Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 27



LECTURE 27

 

6 December 1850, Friday; 7:30 P.M.
Newburyport, Massachusetts; Market Hall
“AN EXCURSION TO CAPE COD”

 

NARRATIVE OF EVENT: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Newburyport minister, Transcendentalist, admirer of Thoreau from their acquaintance in Concord, and during the 1850-51 lecture season one of five curators for the Newburyport Lyceum, wrote in a letter to Thoreau dated 3 December 1850:

I hear with pleasure that you are to lecture in Newburyport this week. Myself & wife are now living in town again, & we shall be very glad to see you at our house, if you like it better than a poor hotel And you shall go as early as you please on Saturday—which is the great point, I find, with guests, however unflattering to the hosts.
 If I do not hear to the contrary I shall expect you, & will meet you at the cars. (C, p. 269)

In addition to hospitality, Higginson provided Thoreau with an introduction to Dr. H. C. Perkins, a naturalist who showed him, among other things, “the circulations in the Nitella … under a microscope,” “a green clamshell,” “the head of a Chinook or Flathead,” and “the humerus of a Mylodon” (PEJ3, p. 161). Thoreau also reported in his journal of 6 December that Dr. Perkins “could not catch his frogs asleep” (PEJ3, p. 161).
Thoreau delivered his lecture at 7:30 on a cold and snowy Friday evening in Market Hall, a building on the waterfront with a landing place at the back of the building for boats and barges1 His was the sixth lecture in the season’s course of twenty.2 The records of the Newburyport Lyceum show that Thoreau was paid twenty dollars, which was the same amount given to most out-of-town lecturers including Emerson, who lectured there that winter on 21 February. Some 424 season tickets had been sold at one dollar each, and for Thoreau’s lecture an additional thirty evening tickets were sold for twelve cents apiece. By comparison, nine evening tickets were sold for the Emerson lecture. The average sale of individual evening tickets that season was thirty-seven,— just twenty-two not counting the whopping 328 sold for the hugely popular Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. Although the total attendance for Thoreau’s lecture is not known, he apparently drew a good crowd. Other lecturers who spoke before the Newburyport Lyceum that season, in addition to Emerson and Beecher, were Oliver Wendell Holmes and Higginson himself.3
As reported the next morning (7 December) in the Newburyport Daily Herald, Thoreau’s lecture had not been the only excitement in town that night: “The alarm of fire, last evening, at half past 7 o’clock, was caused by the burning of the Boynton house on the Turnpike, near the fourth mile stone.” Thoreau was to have begun speaking at 7:30 p.m., the same time the alarm was sounded, but we have been unable to determine if the alarm interrupted the lecture.
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: Advertisements for Thoreau’s lecture ran on 5 and 6 December in both the Newburyport Morning Advertiser and the Newburyport Daily Herald. The Herald ads read:

NEWBURYPORT LYCEUM.
The 6th Lecture will be delivered at MARKET HALL, on FRIDAY EVENING, Dec. 6, at 7 1/2 o’clock, by H. D. THOREAU, Esq.
 Subject—“Cape Cod.”
 SEASON TICKETS are for sale by the Secretary at one dollar each.
     A. A. CALL, Sec’y.

Although no reviews or other responses have been located, Thoreau himself was very likely the target of a disparaging reference to the “most zealous imitators and Followers” of Emerson in the Morning Herald on 20 February 1851. Emerson delivered his lecture on “Wealth” before the Portland Lyceum the day after that reference appeared in the newspaper.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: Rather than filling out each of the three lectures he had originally written after this visit to Cape Cod in October 1849, Thoreau seems to have contented himself with perfecting the condensed version of the lecture that he had delivered in South Danvers the preceding February (see lecture 26 above). He had revisited Cape Cod in June 1850, and although we know he incorporated a few additional notes resulting from that visit into his evolving essays, we do not now know if he used some or all of those notes in this version of his lecture, which was no doubt very similar, if not identical, to the version he delivered just twenty and thirty-five days later in Clinton and Portland, respectively, and which was summarized in great detail by the Portland Transcript (see lecture 29 below). That summary suggests that this lecture—which spanned most of the first, third, fourth, and fifth chapters of Cape Cod, and at least portions of the second chapter—took considerably longer than the usual one hour to deliver.


 1. Market Hall, which still stands on the waterfront in Newburyport, is described in John J. Currier, The History of Newburyport, 2 vols. (Newburyport: Privately Printed, 1906), 1:187-90.
 2. This and the remaining information in this paragraph were derived from the manuscript records of the Newburyport Lyceum, MNe.
 3. MS Record of the Newburyport Lyceum, MNe.

 

Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission