Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden: Lecture 9



19 January 1847, Tuesday; 7:00 P.M.
Lincoln, Massachusetts; Brick or Centre School House


NARRATIVE OF EVENT: Thoreau”s 19 January 1847 lecture was the second in the Lincoln Lyceum’s course of seven for the season (MassLyc, pp. 212-14). Although there is some question as to exactly what lecture he gave, that he did present something is attested to by James Chapin, the Lincoln Lyceum’s recording secretary, in his report on the evening’s activities:

Lincoln Jan. 19, 1847. The Lyceum met according to adjournment with the President in the chair and listened to a lecture from Henry Thoreau, of Concord, for which the society voted their thanks. They then proce[e]ded to the Question: Are the present customs of society in this country calculated to develop the mental and physical powers of its young men?—which was argued by O. Smith, in the affirmative, and J. L. Chapin, Wm. F. Wheeler, and H. C. Chapin, in the negative, and decided in the Affirmative by a vote of the house. The President then appointed the following disputants for the next meeting: Wm. F. Wheeler, Orland Smith, Edwin Stems, Francis Newhall, Cornelius Fiske, John Farrar. They then adopted the following Question for discussion at the next meeting: Which has the greater influence on Society—the man of talents or the man of character? Voted to adjourn for two weeks from this evening at 6 1/2 o’clock. (MassLyc, p. 213)

The first paragraph of the “Winter Animals” chapter in Walden describes the country through which Thoreau passed on his way to the Lincoln Lyceum:

The Lincoln hills rose up around me at the extremity of a snowy plain, in which I did not remember to have stood before; and the fishermen, at an indeterminable distance over the ice, moving slowly about with their wolfish dogs, passed for sealers or Esquimaux, or in misty weather loomed like fabulous creatures, and I did not know whether they were giants or pygmies. I took this course when I went to lecture in Lincoln in the evening, travelling in no road and passing no house between my own hut and the lecture room. In Goose Pond, which lay in my way, a colony of muskrats dwelt, and raised their cabins high above the ice: though none could be seen abroad when I crossed it. (W, p. 271)

DESCRIPTION OF TOPIC: Although the lecture Thoreau delivered on this date is not known, we speculate he delivered the first of the two (and possibly three1) lectures he had by this time prepared on his “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” course. One commentator, Paul Brooks, points out that the “previous summer Thoreau had spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax in protest against our government’s policies” and that “Immediately after [Thoreau’s lecture in Lincoln], the Lyceum chose as a topic for debate: ‘Is it expedient to obey all laws whether just or unjust?'”2 Brooks then suggests that Thoreau on this occasion delivered his early “Civil Disobedience” lecture;3 we regard this as very unlikely, however, because Thoreau appears not to have begun work on that lecture until late-1847 (see entries for lectures 13 and 14 below). Another commentator, Thomas Blanding, agrees with us that “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,” less than a month later, but in a note Blanding points out that “Another possibility is Thoreau’s lecture on reformers and conservatives….”4 Yet another commentator, Kenneth Walter Cameron, notes that Thoreau may have “lectured on the ‘Writings and Style of Thomas Carlyle,’ which he had delivered in Concord a year earlier and which was then in the press—to appear in February, 1847, in Graham’s Magazine” (MassLyc, p. 213). We base our speculation on the fact that, as Cameron points out, “Since, twenty-two days later, on February 10, Thoreau lectured before the Concord Lyceum on ‘The History of Myself,’ it is highly probable that he tried it out in Lincoln and that Lincoln deserves the honor of being the first audience to hear the account of what later became Walden” (MassLyc, p. 213). We also believe Thoreau would have found it difficult to pass up this opportunity to tryout his new lecture before his neighbors in Lincoln.
Assuming Thoreau did indeed deliver the first of his two earliest “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” lectures in Lincoln, then the text he read is, for the most part, the first fifty-odd pages (using Thoreau’s pagination on the manuscript leaves) of “the text of the first version” of Walden recovered by J. Lyndon Shanley and published in The Making of Walden.5 As usual, Thoreau continued to revise the lecture text, deleting passages from and adding material to the text, and he eventually published it as the “Economy” chapter of Walden.

 1. The first manuscript version of Walden contains enough text for three lectures, and we know that Thoreau delivered at least two of those three lectures from that manuscript. But although the manuscript contains the text for a third lecture, there is no record of Thoreau having delivered a third lecture from the first-version manuscript, and it is unclear when he completed the text for the third lecture. See J. Lyndon Shanley, The Making of Walden, with the Text of the First Version (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), where the presumptive text for the third lecture appears on pp. 157-208. Shanley suggests that Thoreau had completed work on the first manuscript version before leaving the pond in September 1847, but he concedes that Thoreau may have completed his work earlier than September (p. 24).
 2. Paul Brooks, The View from Lincoln Hill (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), p. 182n1. Actually, the Lincoln Lyceum did not choose the debate topic until 16 February 1847 (MassLyc, p. 213).
 3. Brooks, View from Lincoln Hill, p. 182n1.
 4. Blanding, “Thoreau’s Local Lectures,” 22, 26n3.
 5. Shanley, Making of Walden, pp. 105-37.


Copyright © by Joel Myerson
Reprinted with permission