Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 5



10 March 1844, Sunday; 10:30 A.M.
Boston, Massachusetts; Amory Hall


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: The fullest commentary on Thoreau’s Amory Hall lectures the first ones he delivered outside Concord, is by Linck C. Johnson, and most of the following information derives from that article.1
From February through April of 1844, Amory Hall, a rental hall on the corner of Washington and West streets, was the site of a series of lectures and discussions on various aspects of reform. The Sunday lecture series was an outgrowth of four successful lectures on various reform topics delivered in late January by Charles Calistus Burleigh, a Pennsylvania anti-slavery editor and champion of other reforms. So popular were the Burleigh lectures that, after the final one, the audience formed a committee to rent Amory Hall for three months and secure speakers for twelve Sunday meetings. At each meeting there was to be a morning lecture at 10:30 and an evening lecture at 7:30, usually by the same speaker, while a 2:30 afternoon session was devoted to discussion of a reform topic not necessarily related to the day’s lectures. Thoreau apparently presented his 10 March lecture on “The Conservative and the Reformer” in two parts, reading from a seventy-eight page manuscript. The afternoon discussion that day was on “Non-Resistance,” a topic introduced on 25 February and now in its third and final week of consideration. Whether Thoreau took part in the discussion is not known.
Johnson identifies the series lecturers and their topics as follows: 4 February, William Lloyd Garrison on “Worship” (morning) and “The Sabbath” (evening); 11 February, Garrison on “The Church” (morning) and “The Priesthood” (evening); 18 February, Charles Lane on “The True Life; Association; and Marriage” (morning and evening); 25 February, Adin Ballou on “Non-Resistance as Applied to Government” (morning) and “Association” (evening); 3 March, Ralph Waldo Emerson on “New England Reformers” (morning and evening); 10 March, Thoreau (morning and evening); 17 March, Charles Dana on “Association” (morning), Joseph Rhodes Buchanan on “The Pursuit of Truth” (evening); 24 March, Ernestine Rose on “Social Reform” (morning and evening); 31 March, Wendell Phillips on “Texas” (morning), John Pierpont on “Influence of Slavery on the Religion and Morals of the Country” (evening); 7 and 14 April, the lecturers were not announced in the newspapers but one of the speakers was Robert F. Wallcut, who may have spoken on temperance; 21 April, Garrison on “The Condition and the Rights of Woman” (morning) and a review of the proceedings at Amory Hall (evening). Whereas most of the names on this list were well known in both reform and lecture circles, Thoreau had published little concerning reform issues and had given only three previous lectures (excepting his commencement part), all in Concord. As Johnson suggests 2 he probably owed his somewhat surprising presence at Amory Hall to the recommendation of his mentor, Emerson, who actively promoted his younger friend.
What Johnson calls “the germ of Thoreau’s lecture at Amory Hall”3 is found in a letter to his sister Helen, written five months before on 18 October 1843. To Helen, who was interested in the communitarian (or “association,” as it was called) movement, he declared:

My objection to [William H.] Channing and all that fraternity is that they need and deserve sympathy themselves rather than are able to render it to others. They want faith and mistake their private ail for an infected atmosphere, but let anyone of them recover hope for a moment, and right his particular grievance, and he will no longer train in that company. To speak or do anything that shall concern mankind, one must speak and act as if well, or from that grain of health which he has left. (C, p. 147)

On 21 April, in his closing summary of the twelve-week Amory Hall series, William Lloyd Garrison said that the meetings were concluding because their “original design had been consummated” and because “to perpetuate them might seem to imply something of outward formality and sectarian imitation.”4 Finding much to object to in the institution of a formal church, Garrison was loath to have the Amory Hall reform assemblage mistaken for a congregation.
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: Essentially the same advertisement appeared on both 8 and 9 March 1844 in three Boston newspapers, the Courier, the Evening Mercantile Journal, and the Post. As it appeared in the Post, the ad read:

HENRY D. THOREAU, of Concord, will lecture at Amory Hall, in the Morning and Evening of SUNDAY next.
 The Discussion on Non-Resistance will be continued in the Afternoon.
 Hours of meeting, 10 1/2 A.M., 2 1/2 and 7 1/2 P.M. The public are invited to attend. A Collection will be taken to defray the expenses.

DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: The unpublished manuscript of this two-part lecture is housed at MH (bMS Am 278.5, 18A). The manuscript gives no indication of where Thoreau left off reading in the morning. In a note to his excellent article on the lecture, Johnson states, “Thomas Blanding and I are preparing an edited text of the untitled lecture, which will appear in a future issue of ESQ”;5 unfortunately, that text has not yet appeared. Johnson also points out in his article, as Blanding himself had a few years earlier,6 that the essay “Reform and the Reformers” in RP (pp. 181-97) “actually consists of two distinct sets of extracts from the original lecture, the first set copied out in 1846 or 1847, and the second in 1848….”7 The title of the lecture in the heading above is conjectural.
The lecture begins with Thoreau’s criticism of conservatives for their conformity to the existing social order, then moves to an unflattering assessment of the existing social order and of recent communitarian alternatives to that order, and concludes with Thoreau’s criticism of reformers for their adherence to a proposed new order that would prove just as antithetical to the natural principle of persistent change as the conservative’s conformity. Conservatives and reformers alike, Thoreau argues, lose their individual souls as they embrace collective causes. Instead, Thoreau argues for a disassociative self-reform and ends his lecture with this plea: “So rich is the treasury of God! So various and variegated is life. New things are constantly arriving. Let us not hold fast to any of the old nor to any of the new—But let the gods take care of what they have created—even of ourselves.”8

 1. Linck C. Johnson, “Reforming the Reformers: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Sunday Lectures at Amory Hall. Boston,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 37 (4th Quarter 1991): 235-89.
 2. Johnson, “Reforming the Reformers,” 236.
 3. Johnson, “Reforming the Reformers,” 268.
 4. Johnson, “Reforming the Reformers,” 243, quoting from the Liberator (Boston) of 26 April 1844.
 5. Johnson, “Reforming the Reformers,” 282n3.
 6. Thomas Blanding, in “Thoreau’s Local Lectures in 1849 and 1850,” Concord Saunterer, 17, no. 3 (December 1984), 22, writes: “Henry Thoreau gave his first lecture before the Lincoln Lyceum, and his first outside Concord, on January 19, 1847….Thoreau’s subject was probably the “History of Himself,” the same or a similar part of the Walden manuscript he would deliver in two installments at the Concord Lyceum in February.” In a footnote to this passage (26n3) Blanding cites MassLyc, p. 213, and then writes, “Another possibility is Thoreau’s lecture on reformers and conservatives written in 1845-46. The long lecture version of this work, with its added directions for public reading, is unpublished (Houghton Library, bMS Am 278.5, folder [18]A); the text entitled ‘Reform and the Reformers’ in Reform Papers (Princeton, 1973) is an amalgamation of draft pages for A Week and Walden, written when Thoreau tried to salvage parts of his old lecture for those extended works (bMS Am 278.5, folder [18]B).”
 7. Johnson. “Reforming the Reformers,” 281-82n3.
 8. MH (bMS Am 278.5, 18A).


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission