Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 24



23 January 1850, Wednesday; 7:00 P.M.
Concord, Massachusetts; Unitarian Church, Vestry


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: Encouraged, perhaps, by the dramatic success, and possibly even by the notoriety of his “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” lectures during the latter part of 1848 and the early part of 1849, Thoreau began working on another series of lectures in the fall of 1849, immediately after returning from his first excursion to Cape Cod. Within eleven weeks, he was able to write a course of three lectures describing the excursion. Indeed, in December 1849 Maria Thoreau wrote to Prudence Ward that Thoreau had ready a series of Cape Cod lectures that would be “very entertaining, and much liked” (Days, p. 273). The full three-lecture course, however, was never given. Almost as soon as Thoreau finished writing it, he was asked to deliver two lectures before the Concord Lyceum. He therefore hastily collapsed the three lectures into two and delivered them on the last two Wednesdays of January 1850. The lyceum record for 23 January states simply, “Lecture by H. D. Thoreau of Concord. Subject: Cape Cod” (MassLyc, p. 164). His lecture was the seventh in a course of sixteen delivered that season (MassLyc, p. 164).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: The known responses to Thoreau’s two Concord lectures on Cape Cod are contradictory and confusing. James Lorin Chapin, a Lincoln resident who attended both lectures, recorded his impressions in his journal. Of the lecture delivered on the twenty-third, he remarked: “[Thoreau’s] ideas are strange, many of them, yet I think [had he] been any other than a ‘native’ of Concord he would have been well liked by most of the people.”1 Apparently, Chapin liked the lecture better than he thought Thoreau’s townspeople did. This was not the case a week later, when he commented on the second lecture that Thoreau “seems to have a great faculty of saying a great deal about a very small affair,” adding “rather too much so I think.”2 Other responses to the lectures were more favorable. In his journal entry of 1 March 1850, Bronson Alcott praised the public’s educational “free spirit,” which he saw manifested in responsiveness to lectures. He noted, as an example, that “Thoreau has read papers quite recently before the people in our cities and towns with a decided acceptance.”3 These recent lectures by Thoreau would have been the two in Concord and one arranged with Emerson’s assistance in South Danvers on 18 February (see lecture 26 below), all on Cape Cod. Whereas Alcott more than once misread the audience’s take on a Thoreau lecture, Emerson, too, found the Cape Cod lectures warmly received in Concord. In a 6 February 1850 letter conveying to Thoreau the invitation to deliver an even more abbreviated version of the “Cape Cod” lectures in South Danvers, Emerson wrote, “I hope it will not quite discredit my negotiation if I confess that they heard with joy that Concord people laughed till they cried, when it [the Cape Cod lecture(s)] was read to them” (C, p. 255).
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: We know from the introductory remarks Thoreau was soon to make at his delivery of this lecture in South Danvers, Massachusetts (see lecture 26 below), that this lecture was the first of two that he had derived from three lectures written since his mid-October 1849 return from Cape Cod. Given what appears to have been the brief period he had to pare down his original three lectures, he almost certainly “condensed” the original three-lecture manuscript simply by extracting pages and by drawing pencil lines through many of the passages on the manuscript pages that remained. Most of the extant manuscript pages he read from on this occasion are at CSmH (HM 13206)—and quite a few of the passages on some of those pages have erased pencil lines drawn through them. Comparing this evidence and such evidence as paper types, perforation patterns, blank versos, and handwriting (well-formed or hastily written) with the remarkably detailed summary of a later and still more condensed version of this lecture (from the Portland Transcript; see lecture 29 below), we can surmise that in this lecture Thoreau presented primarily the narrative elements, some of the speculative elements, and a few of the historical elements of what were eventually published as the first, second, and portions of the third chapters in Cape Cod.

 1. Quoted in Blanding, “Thoreau’s Local Lectures,” 25.
 2. Quoted in Blanding, “Thoreau’s Local Lectures,” 25.
 3. The journals of Bronson Alcott, ed. Odell Shepard (Boston: Little, Brown, 1938), p. 227.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission