Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 8



4 February 1846, Wednesday; 7:00 P.M.
Concord, Massachusetts; Unitarian Church, Vestry


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: In a January 1846 letter to Charles Lane, Amos Bronson Alcott wrote, “Emerson will read these Lectures [Representative Men] to the Concord Lyceum, and Thoreau has a Lecture on Carlyle.”1 The lecture referred to was the tenth in a course of twenty-two and is noted as follows in the records of the Concord Lyceum: “Concord Feb 4, 1846. A lecture was read before the Society by Mr Henry D. Thoreau of Concord. Subject: the Writings & Style of Thomas Carlyle. Adjourned. Cyrus Stow Secretary” (MassLyc, p. 161).
Thoreau had begun making notes on Carlyle’s works in 1842 but probably did not shape them into an essay until after he began living at Walden Pond. In the midst of journal passages on Carlyle written that summer of 1845, Thoreau inserted his well known comment about his organic process of composition: “From all points of the compass from the earth beneath and the heavens above have come these inspirations and been entered duly in such order as they came in the Journal. Thereafter when the time arrived they were winnowed into Lectures—and again in due time from Lectures into Essays” (PEJ1, p. 205). This was, indeed, the path that he took with the Carlyle piece, finally publishing it, after some difficulty, in Graham’s American Monthly Magazine in the spring of 1847.2
ADVERTISEMENTS, REVIEWS, AND RESPONSES: A journal entry by Thoreau, written in preparation for his next Concord Lyceum lecture, suggests that his February 1846 auditors, whatever they had learned about Thomas Carlyle, were left with an unfulfilled curiosity about their neighbor Henry Thoreau and his unusual life at Walden Pond:

I expect of any lecturer that he will read me a more or less simple & sincere account of his life—of what he has done & thought. Not so much what he has read or heard of other mens lives—and actions….
 Yet incredible mistakes are made— I have heard an Owl lecture with a perverse show of learning upon the solar microscope—and chanticlere upon nebulous stars When both ought to have been sound asleep in a hollow tree—or upon a hen roost. When I lectured here before this winter I heard that some of my towns men had expected of me some account of my life at the pond—this I will endeavor to give tonight. (PEJ2, pp. 141-42)

Thoreau had anticipated giving this account of his life at the pond later, in the same season he delivered his Carlyle lecture. As events transpired, however, he did not lecture again in Concord until 10 February 1847, when he delivered “A History of Myself” to his still curious neighbors (see lecture 10 below).
DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: Like many of Thoreau’s other lectures, he delivered this one and almost immediately began moving it toward publication. Nevertheless, he probably revised the lecture text between the time he delivered the lecture and the date he submitted the essay for publication. In this instance, judging from its size, the essay appears to be simply a slightly revised and expanded version of the lecture.

 1. The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, ed. Richard L. Herrnstadt (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1969. pp. 125-26.
 2. Graham’s American Monthly Magazine. 30 March 1847): 145-52, and 30 (April 1847): 238-45. See EEM, pp. 406-409, for an account of the difficulties Thoreau experienced in getting the essay published and in getting paid for the publication.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission