Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 2



11 APRIL 1838, Wednesday; 7:00 P.M.
Concord, Massachusetts; Masonic Hall


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: In a brief chronology of his life penned in his journal on 27 December 1855, Thoreau commented: “Wrote a lecture (my first) on Society, March 14th, 1838, and read it before the Lyceum in the Masons’ Hall, April 11th, 1838” (J, 8:66). The inclusion of this event in his thumbnail autobiographical outline suggests both that he thought lecturing important and that he considered this his first real lecture, earlier oral presentations at one or another of the schools he attended notwithstanding. The Concord Lyceum record of the occasion is scant: “April 11 1838 Rev. Mr. Frost informed the Society that Rev. R. Waldo Emerson had kindly and generously volunteered to deliver his course of Lectures [on Human Culture] before the Lyceum. Whereupon, a motion of Hon. Daniel Shattuck, it was Voted—That the Lyceum thankfully accept Rev. Mr. Emerson’s offer. After which David Henry Thoreau of Concord delivered a Lecture on Society. Adjourned. H. B. Dennis, Secretary.”1 Thoreau’s was the nineteenth in a course of twenty-six lectures at the Lyceum that season, coming one week after the 4 April lecture on “Epic Poetry” by Jones Very (MassLyc, p. 148), Of the twenty-six lectures, Emerson furnished eight (MassLyc, p. 148). Thoreau was to deliver twenty more lectures before the Concord Lyceum over the next twenty-two years, the final one on 8 February 1860, when his subject was “Wild Apples” (MassLyc, p. 175). Emerson, by comparison, lectured at the Lyceum more than a hundred times over a fifty-year period (1830-80).
The Concord Lyceum was established in January of 1829 and continued well into the twentieth century. A description of the Masonic Hall, in which Thoreau gave his first Concord lecture, states that it “may be so arranged as to seat 165 persons comfortably and conveniently, with elbow room & leg room in sufficiency. By diminishing the elbow room a little, about 200 persons can be seated, with room for others to stand, should this ever be necessary” (MassLyc, p. 142). The attendance on 11 April 1838 is not known.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: The only portions of the lecture text we have are those Thoreau recorded in his journal under the heading “Scraps from a Lecture on ‘Society’ written March 14th 1838. delivered before our Lyceum April 11th” (PEJ1, pp. 35-39). Assuming a lecture that took about an hour to read, the extracted passages, which can be read in about seven minutes, represent just twelve percent of the lecture text.

 1. Kenneth Walter Cameron, The Massachusetts Lyceum During the American Renaissance (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1969), p. 148. Hereafter cited in the text as MassLyc. This volume contains the surviving records of the Concord, Lincoln, and Salem Lyceums, as well as those of the Lowell Institute of Boston.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission