book dont.2

On the day of the lecture Bronson Alcott noted matter-of-factly in his diary, “Henry Thoreau is at my Rooms on his way to read his ‘Lecture on Walden’ to the Salem Lyceum this evening.”3
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 Daniel Webster, Louis Agassiz, Horace Mann, Ralph Waldo 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.) Oddly, given that Hawthorne was apparently the person who had placed the advertisements, both newspapers continued to advertise the “eminent” lecturer Henry Thoreau with the wrong middle initial and as coming from the wrong state, and even as late as 24 February 1849 the Observer announced, “Next week, we hear, the members [of the Salem Lyceum] are to be favored with a concluding lecture on Economy, from H. T. Thoreau, the pencil-maker and philosopher of Concord.”
In a 3 March 1849 review, the Salem Observer found Thoreau’s most recent lecture less successful and less well received than his previous offering, even as it held out hope that his anticipated book on the subject would upwardly revise this opinion:

Mr. THOREAU, of Concord, delivered a second lecture on Wednesday evening upon his life in the woods. The first lecture was upon the economy of that life; this was upon its object and some of its enjoyments. Judging from the remarks which we have heard concerning it, Mr. Thoreau was even less successful this time in suiting all, than on the former occasion. The diversity of opinion is quite amusing. Some persons are unwilling to speak of his lecture as any better than “tom-foolery and nonsense,” while others think they perceived, beneath the outward sense of his remarks, something wise and valuable. It is undoubtedly true that Mr. Thoreau’s style is rather too allegorical for a popular audience. He “peoples the solitudes” of the woods too profusely, and gives voices to their “dim aisles” not recognized by the larger part of common ears.
 Some parts of this lecture—which on the whole we thought less successful than the former one—were generally admitted to be excellent. He gave a well-considered defense of classical literature, in connection with some common sense remarks upon books; and also some ingenious speculations suggested by the inroads of railroad enterprise upon the quiet and seclusion of Walden Pond; and told how he found nature a counsellor and companion, furnishing
  ”Tongues in the trees, books in the running brooks,
  Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
 We take the purpose of Mr. T.’s lecture to have been, the elucidation of the poetical view of life—showing how life may be made poetical, the apprehensive imagination clothing all things with divine forms, and gathering from them a divine language.
  ”He went to the gods of the wood
  To bring their word to men.”
 And here we may remark that the public are becoming more critical. The standard of Lyceum lectures has been raised very considerably within a few years, and lecturers who would have given full satisfaction not long since, are “voted bores” at present. This is certainly a good indication, and shows that Lyceums have accomplished an important work. We doubt if twenty years ago such lecturers as Professors Agassiz, Guyon, and Roger, would have been appreciated by popular audiences.—But now they instruct and delight great multitudes.
 In regard to Mr. Thoreau, we are glad to hear that he is about issuing a book, which will contain these lectures, and will enable us perhaps to judge better of their merit.

In a 14 March 1849 article summing up the Salem lecture season for the Boston Daily Evening Traveller, the local correspondent cited the importance of lyceum lectures to communities such as Salem (“Our diet of amusements is simple and somewhat spare—but perhaps this contributes to our social health”) and then praised, among other lectures, “a delectable compound of oddity, wit and transcendentalism, from Mr. Thoreau, of Concord.” The correspondent did not specify which of the two Thoreau offerings was intended, but we think it likely the reference was to this second lecture, which was unfortunately not the sort of lecture most lyceum-goers of the time paid to hear. (Thoreau later described the subject as “Reality rather transcendentally treated”; see lecture 39 below.)
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: With a few exceptions, the manuscript pages Thoreau read from on this evening are now in CSmH (HM 924). Most of the material in this, the second lecture of Thoreau’s three-lecture “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” course, he later used in the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter of Walden, but a few paragraphs he later used in the “Reading” and “Sounds” chapters. As he usually seems to have done when he had the opportunity, Thoreau modified his reading draft slightly to accommodate his audience. The original ink version of one of his sentences, for instance, is about wedging “our feet downward … through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state,” but for this particular delivery Thoreau interlined in pencil “and Salem” after “Concord.”4


 1. Thoreau’s letter is at MSaE; we quote from a typescript at the Thoreau Textual Center, CUSB.
 2. Letter from Maria Thoreau to Prudence Ward, 28 February 1849, Thoreau Society Archives, MCo.
 3. Alcott, MS “Diary for 1849,” entry of 28 February, MH (*59M-308).
 4. CSmH (HM 924, version II, leaf paged “25”).

 

Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission