Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 31



23 April 1851, Wednesday; 7:00 P.M.
Concord, Massachusetts; Unitarian Church, Vestry


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: Thoreau’s 23 April 1851 lecture was the nineteenth in a season’s course of twenty-one at the Concord Lyceum (MassLyc, pp. 164-65). For Thoreau himself, it was his first rendition of one of his thereafter most frequently delivered lectures. The entry for that evening in the lyceum record by secretary Albert Stacy notes succinctly, “H. D. Thoreau. The Wild” (MassLyc, p. 165).
For days Thoreau had filled his journal with attacks on slavery and the South, prompted by the 12 April extradition from Boston to Georgia of a seventeen-year-old fugitive slave named Thomas Sims. So much on Thoreau’s mind was this event that he altered the opening of his lecture to allude to it. For this occasion only, he added a clause to the beginning of “Walking, or the Wild,” so the lecture began as follows:

Wordsworth on a pedestrian tour through Scotland, was one evening, just as the sun was setting with unusual splendor, greeted by a woman of the country with the words “What you are stepping westward?” and he says that such was the originality of the salutation, combined with the associations of the hour & place—that
    ”Stepping westward seemed to be
    A kind of heavenly destiny.”
 The sentences from my journal which I am agoing to read this evening, for want of a better rallying cry, may accept these words “stepping westward.”
 I feel that I owe my audience an apology for speaking to them tonight on any other subject than the Fugitive Slave Law on which every man is bound to express a distinct opinion,—but I had prepared myself to speak a word now for Nature—for absolute freedom & wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture simply civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature—rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one—for there are enough champions of civilization—the minister and the school commitee—and every one of you will take care of that.1

DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: Thoreau took his manuscript for this lecture, which we believe he regarded as a lecture rather than as a nascent essay (see Introduction above), through at least two and possibly three fairly substantial revisions between 1851 and 1862, when he submitted it from his deathbed for publication in the Atlantic Monthly. One of those revisions, in the fall of 1854, involved Thoreau extracting several passages from his “Walking, or the Wild” lecture manuscript for use in “What Shall It Profit,” his earliest “Life without Principle” lecture.2 Just prior to extracting those passages, also in the fall of 1854, Thoreau had extracted a few passages about walking at night and had used those passages as the basis for his lecture “Moonlight.”3 James T. Fields, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, presented the printer’s copy manuscript for the essay “Walking” to MCo, and many of the leaves that make up that manuscript date from this first reading of the lecture. In the title-page manuscript leaf quoted above, he mentions that the lecture consisted of “sentences from [his] journal,” but because he scissored so much of his pre-1851 journal volumes—in part while preparing this very lecture, we suppose—we cannot determine how much of his lecture derived from his journal. Adding to the difficulty of establishing the text of this early lecture is the fact that many of the manuscript leaves Thoreau had over the years dropped or otherwise revised out of his lecture drafts were dispersed in Houghton, Mifflin’s 1906 Manuscript Edition of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau.4 Nonetheless, based on the extant manuscripts that date from this early lecture draft, this earliest version of “Walking, or the Wild” seems to have had the two-part structure of the essay “Walking,” with the first part dealing with “Walking” and the second part dealing with “The Wild.5

 1. MH, bMS Am 278.5, 21B. At the top of this manuscript leaf Thoreau wrote, “Walking or The Wild” and “Read in April 1851.”
 2. Dean, “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” pp. 288-89, 351-52n10.
 3. Dean, “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” pp. 286, 350-51n4.
 4. For a fairly detailed discussion of the 1906 dispersal of Thoreau’s manuscripts, see Dean, “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early ‘Life without Principle’ Lectures,” pp. 303-305. Also of interest is Howarth, Literary Manuscripts of Thoreau, pp. xxiv-xxvi.
 5. The early “Walking” manuscript leaves are scattered in many repositories and private collections around the United States. Complete records, facsimile and microfilm copies, and facsimile transcripts of these leaves are maintained at the Thoreau Textual Center at CU-SB and in the Collection of Bradley P. Dean


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission