Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 21



APRIL 1849, FRIDAY; 7:30 P.M.
Worcester, Massachusetts; City Hall


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: In the spring of 1849 Thoreau gave his first three lectures in Worcester on 20 and 27 April, and on 3 May. Commentators have linked these lectures with the unspecified sponsorship of his friend H. G. O. Blake, which is a reasonable assumption, but a letter of invitation from Blake does not exist, nor do newspaper articles or other sources mention his influence. On 17 April 1849, Thoreau did write to Blake as follows: “It is my intention to leave Concord for Worcester, via Groton, at 12 o’clock on Friday of this week. Mr. Emerson tells me that it will take about two hours to go by this way. At any rate I shall try to [secure] 3 or 4 hours in which to see you & Worcester before the lecture” (C, p. 242). These lectures, the only time in his entire career when Thoreau can be said to have delivered an entire course of lectures, were not part of the 1848-49 lecture course of the Worcester Lyceum, a fact perhaps further arguing for the good offices of his friend and admirer, Blake.
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: The review of the lecture in the 25 April Worcester Palladium, here quoted in part, suggests a more favorable reaction by the general audience than by the reviewer, who apparently had not actually heard Thoreau lecture:

LIFE IN THE WOODS. A sylvan philosopher (Mr Thoreau of Concord,) delivered a lecture at the City Hall Friday evening. His discourse was intended as an autobiography of two years of life in the woods;—an experiment by the lecturer to illustrate, not perhaps so much the absurdity of the present organization and customs of society, as the ease with which a man of resolution and stem expedients may have ample leisure for the cultivation of his intellectual powers and the acquisition of knowledge. This sylvan philosopher, after leaving college, (perhaps a little charmed by some “representative” man1) betook himself to the woods, where they slope down to the margin of a lakelet…. His lecture was a history of his experience; and is said to have been witty, sarcastic, and amusing.
 Such philosophers illustrate the absurdities the human mind is capable of. What would a forest of them be good for? Nothing but curiosities for people to look after, as they pay their shilling to see a menagerie. They are watches without any pointers; their springs and wheels are well adjusted, and perform good service; but nobody is the wiser for it, as they do not tell the time of day. They are a train of carwheels; they run well, and in good time, but can carry no passengers or luggage. A wheel-barrow, with an Irishman for its vitals, renders the world a far better service.

In view of the final paragraph in this review, the following reference in the 28 April Salem Observer is rather perplexing:

MR. THOREAU, of Concord,
  ”the forest seer.
  The minstrel of the natural year,”
as he is well called by Emerson in his “Wood-notes,” has delivered his lecture upon the Scholar’s Life in the Woods, in Worcester. It is favorably noticed by the Palladium.

Subsequently, in a 3 May review of Thoreau’s second Worcester lecture, a reporter for the Worcester Daily Spy gave hearsay testimony that the 20 April first lecture had been a success with the general audience: “Being absent from town on the evening when the first lecture was given, we did not have the good fortune to hear it—a circumstance we regretted, because the commendations we hear of it assure us that it would have been a source of enjoyment to us.” According to Walter Harding, “Aunt Maria Thoreau, having heard about the Palladium account [of Thoreau’s lecture], was sure that Worcester had had enough of her nephew, and confessed that she was as disgusted with what he had to say as the Palladium had been” (Days, p. 242).
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 15 above.

 1. An allusion to Emerson, who had delivered a course of lectures on “Representative Men” throughout New England and in England during the preceding years and would the following year publish the course as a book of the same title.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission