Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 29



15 January 1851, Wednesday; 7:30 P.M.
Portland, Maine; Temple Street Chapel


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On 18 October 1850, Josiah Pierce, Jr., one of three Portland Lyceum committee members, sent an invitation to Thoreau asking him to lecture during the coming season and reminding him of the success of his last lecture there in March of 1849 (see lecture 20 above):

In behalf of its Managing Committee, I have the honor of inviting you to lecture before the “Portland Lyceum” on some Wednesday evening during the next winter. Your former animated and interesting discourse is fresh in the memory of its members, and they are very anxious to have their minds again invigorated, enlivened and instructed by you. If you consent to our request, will you be pleased to designate the time of the winter when you would prefer to come here?
 The Managers have been used to offer gentlemen who come here to lecture from a distance equivalent to your own, only the sum of twenty-five dollars, not under the name of pecuniary compensation for the lectures but for traveling expenses—
 An early and favorable reply will much oblige us. (C, p. 267)

Thoreau’s reply, whether early or not, did not get him listed in the course of twelve lectures announced in the Portland Eastern Argus on 11 November, but he nonetheless did present the course’s eighth lecture on Wednesday, 15 January 1851, at 7:30 p.m. in the Temple Street Chapel, the doors to which were opened at 6:30 p.m. Other lecturers for the season included Horace Greeley, the Reverend William Ware (“author of Zenobia”), and Richard Henry Dana, Sr. Tickets for the course cost one dollar. In his diary for the day, William Willis pronounced the weather “moderate,” continuing a trend of several days.1
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: Advertisements for the course’s eighth lecture, with “HENRY D. THOREAU, Esq., of Concord” named to present the unspecified address, appeared in two Portland papers, the Daily Advertiser and the Eastern Argus, on 14 and 15 January.
What is probably the best-written and most insightful review of any Thoreau lecture appeared in the Portland Transcript: An Independent Family Journal of Literature, News &c on Saturday, 25 January 1851. Written by one of the paper’s two editors, Erastus E. Gould or Edward H. Elwell, the lengthy article accurately interprets Thoreau’s ideas, comments favorably on the fitness of his manner and delivery, identifies the kind of imaginative auditor necessary to appreciate and understand him, and surveys both positive and negative responses from the actual audience he faced on this occasion. All this, along with a summary of the lecture so precise that it suggests the editor had a look at Thoreau’s manuscript, makes the review worth quoting at length, omitting only its unremarked summary:

The performance of this gentleman, before the Lyceum, was unique. All who heard him lecture here two years ago were doubtless prepared for something eccentric and original, and we are quite sure they were not disappointed! His subject might be termed A Ramble upon Cape Cod,—along its wreck strewn shores—across its desert sands, and among its amphibious inhabitants. All the minute peculiarities of these, were presented in the light of a peculiarly quaint and humorous fancy. Mr. Thoreau is a most acute observer, and he has a singularly graphic style of describing what he has seen. He is an observer of nature, animate and inanimate, but he sees everything from a peculiar point of view, all is bathed in the light of a strong imagination. He takes all things by the angles and sets them before you in the most quaint phrase. He reaches out into the immensity of nature, and startles you by bringing dissimilarities together in which for the first time you perceive resemblances. Again he bewilders you in the mists of transcendentalism, delights you with brilliant imagery, shocks you by his apparent irreverence, and sets you in a roar by his sallies of wit, which springs from ambush upon you. He lies in wait for you, and dodges around about, ever and anon thrusting grotesque images before you. You cannot anticipate him. He is the most erratic of travelers. One moment he is in the clouds, and the next eating hen clams by the sea shore, or whittling kelp, that he “may become better acquainted with it.” You have scarce ceased to smile at his last pun, before you are overwhelmed by a great thought or what, by the manner of its clothing, is cleverly made to appear such!
 All this, you feel, is not the result of effort. It is the natural out-pouring of the man. He could not speak otherwise if he would. His style is a part of himself, as much as his voice, manner, and the peculiar look which prepares you for something quaint, and adds its effect far more than words. And it is for this reason that we are now attempting to describe the man instead of reporting his lecture. His voice and manner, which are more than half of what he says, we cannot transfer to paper. He must be heard to be enjoyed. In short he is an original, who follows no beaten path, but has struck out one for himself, full of winding bouts and odd corners; perplexing labyrinths, and commanding prospects; now running over mountain summits, lost in the clouds, and anon descending into quiet vales of beauty, meandering in the deep recesses of nature, and leading—nowhither! To men with imagination enough to enjoy an occasional ramble through the domains of thought, wit and fancy, for the ramble’s sake, he is a delightful companion, but to your slow plodder, who clings to the beaten track as his only salvation, he is incomprehensible—an ignis fatuus, luring honest men into forbidden paths.
 This was well illustrated by the remarks of the audience at the close of the lecture. We were amused at the various comments made. One worthy man, who has more of the practical than the imaginative in his composition, was demanding with a smile forced from him by the tickling fancies of the lecturer, that the committee should “pay him for the time lost in listening to such trash!” A fair philosopher of sixteen thought he possessed “a vein of satire, but spoke of the clergy with too much levity.” A sober young man declared it the “greatest piece of nonsense he ever listened to,” while another thought it trivial, and even prophane! But then, again, there were others who were infinitely amused with his quaint
humor, delighted with his graphic descriptions, and his far-reaching flights of imagination. To them it was “a rich treat.”—Then there were those, as there always are, who were ready to quarrel with the lecture because it did not square with their pre-conceived standard of what a lyceum lecture should be. It was very well as almost anything else than a lecture! “If they had come to listen to a story, they would have been delighted,” but as it was given to them as a lecture, they could not enjoy it! We would advise all such, to rid their minds of rigid rules, and be prepared to receive whatever comes, judging it by what it is, rather than by what it is not.
 For ourselves, we were content to receive it for what it was—a most original, quaint, humorous, lifelike and entertaining description of Cape Cod and its inhabitants, and we care not whether it comes under the denomination of lecture, sketch, travels, or fish story! Nor do we think it without instruction. We shall certainly never think of Cape Cod without recalling images of rocky shores, and their ghastly dead, its desert beaches, its masculine women, and its veteran wreckers. Cape Cod is no longer blank on our mental map. Its natural features and its inhabitants are pictured there, and we have added so much to our knowledge of “men and things.”

Here the reviewer commences a full, five-paragraph summary of “a few points that in a measure shall justify what we have said,” At one juncture in the summary, he reports, “The lecturer threw in a little Greek here, because, as he said, it sounded so much like the ocean!” The review concludes, with a final tribute to Thoreau’s merit as a public presenter of this lecture:

The merry and well preserved old man they met there, his “good for nothing critter” of a wife, with whom he had lived 64 years, her aged daughter, the boy, and the fool; the old man’s rambling and unceasing talk, the scene at the breakfast table, recalling the laughable one between Johnson and Boswell at the inn; the story of the clam, and the scraps of information thrown scatteringly in,—all these were worth the telling could we give them in the tone and manner of the lecturer.
But as we cannot, we pause.

There are two other known newspaper responses to this lecture. Two days after the lecture, on 17 January, the Eastern Argus included in a compilation of fragmentary items the following terse caution, obviously aimed at Thoreau and probably referring to one of the anecdotes about John Newcomb, the Wellfleet oysterman: “Lecturers at Lyceums, when they repeat an anecdote, never should quote the profanity contained in it. Such language is in bad taste. We hope this hint will have thorough thought.” And almost fifteen years later, on 8 April 1865, the Portland Transcript included this mention in a highly favorable review of Cape Cod the book: “We remember hearing the outlines of it delivered by the author as a lecture in this city, at least fifteen years ago. Subsequently he revisited the Cape and retouched his picture until it reached its present perfection.”
In his 1905 book Persons and Places, Joel Benton offered this secondhand, mixed evaluation of Thoreau as lecturer, obviously based in part on the January 1851 lecture:

A friend of mine, who heard him lecture in Portland before he wrote “Walden,” or was much known beyond Concord, said his general appearance and manner were droll. He was far from being eloquent or popular as a speaker, but nothing could be more interesting to a thoughtful man than his lectures. In this early lecture Thoreau remarked, among other things: “I like the Greek language, because it sounds like the ocean.”2

Also secondhand was the opinion noted in the diary of William Willis on 15 January 1851. Willis, who had recorded his attendance at Thoreau’s previous Portland lecture in his diary (see lecture 20 above), wrote in his diary on the evening of Thoreau’s delivery, “Lyceum lecture by Henry Thoreau of Concord Mass. did not attend. Said to have been a very poor lecture.”3
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: See lecture 27 above.

 1. MS Diary of William Willis, entry of 15 January 1851, MeP.
 2. Joel Benton, Persons and Places, p. 8.
 3. MS Diary of William Willis, entry of 15 January 1851, MeP.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission