Concord, Massachusetts; Brick or Centre School
House, High School Room
“AN EXCURSION TO MOOSEHEAD LAKE”
NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On 2 November 1853 Thoreau was elected curator of the Concord Lyceum, a position that he promptly declined “because I did not know where to find good lecturers enough to make a course for the winter.” He continued in the same journal entry, “We commonly think that we cannot have a good journal in New England, because we have not enough writers of ability; but we do not suspect likewise that we have not good lecturers enough to make a Lyceum” (J, 5:506). One place Thoreau might have looked for enough good lecturers to make a season was in the New-York Daily Tribune, which on 27 September published a list of more than two dozen lecturers in an article entitled “The Lecture Season.” For several years the Tribune and other papers had run such a list in the late summer or early autumn to assist lyceums in arranging their lectures. Emerson’s was the first name on this list in 1853, while Thoreau does not appear. However, from 1854 (with the publication of Walden) to the end of his career, Thoreau was a fixture on this annual Who’s Who of lecturers. At least Emerson knew where to find a good lecturer when he needed one. Elected curator in 1853 after Thoreau refused the office, Emerson enlisted his younger friend to speak before the Concord Lyceum that season.
The Concord Lyceum record of the event is typically brief: “Wednesday eve 14th Dec  Lecture by D. H. Thoreau. Subject, Journey to Moose Head Lake. J[ohn] B[rown] Jr. Secry” (MassLyc, p. 167). It was the third lecture in a course of eighteen (MassLyc, pp. 167-68). As with all of the other lectures he delivered before his hometown Lyceum, he was not paid for delivering it.
The record of this presentation is sparse, but at least two of Thoreau’s auditors are known. Edith Emerson, twelve years old, and Edward, her nine-year-old brother, attended Thoreau’s lecture after Edith had questioned him at the Emerson family dinner table as to whether his lecture would be “interesting” or “philosophical.” Emerson himself records the interrogation, which may have taken place the very day of Thoreau’s lecture, and provides some interesting background:
The other day, Henry Thoreau was speaking to me about my lecture on the Anglo American [delivered at the Concord Lyceum on 1 December 1853], & regretting that whatever was written for a lecture, or whatever succeeded with the audience was bad, &c. I said, I am ambitious to write something which all can read, like Robinson Crusoe. And when I have written a paper or a book, I see with regret that it is not solid, with a right materialistic treatment, which delights everybody. Henry objected, of course, & vaunted the better lectures, which only reached a few persons. Well, yesterday, he came here, &, at supper, Edith, understanding that he was to lecture at the Lyceum, sharply asked him, “Whether his lecture would be a nice interesting story, such as she wanted to hear, or whether it was one of those old philosophical things that she did not care about?” Henry instantly turned to her, & bethought himself, & I saw was trying to believe that he had matter that might fit Edith & Edward, who were to sit up & go to the lecture, if it was a good one for them.1
Apparently it was good enough for them, as Lidian Emerson would later attest (see below).
In his journal on 18 December, just four days after presenting his lecture before his fellow Concordians, Thoreau indicted his neighbors—and, by implication, his countrymen—for their valuing his talents as a surveyor above those as a lecturer and writer. It should be noted that prior to his just-delivered lecture he had not given any lectures for more than a year and a half. After three successive days of surveying, he complained:
I have offered myself much more earnestly as a lecturer than a surveyor. Yet I do not get any employment as a lecturer; was not invited to lecture once last winter, and only once (without pay) this winter. But I can get surveying enough, which a hundred others in this county can do as well as I, though it is not boasting much to say that a hundred others in New England cannot lecture as well as I on my themes. But they who do not make the highest demand on you shall rue it. It is because they make a low demand on themselves. All the while that they use only your humbler faculties, your higher unemployed faculties, like an invisible cimetar, are cutting them in twain. Woe be to the generation that lets any higher faculty in its midst go unemployed! That is to deny God and know him not, and he, accordingly, will know not of them.(J 6:21-22)
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: In a letter of 9 January 1854, Lidian Emerson indicates that Edith and Edward Emerson found Thoreau’s 14 December lecture “interesting” after all: “Henry Thoreau has once taken tea with us, & seemed highly to enjoy looking at the children’s Christmas gifts and hearing their whole story. He seemed much pleased that they enjoyed his lecture—and also surprised to find that they were present He did not see them.”2
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: Thoreau’s lecture manuscript would have taken him about an hour and a half to read. On 23 January 1858, he wrote a letter to James Russell Lowell, editor of the newly formed Atlantic Monthly, and said that the lecture “is an account of an excursion into the Maine woods in ’53; the subjects of which are the Moose, the Pine Tree & the Indian…. It consists of about one hundred manuscript pages, or a lecture & a half, as I measure” (C, p. 504). When revising the manuscript for publication as the essay “Chesuncook” in early 1858, he seems only to have added more material to fill out the narrative of his excursion.
2. The Selected Letters of Lidian Jackson Emerson, p. 194.
Reprinted with permission