Boston, Massachusetts; Cochituate Hall, Phillips Place
“LIFE IN THE WOODS” (II)
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On 2 April 1852, Thoreau responded to an invitation to lecture from Thomas Wentworth Higginson as follows:
I do not see that I can refuse to read another lecture, but what makes me hesitate is the fear that I have not another available which will entertain a large audience, though I have thoughts to offer which I think will be quite as worthy of their attention. However I will try, for the prospect of earning a few dollars is alluring. As far as I can foresee, my subject would be Reality rather transcendentally treated. It lies still in ‘Walden or Life in the Woods.’ Since you are kind enough to undertake the arrangements, I will leave it to you to name an evening of next week—decide on the most suitable room—and advertise (?)—if this is not taking you too literally at your word.
If you think it worth the while to attend to this will you let me know as soon as may be what evening will be most convenient. (C, pp. 278-79)
A day later, in a note penned at “2pm,” Thoreau replied to another communication from Higginson, “I certainly do not feel prepared to offer myself as a lecturer to the Boston public, and hardly know whether more to dread a small audience or a large one. Nevertheless I will repress this squeamishness, and propose no alterations in your arrangements. I shall be glad to accept of your invitation to tea” (C, p. 280). Almost forty years later Higginson recollected the disaster that ensued:
The scene of the lecture was to be a small hall in a court … opening from Tremont street, opposite King’s Chapel, the hall itself being leased by an association of young mechanics, who had a reading-room opening out of it. The appointed day ushered in a furious snow-storm before which the janitor of the building retreated in despair, leaving the court almost blockaded. When Thoreau and I ploughed through, we found a few young mechanics reading newspapers; and when the appointed hour came, there were assembled only Mr. Alcott, Dr. Walter Channing and at most three or four ticket-holders. No one wished to postpone the affair and Mr. Alcott suggested that the thing to be done was to adjourn to the reading-room, where, he doubted not, the young men would be grateful for the new gospel offered; for which he himself undertook to prepare their minds. I can see him now, going from one to another, or collecting them in little groups and expounding to them, with his lofty Socratic mien, the privileges they were to share. “This is his life; this is his book; he is to print it presently; I think we shall all be glad, shall we not, either to read his book or to hear it?” Some laid down their newspapers, more retained them; the lecture proved to be one of the most introspective chapters from ‘Walden.” A few went to sleep, the rest rustled their papers; and the most vivid impression which I retain from the whole enterprise is the profound gratitude I felt to one auditor (Dr. Walter Channing), who forced upon me a five-dollar bill towards the expenses of the disastrous entertainment.1
Sixteen years later still, in an 18 February 1907 cover letter accompanying the transfer of Thoreau’s 2 April 1852 letter (quoted above) to the Boston book dealer P. K. Foley, Higginson again recollected Thoreau’s memorable lecture in Boston:
It has a biographical interest, as relating to his first appearance before a Boston audience and held in a small cheap room in Tremont Row. It was in a very sudden & severe snowstorm & there were not ten people there, except that it was a reading room of some kind and half a dozen young clerks or apprentices were there, reading newspapers. Mr. Alcott tried to get them to the other end of the room, saying to them “This is his book which he is reading; this is his life. We ought all to be interested in a man’s life, ought we not ?” But they generally clung to their evening papers.2
To add insult to injury, one of the young mechanics in Thoreau’s audience that stormy evening said to another within Thoreau’s hearing, “What does he lecture for?” Thoreau confessed later that the remark “made me quake in my shoes!”3
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: An advertisement placed by Higginson in the 5 and 6 April 1852 Boston Daily Advertiser stated: “MR. H. D. THOREAU, of Concord, by request of many of the auditors of his first (private) lecture in this city, will read a second lecture on LIFE IN THE WOODS, on TUESDAY EVENING, April 6th, at COCHITUATE HALL, in Phillips Place at 7 P.M. Admittance 25 cents.” Essentially the same ad appeared in the 5 and 6 April Boston Daily Evening Transcript, the one substantive difference being that this ad announced the starting time as “7 1/2 P.M.”
Bronson Alcott’s diary entry for 6 April 1852 states, “Thoreau is here, and reads his lecture this evening, and passes the night with me.” A pasted-in clipping from an unidentified source completes the entry:
MR. THOREAU’S LECTURE.—Those of our readers who wish to hear something fresh and invigorating in literature, should not fail to attend this evening at Cochituate Hall. No subject suits Mr. Thoreau better, as a text, than Life in the Woods, and perhaps no man in the world is better qualified from disposition and experience, to treat that subject profitably. Conventionalisms have about as much influence over him, as over a forest tree or the birds in its branches. And as with his freshness of thought he unites a rare maturity of scholarship, he can entertain any one who is not muffled in more than ordinary dullness.4
2. Kenneth Walter Cameron, Companion to Thoreau’s Correspondence, (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1964), p. 228.
3. Thoreau recounted the incident in his journal entry of 24 April 1852 (J, 3:461) and used the incident and the journal passage as the basis for the following passage in “Life without Principle”: “Ordinarily, the inquiry is, Where did you come from? or, Where are you going? That was a more pertinent question which I overheard one of my auditors put to another once,—‘What does he lecture for?’ It made me quake in my shoes” (RP, p. 168).
4. Alcott, MS “Diary for 1852,” entry of 6 April, MH (*59M-308).
Reprinted with permission