Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 28



1 January 1851, Wednesday
Clinton, Massachusetts; Clinton Hall


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: According to an announcement in the 9 November 1850 Clinton Saturday Courant, the Bigelow Mechanic Institute’s winter lecture series would include twelve Wednesday evening lectures “on Miscellaneous Subjects, and of a general interest.” Admission to the entire Clinton Hall series would cost a dollar for gentlemen and seventy-five cents for ladies, with single lecture tickets priced at 12 1/2 cents. Among the nine lecturers already determined were Emerson, Horace Greeley, and Henry Ward Beecher. Thoreau was not mentioned.
On Wednesday, 13 November, Emerson gave the opening lecture of the series on “Wealth,” followed six days later, on 19 November, by Greeley with a lecture on “Self-Culture.”1 Both of these lectures bear directly on Thoreau. The very day after Emerson spoke, Franklin Forbes of the Bigelow Mechanic Institute’s Committee on Lectures mailed an invitation to Thoreau asking if he would deliver his “Cape Cod” lecture on some Wednesday evening in January 1851 (C, pp. 267-68). We can assume that Emerson had commended both Thoreau and his lecture, just as he had done almost a year earlier in South Danvers (see lecture 26 above). As for Greeley, the report of his lecture in the 23 November Saturday Courant states that “he commended the course pursued by one who left the haunts of men, scorned the advantages of schools and colleges, and with a few books took up his residence in the wilderness and there pursued the work of education, and with sucess.”2 That “one,” of course, was Thoreau.
On 14 November 1850, Franklin Forbes wrote to Thoreau saying, “As one of the Committee on Lectures of the Bigelow Mechanic Institute of this town, I wish to ascertain if you will deliver your lecture on ‘Cap[e] Cod’ before the Institute on either Wednesday Evening of the month of January—An early answer will much oblige.” Forbes added in a postscript, “If you prefer any other lecture of yours to the above mentioned, please name a day on which you can deliver it” (C , pp. 267-68). Thoreau’s early answer was penned the next day, when he wrote, “I shall be happy to lecture before your Institution this winter, but it will be most convenient for me to do so on the 11th of December. If, however, I am confined to the month of January I will choose the first day of it. Will you please inform me as soon as convenient whether I can come any earlier” (C, p. 268). Subsequent correspondence has not been recovered, but the date was eventually fixed as 1 January 1851, upon which Thoreau delivered the fifth lecture of the course.
The same night he lectured, Thoreau was given a tour of the gingham mill by the mill’s agent, Forbes—presumably the same Forbes who had invited him to speak. Obviously intrigued by the machinery and cotton-processing operations, he recorded a long, detailed description in his journal the next day. His journal entry also includes the following snippet of railroad lore, no doubt also picked up on his journey: “The direction in which a rail-road runs, though intersecting another at right angles, may cause that one will be blocked up with snow & the other be comparatively open—even for great distances, depending on the direction of prevailing winds and valleys— There are the Fitchburg & Nashua & Worcester” (PEJ3, p. 173).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On 21 December 1850, the Clinton Saturday Courant reviewed the latest lecture before the Bigelow Mechanic Institute, by Professor E. S. Snell, noting particularly that his talk on “Architecture,” despite its abundant “instruction and pleasure,” “was not so well attended as it should have been.” The brief item then announced that “The next Lecture will take place one week from next Wednesday, and be given by Mr. Thoreaux, the type of Mr. Greeley’s isolated education.”
In its 4 January 1851 review of Thoreau’s lecture, the Saturday Courant commented dismissively, “The lecture on Wednesday evening last by Mr. THOREAU, was one of those intellectual efforts which serve to wile away an hour very pleasantly, but which leave little or nothing impressed upon the memory of real value. The subject was ‘Cape Cod.’ A description of a walk upon the sea shore, with reflections upon shipwrecks and their effects upon the inhabitants in a certain case, with anecdotes, and a few historical reminiscences, made up the burthen of his story.” The item also announced that “The next lecture will be given by THOMAS DREW, Esq., assistant editor of the Spy. Subject, the ‘Influence of the Mechanic Arts upon Civilization.'” The 11 January Saturday Courant compounded the slight by comparing Thoreau’s lecture unfavorably to the one delivered by Drew: “The lecture before the B. M. Institute last Wednesday evening, by Thomas Drew, Esq., is considered by many as about the best lecture of the course thus far delivered, totally obscuring the fine-spun theories of Emerson and placing ‘Cape Cod‘ amongst those ‘trifles, light as air,’ which serve to amuse, but not instruct, the listener….”
Finally, a week later, on 18 January, the Saturday Courant commented that “The Lecture last Wednesday evening [by the Reverend Mr. Brooks on “Holy Week, at Rome”] was more fully attended than the two or three previous ones.” Apparently, Thoreau’s lightly regarded lecture had not drawn many auditors.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 27 above.

 1. Clinton Saturday Courant, 16, 23 November 1850.
 2. For an extract of Greeley’s “Self Culture” lecture, an extract which contains the passages about Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond, see The Rose of Sharon: A Religious Souvenir, for MDCCCCLVII, ed. Mrs. Caroline M. Sawyer (Boston: Abel Tompkins and Sanborn, Carter, and Bazin, 1857). pp. 65-73.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission