Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 22



LECTURE 22

 

27 April 1849, Friday; 7:30 P.M.
Worcester, Massachusetts; Brinley Hall
“LIFE IN THE WOODS” (II)

 

NARRATIVE OF EVENT: The second of Thoreau’s three Worcester lectures in the spring of 1849 took place on Friday, 27 April, in Brinley Hall, a location later described by Thomas W. Higginson as “the natural home of abolitionists and reformers” and “the military, social, theatrical, and political center of the universe, so far as Worcester was concerned.”1 When Thoreau lectured there in 1849, it was also an edifice in need of renovations that it would not receive for more than another year.2
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On 26 and 27 April, notices of Thoreau’s imminent lecture appeared in the Worcester Daily Spy, placed there perhaps by H. G. O. Blake. The former read: “HENRY D. THOREAU. This sylvan philosopher will deliver the second of his very agreeable lectures, in Brinley Hall, to morrow evening. It will be an intellectual entertainment that should not be neglected.—We would suggest that the attendance of a numerous audience will give no offence to the lecturer.” The latter read: “Remember that the lecture of H. D. Thoreau will be given at Brinley Hall this evening. It will undoubtedly be an intellectual treat of no ordinary character,—one of those, which, while they interest and please us [in] the delivery, leave us with the consciousness that we are the wiser and better for them. We should be pleased to see a full house on the occasion.”
The Worcester Palladium review on 2 May was more favorable than that for the first lecture a week earlier (see lecture 21 above) but took exception to an implied imitation of Emerson and allegedly forced eccentricity. The lecture, said the reviewer:

was a continuation of his history of two years of “life in the woods;” a mingled web of sage conclusions and puerility—wit and egotistical effusions—bright scintillations and narrow criticisms and low comparisons. He has a natural poetic temperament, with a more than ordinary sensibility to the myriad of nature’s manifestations. But there is apparent a constant struggle for eccentricity. It is only when the lecturer seems to forget himself, that the listener forgets that there is in the neighborhood of “Walden Pond” another philosopher whose light Thoreau reflects; the same service which the moon performs for the sun. Yet the lecturer says many things that not only amuse the hour, but will not be easily forgotten. He is truly one of nature’s oddities; and would make a very respectable Diogenes, if the world were going to live its life over again, and that distinguished citizen of antiquity should not care to appear upon the stage.

On 3 May, the Worcester Daily Spy published an article briefly announcing Thoreau’s third lecture (see lecture 23 below) and praising his first (see lecture 21 above). Most of the article, however, was devoted to the following disaffected critique of his second lecture:

[W]e are free to say, that in hearing the second lecture, we were disappointed. We had looked for a bold, original thinker, who would give us the results of his observations and reflections, with a vigor, freshness, and independence, which would win our respect and admiration, even though it might not convince us. We said that we were disappointed. This lecturer evidently is not deficient in ability, and might very probably attain to a more respectable rank, if he were satisfied to be himself, Henry D. Thoreau, and not aim to be Ralph Waldo Emerson or any body else. But, so far as manner, at least was concerned, the lecture was a better imitation of Emerson than we should have thought possible, even with two year’s seclusion to practice in. In the ideas, too, there was less of originality than we had looked for, and recollections of Carlyle as well as of Emerson, were repeatedly forced upon the mind. The style was mostly Emersonian, with occasional interludes, in which the lecturer gave us glimpses of himself beneath the panoply in which he was enshrouded, and we are perverse enough to confess ourself better pleased with him as Thoreau than as Emerson, so far as these opportunities afforded us the means of judging.
 We are no admirers of the cynicism, whether real or affected, of the school to which we suppose the lecturer” belongs. It strikes us that one who is capable of such high enjoyments, as they sometimes profess, from the contemplation of the works of creation in their lower manifestations, might, if his mind were rightly constituted, find increased pleasure in communion with the last, best, and highest subject of creative power, even though in most individual cases, it may fail to come up to the standard for which it was designed.
 The lecturer stated that he never had more than three letters that were worth the postage. That might possibly be accounted for by his limited correspondence, or by the character of his correspondents, or even by the relative estimate which he may put upon the amount of the root of evil which is required to pay the postage of a letter. At any rate, there is one consolation for him in the case—that probably another year will not pass away without a reduction in the rates of letter postage.

Worth mentioning here also is a review of Walden that appeared in the Worcester Palladium on 16 August 1854, a commentary that invokes and implicitly comments on the Worcester lectures, pronouncing Thoreau much more agreeable on the printed page than in person. It says in part:

We do not suppose any of our readers need be informed who Thoreau is; but if any are ignorant of his name or existence, this book will be their best introduction. Looked upon as one of the Concord oddities, as a wayward genius, many have smiled and turned away their heads as they would at a clown who for a moment might make them stare and laugh, but leave them no wiser in the end. A few interested themselves in the Walden philosopher, amused with his quaintness, struck with the sense of some of his philosophy, and pleased with his originality. Almost the only opportunity he has given the public to become acquainted with him, has been through the medium of lectures. These will be eclipsed in popularity by the book which has many decided advantages over the lectures. A man can write about himself with better effect than he can talk about himself. The pen is a more modest communicator than the tongue, and is not so easily charged with egotism….
 It cannot be complained against the book that it is not practical in its theories. Does not its author tell us of every board that built his house? Also the cost of the laths, the windows, the chimney, and the food he eats? He shows us that life is too hard work now-a-days; that it grows harder and more perplexing the farther it advances from primitive simplicity. With portions of the volume the public are familiar, but the whole of it is well worth being acquainted with.

DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lectures 18 and 21 above. For this particular delivery of the lecture, Thoreau modified the sentence in his reading draft about wedging “our feet downward … through New York and Boston and Concord and Salem, through church and state,” by erasing “Salem,” which he had interlined earlier (see lecture 18 above) and interlining “Worcester” in its stead.”3


 1. Quoted in Edward Kimball, ed., Brinley Hall Album and Post 10 Sketchbook (Worcester: F. S. Blanchard and Co., 1896), p. 17.
 2. The Worcester Palladium of 5 June 1850 describes in considerable detail the extensive renovations to Brinley Hall that had been completed only a few days before.
 3. CSmH (HM 924, version II, leaf paged “25”).

 

Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission