Plymouth, Massachusetts; Leyden Hall
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On Saturday, 22 May 1852, Bronson Alcott noted in his diary “Thoreau is here [Boston] on his way to speak tomorrow at Plymouth.”1 A partial account of Thoreau’s other activities on his three-day Plymouth junket is contained in his own journal entries for 22, 23, and 24 May In Boston, besides stopping to see Alcott, Thoreau visited an exhibition of bird paintings (or possibly prints) by John James Audubon at the State House. Late that afternoon, in Plymouth, he reported the advanced spring growth of Plymouth flora, including “chickweed in bloom in Watson’s garden.” Thoreau apparently was a guest of Benjamin Marston Watson, who had arranged the series of Sunday lectures in which he was participating for the second time that year (see lectures 35 and 36 above). The next day, that of his two lectures at Leyden Hall, he reported, “To Billington Sea at sunrise” and added later in the same entry, “It is worth the while to go a little south to anticipate nature at home. I am now covered with down from the tender foliage, walking in the woods in the morning.” Ever the indefatigable naturalist, he recorded an afternoon visit that same day to Great South Pond, describing with words and sketches a “brown spotted snake” encountered along the way. His entry for Monday, the day of his return home, begins with a likening of the calls of doves and owls, then mixes natural and human history with this observation: “A calabash at Pilgrim Hall nearly two feet high, in the form of a jar, showed me what these fruits were made for. Nature’s jars and vases.” And back in Concord by day’s end, he observed there the blossoms of celandine and horse-chestnut (J, 4:68-70).
More information about this lecture trip, if not the lecture itself, is provided in two richly detailed diary entries by Plymouth resident James W. Spooner, a manifest admirer of Thoreau who wrote:
Sunday May 23d. 1852. The weather this morning was cloudy and it sprinkled a little at times. I had not seen any meeting advertised at Leyden Hall & I walked out & met John & went down in my garden & down to see his trees with him—Then we went down to Mrs P’s garden—I heard at noon from Mr Hedge that Mr Thoreau preached in Leyden Hall—& was very sorry to have lost it especially as I afterward learned it was upon walking & sauntering. In the P.M. Father & I walked up to our land & I heard the thrushes sing & the catbirds—The oak trees are in bloom, & the violets & anemones. In the eveg. I went to hear Mr T. His subject was a continuation of the morning discourse telling “where to walk: in which direction.[“] I shook hands with him after the lecture—Mr Burton was there & his wife—the first time I have seen them—
Monday 24th. This morning I walked out to the depot in hopes of seeing Mr. Thoreau but he did not appear and the cars left without him—On the way home I met him at Col Thomas’s—[Colonel Joshua Thomas, a lawyer, lived at 56 Main Street according to the Plymouth Directory for 1860.] he said he had business in Boston & Cambridge—he had read in the paper that the cars left at 1/2 past six—I told him it must be a mistake & he had got to wait till the 9 o’ck train—He said “Then I shall have more time to look about.” We walked along and he said he should like to call at Dr Jackson’s who was going to Boston this morning. I asked him to take breakfast with us but he said he had breakfasted. He said he should like to go up the hill & look off—“He was something of a fatalist”—he said (referring to his being late for the cars) about these matters and supposed it was no matter about it—He should get there some time—if it was necessary for him to be there at all. He asked about the old fort & I told him where I supposed it to be—he spoke of having been to Clark’s Island last summer & said he could see it now—He thought the rock, this fort, & the place where the common house stood—the chief places of interest to a stranger. I took him to see the oldest stone—he said there were older ones in the burial ground at Concord. He had a beautiful bunch of flowers from Marston’s to carry to Mrs Alcott—He had also a Buck-bean which he had found in a meadow on the way down from Hillside & that he intended to carry to Concord—they did not grow there he said. The fog came up & prevented our seeing & so we came down. He spoke of liking the sea-shore & asked how far it was to the beach. He wanted to see the spot where the common house stood—I showed him & we walked on to Cole’s Hill. I asked him if he had seen Pilgrim Hall, he said he had & should like to again—Then I left him to call at Dr. J.’s & came home. After breakfast I went out to Pilgrim Hall & found him there—He was examining the curiosities in the south library—examined each article minutely although not so much interested in them as if they had been made by our native indians—He read the letters &c in the north anteroom & one in particular from King Phillip. He said what he liked about it was the plain, straightforwardness of it. “Phillip would have written you before—but his interpreter has a pain in his back & Phillip’s sister is very sic.[“] Then he said he supposed he must leave his name & wrote it & then I did the same—On the way out to the cars he asked me if my business left me much leisure to study—I told him I had some but did not improve it as much as I ought—He asked me if we had convenient opportunity for obtaining books I told him none at all—Bishops library being mostly trash—He said he had made an arrangement with the Concord bookseller to furnish what books he might wish—& there were some half dozen others who would read them too & at three or four cts. apiece he would get the price of the book & could then sell it afterwards—He spoke of Mr Channing & said his friends were taken by surprise at his attempting to lecture—asked if I had heard him last Sunday. I was not out on account of a severe cold. He said Concord had done her share in furnishing men for the meetings—He said many were attracted to Concord by the atmosphere of Mr Emerson who did not even know him.
He spoke of the ocean as being somewhat of a novelty to him & said if he was to stop [stay?] here he would give his time to that rather than to the woods. He said he had seen South Pond Sunday afternoon & Billington Sea in the morning. I spoke of Concord river & he said it was very interesting to watch the rise & fall of the water—In the last freshet—(that week of Stormy weather) he was out in the wet every day to watch it—being fixed for it—& getting wet through each time. He said Concord was low & in the last freshet—8 out of 9 avenues were closed by the water. He asked if I knew Dr Jackson’s family & Mrs Emerson. I told him I was not acquainted at Dr Jackson’s—but my mother was, & knew Mrs Emerson. I inquired about Mr Emersons place if it was on the river & he said no. He said Mr Hawthorne had removed to Concord & bought Mr Alcott’s place. I asked him if Mr Alcott was in Concord now & he said he lived in Boston—I told him I thought Mr Channing was a farmer from his sun-browned look. He said he tried farming once & gave it up—but was out in the sun a great deal as he was himself—In speaking of the ocean, coming down from the hill—he said “Out of all the vast number of people what have lived on the ocean & crossed it again and again—who can tell us anything about it—Byron perhaps may have written a few lines—but nothing in comparison to the magnitude of the ocean.[“] The ocean was always interesting to him for it was always a wilderness even where it washed up to the wharves of a city—He asked if I had much time for walking in the woods I told him I had a little at a time, just enough to go short distances. He said he was drawn back to Concord like the needle to the pole—His business as a surveyor called him into the woods a great deal—I asked about his new book (not published yet) & he said he supposed he should publish it soon but had not improved it in proportion to the length of time he had kept it. It was he said, in fact ready when the other was published but he preferred publishing them in the order of time—Mr Munroe had not done well by him & he should get some one else. I believe the last was an expense to him—He said he was glad to find any who like his book—he had rather have a few good readers than many indifferent ones—He spoke of being at Clark’s Island last summer & liked the place & manner of living very much—thought he should try to go there again but concluded not to on account of the difficulty of getting on & off at the time he wanted to.
I left him at the depot because the train was in & I must be at the office. I shook hands with him & told him I hoped he would come again & stay longer.2
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: None known.
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: During the twelve months that intervened since his delivery of “Walking, or the Wild” in May 1851, Thoreau expanded the lecture to 163 pages, but he seems to have maintained the original version’s—and the published version’s—two-part structure. The first part of the lecture, on “Walking,” remained about seventy pages, so the part on “The Wild” now contained almost one hundred pages, which would have taken Thoreau well over an hour to read.
2. Francis B. Dedmond, “Thoreau as Seen by an Admiring Friend: A New View,” American Literature, 56 (October 1984): 334.
Reprinted with permission