Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 7



25 March 1845, Tuesday; 7:00 P.M.
Concord, Massachusetts; Unitarian Church, Vestry


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: On 25 March 1845, Concord Lyceum secretary George M. Brooks recorded, “A Lecture was delivered this evening by Mr David H. Thoreau of Concord. Subject: Concord river” (MassLyc, p. 160). Thoreau’s was the penultimate lecture in a course of fourteen, the eleventh of which was a controversial presentation on slavery by abolitionist Wendell Phillips in which Thoreau also had a hand. Specifically, when the question of inviting Phillips to speak was considered by Lyceum members, the conservative curators resigned rather than accede to the invitation. They were replaced on 5 March by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Barrett, and Thoreau. The invitation was immediately delivered and Phillips spoke less than a week later, on 11 March (MassLyc, pp. 159-60). After the Phillips brouhaha, Thoreau’s paean to the Concord River was a lecture that Lyceum members could appreciate, as suggested by the reminiscence that appeared thirty-seven years later in the Concord Freeman (see below).
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: On 1 September 1882, the Concord Freeman published an article called “Reminiscences of Thoreau” containing this tribute to Thoreau’s comments on the river, comments purportedly from his 1845 lecture and later incorporated in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:

[Thoreau] has many peculiarities and absurd ideas, viewed from our standpoint, but the following apostrophe to the Concord Lyceum will be read and admired by all men hundreds of years hence as today, for the philosophical truths enunciated, the poetic beauty of expression, and its pure naturalness.
 ”I had often stood on the banks of the Concord, watching the lapse of the current, an emblem of all progress, following the same law with the system, with time, and all that is made; the weeds at the bottom gently bending down the stream, shaken by the watery wind, still planted where their seeds had sunk, but ere long to die and go down likewise; the shining pebbles, not yet anxious to better their condition, the chips and weeds, and occasional logs and stems of trees, that floated past, fulfilling their fate, were objects of singular interest to me, and at last I resolved to launch myself on its bosom, and float whither it would bear me.”

DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: The content of this lecture, the title of which is identical to the title of the first chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, apparently consisted of large portions of that first chapter, as well as at least most of the “fish” portions of the second chapter, “Saturday,” of Thoreau’s first book.

Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission