Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 20



21 March 1849, Wednesday; 7:30 P.M.
Portland, Maine; Exchange Hall


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: Thoreau apparently received the invitation to deliver his first lecture in Portland sometime during the week of 9-16 February 1849. The letter would probably have come from Henry A. Jones or John M. Adams or both, who together were the “committee of arrangements” for the Portland Lyceum. On 9 February he wrote a letter to his cousin George Thatcher of Bangor and mentioned nothing about going to Portland, as he surely would have had he known at the time that he would be making the trip.1 He began his letter to Thatcher on the 16th, however, by saying that he was “going as far as Portland to lecture on the 3d Wednesday in March,” adding, “By the way they pay me $25.00” (C, p. 236). On the 16th of March, he wrote to Thatcher confirming his Portland lecture and thanking his cousin “for your exertions in my behalf with the Bangor Lyceum,” remarking that “unless I should hear that they want two lectures to be read in one week or nearer together, I shall have to decline coming this time” (C, pp. 240-41). Time was precious because he was then reading proof sheets for A Week; he never did lecture in Bangor.
A number of events may have prompted the invitation from the Portland Lyceum. For instance, one or more of the favorable newspaper reviews of his lectures in Salem on 22 November 1849 and in Gloucester on 20 December 1848 may have come to the attention of the managers of the Portland Lyceum. It seems more likely, though, that Emerson was responsible for the invitation. Emerson lectured before the Portland Lyceum on 31 January 1849,2 and he probably mentioned the success of Thoreau’s Salem and Gloucester lectures to the managers, who would then have convened at their weekly meeting on the evening of 7 February and voted to invite Thoreau to lecture before their Lyceum. They would have instructed their Corresponding Secretary to write a letter to Thoreau inviting him to lecture and arranging a date. If the secretary got the letter in the next day’s mail, Thoreau would probably have received it on or soon after 10 February, the day after he wrote the first of his two letters to Thatcher.
When the doors of Exchange Hall in Portland opened at 6:30 P.M. on 21 March to admit patrons to the Lyceum, conditions were not favorable for a successful lecture. A brisk southerly wind had blown in an equinoctial storm, and rain was pounding the roof of the hall and making a soup of the already muddy streets. Nevertheless, “quite a good audience” had assembled in the hall by 7:30 P.M., and Thoreau was introduced to them.3 He stepped up to the podium, saw a letter lying on it from his cousin George Thatcher, laid the letter aside or perhaps put it in his coat pocket, placed his lecture manuscript on the podium, and told the audience that “the lecture he was about to read was the first of a course entitled ‘Life in the woods,’ delivered before his fellow townsmen” of Concord, Massachusetts, and that the subject of the lecture “might be called Economy.”4 He then read his lecture for most of the next two hours, almost twice the length of the customary lyceum offering and a quantitative bargain, at least, for the twenty-five cents admission fee (or one dollar for the season). Just before leaving for Boston the day after the lecture, Thoreau wrote a response to the letter from Thatcher that he had found on the podium the night before, telling his cousin that he had “had a good audience” at the lecture “considering the weather, or not considering it.”5
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: Advertisements were carried on the day of the lecture in two Portland daily papers, the Eastern Argus and the Daily Advertiser. Both notices included a misquoted comment from a review of the same lecture—as delivered in Salem, Massachusetts, on 28 February-in the Boston Daily Evening Traveller of 14 March 1849. Whereas the Boston paper cited the lecture as a “delectable compound of oddity, wit, and transcendentalism,” both Portland papers quoted the Traveller as praising its “delectable compound of oddity, wit, and ne-plus ultraism.” Almost certainly, the alteration from transcendentalism to ne-plus ultraism was an editorial ploy intended to increase attendance by not alarming any potential auditors who shared the fairly prevalent opinion that transcendentalism was just another name for moonshine. Whether readers knew what “ne-plus ultraism” meant is questionable, but, in any case, the Eastern Argus promised them that Thoreau’s lecture “will be worth hearing,” while the Advertiser assured that “A rare treat may be expected.” The Advertiser, oddly enough, identified the provider of this impending treat as one “Henry D. Shoreac” of Concord, Massachusetts.
Both papers termed Thoreau’s talk the “18th Lyceum Lecture,” presumably of that winter’s season. Thoreau was clearly a late addition to the roster. An advertisement in the 8 November 1848 Eastern Argus listed twelve lectures already booked, including one by Charles Sumner and no less than seven by Henry Giles. Another eight speakers had been “invited” or “conditionally engaged,” including Edward Everett, Horace Mann, and Emerson. There is no mention of Thoreau, although the ad assures that “all the funds will be expended.”
If what he read was ne-plus-ultraism, his audience seemed to enjoy it, even one William Willis, who saw the lecture for what it was. He went home afterwards and wrote in his diary: “Wednesday March 21. Equinoctial storm, fresh southerly wind & rain[.] lecture at Lyceum by Mr. Thoreau of Concord Mass. queer, transcendental & witty—quite a good audience notwithstanding the storm.”6 Another personal response apparently to this particular lecture was recorded by Joel Benton, who remarked in his memoirs, “Before ‘Walden’ was published I heard [Thoreau] give a lecture before a small audience, which began: ‘I have been a good deal of a traveler—about my native village,’ and went on with a very entertaining account of his experiments in living.”7 Although Benton does not specify a location, he lived in Portland, which argues for a Portland ascription.
Newspaper correspondents too liked what they had heard. Reviews of the lecture appeared the next day in the Eastern Argus and on 31 March in another Portland paper, the weekly Transcript: An Independent Family Journal of Literature, News &c. The Eastern Argus pronounced the lecture “unique, original, comical, and high-falutin” and likened it to the “dashing out of a comet that had broken loose from its orbit—hitting here and there, a gentle rap at this folly, and a severe one at that—but all in good nature.” Noted also was the fact that “It kept the audience wide awake, and most pleasantly excited for nearly two hours.”
Also favorable, and much more significant because of its detailed summary, is the 127-sentence review in the Transcript, in which all but the six-sentence first paragraph comprises a closely paraphrased outline of the lecture. Those prefacing six sentences make it clear that Thoreau’s lecture was as successful in Portland as it had been in Salem and Gloucester more than three months before:

A man engaged in the fore-front of a battle can afterwards give but a poor description of the contest. He who gazes from a safe eminence may hope to do better, but if his vision be rendered indistinct by distance, rising exhalations or vapory mists, he may imagine triumphs where none have occurred, or disasters where victory has been secured. In his lecture Mr. Thoreau took us with him to his lonely retreat, and pointed out some of the principal features of the great battle of life, of which the earth is the scene.—But he saw them in the colorings given by his own mental vision—sometimes clear and lifelike, sometimes picturesque, and anon grotesque, sometimes humorous and playful, but always genial, and without misanthropy or malice. It was refreshing to go out of the beaten track, and follow an original mind in its wanderings among life’s labyrinths, and it was amusing to witness the play of fancy and strokes of wit which were scattered along its course. The lecture was the pepper, salt, and mustard of the course [of at least eighteen lectures], and certainly gave an excellent relish to the whole.

While the summary that follows this appraisal is full enough to reveal the portions of the “Economy” chapter of Walden that Thoreau was reading as a lecture in the first months of 1849, the limitations of its accuracy may be suggested by its reference to “Walcott Pond.”
Further on in the same issue of the Transcript, the editors mentioned that “Much editorial matter [had given] place to the reports of the Lyceum lectures” in that week’s issue of the newspaper, and they continued with these observations: “The report of Mr. Thoreau’s lecture, although very imperfect, conveys a tolerably good idea of the highly unique and amusing character of that production. Despite the no very slight touches of transcendentalism, there is much in it to furnish food for thought, as well as mirth.” A belated testimonial to the local success of Thoreau’s lecture is the invitation he received eighteen months later to lecture there again. On 18 October 1850 Thoreau received an invitation from Josiah Pierce, Jr., “to lecture before the ‘Portland Lyceum’ on some Wednesday evening during the next winter” (C, p. 267). Pierce was one of the three members on the Lyceum’s Managing Committee, and he told Thoreau why they were inviting him to lecture in Portland again: “Your former animating and interesting discourse is fresh in the memory of [the Lyceum’s] members, and they are very anxious to have their minds again invigorated, enlivened, and instructed by you” (C, p. 267). He accepted the invitation and delivered “An Excursion to Cape Cod” there on 15 January 1851 (see lecture 29 below).
Interestingly enough, reviews of Thoreau’s 21 March 1849 Portland lecture soon traveled well beyond Portland. Horace Greeley, who lectured before the Portland Lyceum just five days after Thoreau, apparently had a look at the notes from which the as yet unpublished Transcript review was being put together. On 2 April, after his return to New York City, Greeley published a quite similar, though briefer, account of Thoreau’s lecture along with a few of his own comments in his newspaper, the New-York Daily Tribune. Greeley’s article reads:

HENRY D. THOREAU of Concord, Mass. has recently been lecturing on ‘Life in the Woods,’ in Portland and elsewhere. There is not a young man in the land—and very few old ones—who would not profit by an attentive hearing of that lecture. Mr. Thoreau is a young student, who has imbibed (or rather refused to stifle) the idea that a man’s soul is better worth living for than his body. Accordingly, he has built him a house ten by fifteen feet in a piece of unfrequented woods by the side of a pleasant little lake let, where he devotes his days to study and reflection, cultivating a small plat of ground, living frugally on vegetables, and working for the neighboring farmers whenever he is in need of money or additional exercise. It thus costs him some six to eight week’s rugged labor per year to earn his food and clothes, and perhaps an hour or two per day extra to prepare his food and fuel, keep his house in order, &c.-He has lived in this way four years, and his total expenses for last year were $41 25, and his surplus earnings at the close were $13 21, which he considers a better result than almost any of the farmers of Concord could show, though they have worked all the time. By this course, Mr. Thoreau lives free from pecuniary obligation or dependence on others, except that he borrows some books, which is an equal pleasure to lender and borrower. The man on whose land he is a squatter is no wise injured nor inconvenienced thereby If all our young men would but hear this lecture, we think some among them would feel less strongly impelled either to come to New-York or go to California.

Greeley never heard Thoreau’s “Economy” lecture, at least not so far as we have been able to determine, and the Transcript report was not published until 31 March, four days after Greeley left Portland and just two days before the Tribune article appeared. Yet Greeley uses specific figures in his account of the Portland lecture, figures which are not strictly accurate, but which are close enough to the ones reported in the Transcript to suggest that Greeley took his figures from the Transcript editor’s hastily scrawled notes.
Greeley’s article on Thoreau’s first Portland lecture had far-reaching consequences. It was reprinted in papers ranging from the New Bedford Daily Mercury, on 6 April, to the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post, on 14 April. The Tribune itself had a very large readership and a nationwide circulation, so many thousands of people all over the country must have read the article. They would also have read the first response to the article, which was written on the very day the article appeared, 2 April, but which was not published until 7 April, when it appeared in the Tribune under the headline “HOW TO LIVE—MR. THOREAU’S EXAMPLE.” The response was a letter addressed “To the Editor of the Tribune” and signed “Timothy Thorough”—an assumed name, no doubt. The writer told Greeley that he “felt a little surprise at seeing such a performance [as Thoreau’s life in the Walden woods] held up as an example for the young men of this country,” and he supposed that he “must have mistaken the sense of [Greeley’s] article.” So he asked Mrs. Thorough, his wife, what she could make of it—and she told him exactly what she thought:

She will have it that the young man [Thoreau] is either a whimsy or else a good-for-nothing, selfish, crab-like sort of chap, who tries to shirk the duties whose hearty and honest discharge is the only thing that in her view entitles a man to be regarded as a good example. She declares that nobody has a right to live for himself alone, away from the interests, the affections, and the sufferings of his kind. Such a way of going on, she says, is not living, but a cold and snailish kind of existence, which, as she maintains, is both infernal and infernally stupid.

Greeley appended his “Reply” to Mr. Thorough’s letter, pointing out, as so many have since, that “Nobody has proposed or suggested that it becomes everybody to go off into the woods” and live as Thoreau did at the pond, and Greeley added his impression “that Mr. Thoreau has set all his brother aspirants to self-culture, a very wholesome example, and showed them how, by chastening their physical appetites, they may preserve their proper independence without starving their souls.”
This spirited exchange between the Thoroughs and Greeley was bound to attract attention. One of the people who probably read it was the editor of Thoreau’s hometown newspaper, the Yeoman’s Gazette. If he did read it, though, it apparently did not dampen the hometown pride and enthusiasm he felt after reading Greeley’s article earlier in the week. Under the banner headline “OUR TOWNSMAN—MR. THOREAU,” the editor asserted that Thoreau “is a gentleman of rare attainments” and that “All the good things which the Tribune says of this gentleman are richly deserved.”8 Apparently other editors also agreed with Greeley’s assessment of the lecture Thoreau read in Portland: the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post reprinted Greeley’s article without comment in its columns on 14 April, and the Youth’s Companion reprinted it, also without comment, over three months later, on 19 July.
Of course, not all those who read Greeley’s article on Thoreau’s Portland lecture thought highly of the ideas in the lecture or of Greeley’s comments. We have already seen what Mr. and Mrs. Thorough thought of them, and they were not alone in their views. The Philadelphia North American and US. Gazette, a Democratic, or conservative, newspaper that frequently feuded with the much more liberal Tribune, also reprinted Greeley’s article on 14 April 1849, but with surprisingly long, relentlessly scathing commentary; and a large portion of this commentary appeared verbatim, along with Greeley’s article, in the Washington, D.C., Daily National Intelligencer on 19 April 1849. In both the original commentary and the reprinted portion, Thoreau is characterized as an “idle young student … laboring no more than barely to maintain his own single, selfish existence”; and in both stories, the following remarks appear:

At first blush this strange life seems beautiful in itself and worthy of imitation; but like the scenery of the stage it is better when regarded at a distance than when closely approached….
 The would-be hermit of Concord may or may not be a worldly-disappointed man: better for him that he were, than that he should deliberately sit down in the woods, a Timon without a cause, to reject and despise the common charities and duties, the pleasures and the pains of life, among his fellow men….
 What is such solitary life, after all, but a voluntary abandonment of civilization and return to barbarism?
 Reason this subject as they may, those who encourage such economic and philosophic perversion of life, encourage idleness and the most egoistic meanness, and the exemplification is given by the young student himself.

The North American and U.S. Gazette story added, among other indictments:

Such a life affords no example that can be imitated or ought to be imitated, that can be or ought to be tolerated, or spoken of in any terms short of censure. Such a life is, indeed, above all other lives,
  A tale
 Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
 Signifying NOTHING:
It is a tale told by an idiot—it is a life lived by an idiot.

Large portions of this commentary appeared as filler in several other newspapers around the country—in New York City, Albany, and Newark, for example—but not a word of it was calculated to enhance Thoreau’s reputation as a lecturer—or as anything else, for that matter, except perhaps a misanthropic oddball.9
However, not everyone who read one of the newspaper summaries of Thoreau’s Portland lecture disagreed with the views he expressed, as we know from the testimony of a young woman named Mary, who lived on the western side of Maine and subscribed to the Portland Transcript. Mary read the three-column review of “Economy” in the Transcript and wrote to the editors the following week, saying, “I was well pleased with your excellent paper of the 31st of March, and especially with the account you gave of Mr. Thoreau’s lecture.” After giving her opinion about the way Thoreau lived—the thrust of which was basically “to each his own” and “more power to him”—Mary said that Thoreau’s account of the way he lived reminded her of “a very small woman with a pleasant countenance, and three small children and a little dog” who had come to her town the preceding summer and who lived in much the same fashion Thoreau did at the pond. After telling this woman’s story—about how she set up housekeeping next to a small stream, did her cooking outdoors, and similar sorts of things—Mary told the editors, “Now Sirs, it is my opinion [that] if this poor widow’s story and character had such a narrator as Mr Thoreau, it would far exceed many of the stories with which ‘All Europe rings from side to side.'”10
Finally, in a 19 August 1854 review of Walden, the Portland Transcript recalled
Thoreau’s 1849 lecture in praising both the book and the erstwhile lecture from which it grew:

In a lecture which he delivered before our Lyceum, he gave some of the experiences of this episode in his life—and this book is that lecture revisited and extended. It is the same quaint production of a crooked genius—only, a good deal more so. Beneath all its seemingly paradoxical philosophy, however, there is a stream of true thought, in which some of the illusions of civilization are clearly shown. We only wish some of our good dames who make themselves such complete slaves to their furniture and their “best rooms,” would read Mr. Thoreau’s chapter on household economy. We think they might gather a few ideas there that might be of great advantage to them.

DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 15 above. The 127-sentence summary of the lecture in the Transcript establishes conclusively that Thoreau read from the manuscript that J. Lyndon Shanley refers to as versions II and III, and that is now at CSmH (HM 924).

 1. Letter from Thoreau to George Thatcher dated 9 February 1849, Collection of Mrs. Raymond Adams; quoted from a typescript at the Thoreau Textual Center, CU-SB.
 2. William Charvat, Emerson’s American Lecture Engagements: A Chronological List (New York: New York Public Library, 1961), p. 23.
 3. MS Diary of William Willis, entry of 21 March 1849, MeP.
 4. Quoted from the review of the lecture in the Portland Transcript, 31 March 1849.
 5. Letter from Thoreau to George Thatcher dated 22 March 1849, MBU; quoted from a typescript at the Thoreau Textual Center, CU-SB.
 6. MS Diary of William Willis, entry of 21 March 1849, MeP.
 7. Joel Benton, Persons and Places (New York: Broadway Publishing Co., 1905), pp. 12-13.
 l8. Clipping in the Collection of Mrs. Raymond Adams. In the clipping the editor also pointed out that “the Tribune is mistaken in supposing [Thoreau} still continues this course of life, or that he continued it for four years. Mr. Thoreau lived upon the banks of our beautiful Walden Pond for two years, where he wrote some of the most interesting and instructive lectures we have ever heard, and where he became as ‘conversant with beans’ as any man living, because he cultivated them extensively.”
 9. Kenneth Walter Cameron gathered these articles in “Damning National Publicity for Thoreau in 1849,” American Transcendental Quarterly, no. 2 (2d Quarter 1969): 18-27.
 10. This letter, published in the Transcript on 28 April 1849, is reprinted in Gary Scharnhorst, “Mary from Maine on ‘Economy’ in Portland, 1849,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 210 (Fall 1994): 2-3.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission