Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 23



May 1849, Thursday; 7:30 P.M.
Worcester, Massachusetts; Brinley Hall


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: There is some confusion about Thoreau’s third Worcester lecture in the spring of 1849. Specifically, the question arises, did he give a third lecture at all? We know he was supposed to give one, a talk at Brinley Hall dealing with raising beans at Walden Pond (see advertisement below). However, no specific reviews of this lecture have turned up, and, more importantly, in a 28 May 1850 letter to Blake accepting an invitation to lecture again in Worcester, Thoreau cautions, “But I warn you that this is no better calculated for a promiscuous audience than the last two which I read to you” (C, p. 260). Why, then, does Thoreau refer to only two lectures here when he was supposed to give-and is supposed to have given-a course of three? The answer may be that he regarded his first two lectures as a two-part “life in the woods” lecture while viewing his third lecture as separate and self-contained. Indeed, that Thoreau did expound on beans in Worcester seems clear. Some forty-one years after the event, Blake stated in a letter to Samuel A. Jones, “You speak of Thoreau’s lecture on beans here [in Worcester]. I remember hearing it. It was, I suppose, substantially the same as the chapter on beans in Walden, & the ms. of Walden, (very likely the whole of it,) is in my possession.”1 And, much nearer the event itself, a letter published in the 9 May 1849 Worcester Daily Spy (see below) includes in its four paragraphs of almost inscrutable invective a single reference to “your Bean field,” the announced topic of the third lecture.
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On 3 May 1849, the Worcester Daily Spy began and ended its review of Thoreau’s 27 April lecture with an invitation to hear him again that very evening: “The third lecture of this course will be given at Brinley Hall, this evening…. We hope our readers will go to the lecture, this evening, and hear for themselves. We would not miss going on any consideration of an ordinary character. We are to have, among other things, the lecturer’s experience, during his two years’ seclusion from the world, in raising beans! Farmers and horticulturists will probably be elevated upon the philosophical influence of that avocation.”
The closest thing to a review of this lecture is the incandescent gibberish of this letter from a self-described member of Worcester’s “sofa lolling literati”:

Henry D. Thoreau of Concord had better go home and ask his mother if she “knows he’s out.” Doubtless she, (Nature) will say she missed him who is the soul of Walden. Be satisfied, Thoreau, to be the soul of Walden-wood. To be frank with you, you are better as a woodman, or say, a woodpecker, than as a cockney philosopher, or a city parrot, to mimick the voices of canaries or cat owls, of Emersons, or Carlyles—or I beseech you if you must sing in cities, to warble only your “native wood notes wild.” And here a hint about the genteel lecture going world–come down from your place of instruction; they gather not before you to be instructed but to be amused; they come not to hear corroborating voice, urging them to penetrate to the reality of things; they want no new or better philosophy; but they are willing to have their sluggish intellects stirred up as with a long pole by some novelty. But look to it that there is novelty. Bring forth your new fangled Nondescript into the arena, plunge spears into his side rowel deep, and with the speed of wind circle the ten yards space, say twice, and vanish, behind the curtain while applause takes people’s eyes from you to each other, exultingly. Some then shall swear, you soared through the roof dragon-like, others shall magnify you into the very Job’s Unicorn! But stay, till your Nondescript has shown all his few graces, and in spite of spurs waddles heavy round the arena, weary people grow disgusted, and begin to look for the seams of his sheepskin covering; till the most moderate (which most are) cry—poor, and because poor, useless, turned to a Nondescript, if so be it might pay its way to Humbug.
 Therefore, Mr. Thoreau, henceforward I warn you to quit the arena while the novelty is on, for if your audience becomes fatigued, rely upon it they will find sheep skin seams, though you were a genuine original woolen horse from the Rocky Mountains. But to specialize, my dear Thoreau, how dared you seem to think like Emerson, how could you draw similar inferences, inspirations from your intercourse with Nature, to those of Emerson. Does Nature mean the same thing to any two persons. Impossible! We, the Worcester sofa lolling literati think that she would be more original.
 Thoreau, the youth who writes this has implicit faith in your power of drawing inspirations from nature, in your thorough enjoyment of “Forest Life,” in your ear for the eternal melodies that nature sounds forever, for the inner soul’s tympanum, if we will but remove the cotton wading which deadens and excludes them. But he has not faith in your ability to become an effective prophet and priest of this true worship, of the Divine in Nature, of the simply true you found us, (some dozens) clogged with custom, with the aggregated results of human contact, which may have been forced down to us, and upon us, through the centuries: for a moment as you came before us there seemed a glimpse to open (out of those clogging “clothes,” Carlyle, you know) into a lovely forest-land, where dwelt primitive simplicity, with the purest culture, intellectual and practical.
 Ah, Thoreau, if you had left us with that hint, that one, it had been a suggestion to the advantage of our should [souls?]. But after, the crowd says (that is the same dozen say) that you winged but a stupid flight, on wings of Carlyle, or Emerson, through formless mist-clouds or smoke of burning brush-heaps, where snapped and crackled, wit or nonsense, as the case may be, and I am certain that you dropped us amid diagrams on Walden pond, upon that patch of cleared ground, barren to my apprehension of witty product, your Bean field—A as [sic] Thoreau, I’ve got the blues this morning. How is transcendentalism chop fallen. Simplicity, rurality is a drug on the market. Mechanism exults in the clank of machinery, on every back street mocks the mortified poet-philosopher. Routine triumphs; fine houses and furniture put on an elegantly impudent aspect; a philosopher having flatted out, philosophy may step into the back-ground. We return with new zest to the “surface of things” and idly float on it [in] our light pleasant gondola not diving again for pearl-oysters in the next six months, I warrant me. [signed] Z.

DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 17 above. The reference above to “diagrams on Walden pond” suggests that during one of his lectures—probably the third—Thoreau may have held up, for the audience to see, a drawing of Walden Pond similar to the one he used in the book.

 1. Toward the Making of Thoreau’s Modern Reputation, ed. Fritz Ochlschlaeger and George Hendrick (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979), p. 84.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission