Plymouth, Massachusetts; Leyden Hall
“LIFE IN THE WOODS” (I)
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: In late December 1851, the horticulturist Benjamin Marston Watson and his wife Mary Russell Watson began making plans to improve the cultural life of their small town, Plymouth, Massachusetts, by establishing a series of lectures “for those who choose not to go to church on Sundays.”1 One of the people Mr. Watson contacted about their plans was Emerson, whose wife Lidian was Mrs. Watson’s very good friend. Emerson first responded to Watson from Buffalo, New York, where Emerson was lecturing. In his letter, dated 4 January 1852, Emerson suggested that “Watson might want to contact Ellery Channing about delivering one or more of three lectures Channing had in his portfolio at the time. Emerson had heard two of the three lectures and had thought them “full of wit and criticism and sarcasm.”2 Back in Concord eleven days later, Emerson wrote and “apologized to Watson for taking so long in answering and indicated his own commitment to lecture in Plymouth on the topic ‘Culture and Worship.'”3 Watson was able to get firm commitments from at least three other speakers, so he finalized his plans and announced on 31 January 1852 in the columns of the Plymouth Old Colony Memorial that “a series of discourses on the leading social and moral questions of the day at Leyden Hall” would begin the next day, Sunday, 1 February. The “Leyden Hall Congregation,” as they were soon to become called, would be addressed by a different speaker each Sunday, first from 10:00 a.m. to noon, and then again at 7:00 p.m. To offset expenses, a five-cent admission fee would be charged, or members could purchase dollar packages of tickets for the series. Each speaker would receive ten dollars and expenses, which was a fairly paltry sum at the time but which Watson used to extraordinary purpose; in addition to Emerson and Channing, the following luminaries spoke to the Leyden Hall Congregation that year: Bronson Alcott, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, James Russell Lowell, E. P. Whipple, and Horace Greeley.4
Yet another luminary who spoke to Watson’s congregation that year was Thoreau. Emerson, in his letter of 15 January, also told Watson, “I showed your letter to Mr. Thoreau who likes [your project] well and replied that he will come to you on that errand at any time you please if you will give him sufficient notice before hand.”5 On Sunday, 15 February, Watson wrote to Thoreau:
I am very much obliged to you for your interest in our meetings here, and for your promise to come down some Sunday. I will look for you or for Mr Channing or for Mr [Daniel] Foster on the next Sunday, Feby 22,—Mr. Channing very kindly wrote to me at Mr Emerson’s suggestion saying that he would come any time named. I learn from Mr Alcott he is now in Providence, and so I send my message to him thro’ you—I hope that one of you will be quite sure to come. Could you write me by Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning—? If he is at Providence I would not consult him, but decide at once to come. Mr Foster I have not written to, but he has been so valiant in the good cause, that a good audience is ready to rec[eive] his word. My regards to him, & say we shall be very glad to hear him on Sunday if you or Mr C. cannot come, & I shall be also glad to have him name some day when he can come.
Watson added the following postscript:
Our meetings go on finely—Rev. Sam. Johnson, Mr Alcott, Ed. Quincy so far. People were delighted at Mr A. and listened with great enthusiasm. Young Johnson is magnificent, and you may safely go a hundred miles to hear. I hope nothing will prevent one of you from coming, & let me know as early in the wk. as you can. Can’t you [read to] us from your Life in the woods, which Mr Alcott pronounces just the thing for us—I will meet you at the cars.6
In his response to Watson’s urging, probably sent on 17 February, Thoreau wrote:
I have not yet seen Mr. Channing, though I believe he is in town,—having decided to come to Plymouth myself,—but I Will let him know that he is expected. Mr. Foster wishes me to say that he accepts your invitation, and that he would like to come Sunday after next; also that he would like to know before next Sunday whether you will expect him. I will take the Saturday afternoon train. I shall be glad to get a winter view of Plymouth Harbor, and to see where your garden lies under snow. (C, p. 276)
Thoreau took the train from Concord to Boston on Saturday, 21 February, and stopped in to see Alcott, who wrote in his diary that day, “Henry Thoreau is here on his way to meet the Leyden Hall Congregation at Plymouth, and read his ‘Walden paper’ to them, to morrow.”7 In his journal entry the following day, Thoreau wrote, “Went to Plymouth to lecture or preach all day.” He also commented on the weather—“A mild misty day”—and ever the natural historian observed “red? oaks about Billington Sea fringed with usneas which in this damp air appear in perfection.” Of the locale’s venerable human history he remarked “I understood that there were 2 only of the sixth generation from the Pilgrims still alive” (PEJ4, pp. 362-63).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: None known.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: By this time Thoreau had refined and expanded his “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” manuscript very considerably, but as we suggested in our comments on lecture 15 above, he seems to have kept intact and continued to read from his earlier three-lecture draft, identified by Lyndon Shanley as version II and III.8 For the content of this draft of “Economy,” the first of the three “Life in the Woods” lectures, see lecture 15 above.
2. Quoted in Geller, Between Concord and Plymouth, p. 24.
3. Geller, Between Concord and Plymouth, p. 25.
4. Geller, Between Concord and Plymouth, pp. 23-24.
5. Quoted in Geller, Between Concord and Plymouth, p. 25.
6. MPIPS; quoted from a typescript at the Thoreau Textual Center, CU-SB.
7. Alcott, MS “Diary for 1852,” entry of 21 February, MH (*59M-308).
8. Shanley, Making of Walden, p. 28.
Reprinted with permission