The Reception of Thoreau as a Lecturer

By Bradley P. Dean

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Also: Thoreau’s Career as a Lecturer

Presentation delivered July 15, 1989 as the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Thoreau Society, in Concord, Massachusetts


Last summer, while preparing to teach a course in American Literature, I conducted an informal survey of what the most frequently used anthologies had to say about Thoreau as a lecturer.  The comments in each volume were very brief, as I had expected they would be.  But I was surprised to find that the comments were also, without exception, wrong — or at least they conflicted with what I know about the reception of Thoreau as a lecturer.

[2]    Here are representative comments from two of the anthologies:

No critic, however friendly, claimed that Thoreau had much presence as a public speaker, except during the fury of some of his abolitionist addresses.
And the other:
[Thoreau] achieved little success on the lecture platform, for he was a poor speaker and often more interested in the sound of his own words than in the reactions of his audience.
[3]    Notwithstanding remarks such as these in reputable — or at least popular — college-level anthologies, and notwithstanding the sentiments against Thoreau which, it seems to me, spawn these sorts of remarks, he did manage to achieve a substantial degree of success as a lecturer.  His success, however, seems never to have been complete — that is, he does not appear to have overwhelmed entire audiences, either with the force of his rhetoric or by the power of his presence on the lecture platform.

[4]    In almost every instance where we have more than one response to a given lecture, or where we have at least one lengthy review (usually from a local newspaper), it appears that a portion of the audience liked both Thoreau and the lecture, a portion liked neither him nor his lecture, and another portion (the largest portion in most instances, apparently) felt ambivalent about the whole performance.

[5]    The people in this latter group felt ambivalent for a number of different reasons.  There was, however, a sort of loose consensus on three points they didn’t like.  The first two points are, I think, related:  First, Thoreau’s transcendentalism (which a few reviewers equated with what they called his “cynicism”) and second, what was perceived as his imitation of Emerson, a charge levelled against him on several different occasions, but most often during the late 1840s and early 1850s.  The third point was his alleged failure to strike a reasonable balance between entertainment and instruction.

[6]    There was also a kind of consensus about what his auditors did like:  Thoreau’s wit or humor, what was often referred to as his quaintness or eccentricity, and (somewhat incongruously given the charge of imitating Emerson) the originality of his ideas.

[7]    To illustrate these generalizations and substantiate my claim that Thoreau achieved a reasonable amount of success on the lecture platform, I will survey the responses to eleven lectures that he delivered between the fall of 1848 and the winter of 1850–51.  I selected these eleven lectures primarily because the responses to them are representative of both the type and the range of responses to the other 63 or so lectures Thoreau gave over the course of his 22½-year lecturing career — a career that got off to a very slow start.

[8]    Five years passed between his first and second lectures, and he delivered only another ten lectures over the next five years.  All these first twelve lectures he delivered here in the Concord area — except one, which he gave before a more-or-less select audience of reform-minded people in Boston.  From 1838 to 1848, then, he was virtually unknown as a lecturer outside Concord.

[9]    This changed dramatically late in the fall of 1848 when, through a fortuitous series of events, he was given an opportunity to read his first Walden lecture outside the Concord area.  A year and a half earlier (that is, in the first two months of 1847, while still living at the pond) he had read parts of the earliest draft of his Walden manuscript before both the lyceum here in Concord and the lyceum in neighboring Lincoln.  In the intervening months he revised and expanded his manuscript into three lectures that formed what he called “a course of lectures on Life in the Woods.”

[10]    The name of the course itself — “Life in the Woods” — would likely attract people’s interest, as would the general subject.  As one person later wrote, “It is rather curious to see a gentleman of cultivated intellect retiring from the world, dividing his time betwixt literary labors and cooking, hunting and fishing.”

[11]    Also, from a public-relations point of view, the arrangement of the three lectures was well considered.  The first one, “Economy,” was humorous, practical, and provocative; and it contained a fine balance of Thoreau’s theories, on the one hand, and the facts of his experience on the other.  These were just the sort of qualities that would appeal to New England audiences, as Thoreau himself clearly knew.  In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson a couple of years later, he very strongly suggested that “Economy” was designed to entertain.  And as we’ll see in a moment, the lecture very often did entertain — though it usually did a number of other things as well.

[12]    After hearing Thoreau read “Economy,” an audience might be inclined to invite him back to deliver his second, and perhaps even his third “Life in the Woods” lectures, neither of which would have been likely to prompt further invitations because they were both much more blatantly transcendental than “Economy.”

[13]    As I said, a fortuitous series of events led to his first delivery of “Economy” outside the Concord area.  In May 1848 he wrote a letter to his friend Horace Greeley, the editor of the widely read New-York Tribune, and included in his letter a long paragraph, a portion of which reads:

For more than two years past, I have lived alone in the woods, in a good plastered and shingled house entirely of my own building, earning only what I wanted, and sticking to my proper work.  The fact is, Man need not live by the sweat of his brow — unless he sweats easier than I do — he needs so little.  For two years and two months, all my expenses have amounted to but 27 cents a week, and I have fared gloriously in all respects.
[14]    The paragraph I am referring to is, as most of you no doubt recognize, a fairly close paraphrase of passages in Walden, passages that were also in “Economy,” his first “Life in the Woods” lecture.  Under the title “A Lesson for Young Poets,”  Greeley printed the long paragraph in his newspaper along with some of his own laudatory remarks — and, incidentally, he printed the paragraph without Thoreau’s permission.

[15]    It isn’t clear by what means, but Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was living in Salem at the time, apparently informed the managers of the local lyceum that Thoreau was the anonymous author of the paragraph in the Tribune and that the paragraph was part of a lecture Thoreau had written about his life in the Walden woods.  The managers promptly voted to invite Thoreau to deliver the lecture, but the invitation didn’t reach him until October.  He accepted, of course, and soon afterward advertisements appeared in the Salem newspapers announcing that, among others, Henry S. Thoreau of Concord, New Hampshire had been engaged to lecture before the Salem Lyceum.

[16]    If the review that appeared in a local paper a few days later is any indication, the lecture was a resounding success — with one minor qualification, which I’ll discuss in a moment.  The reviewer pointed out that Thoreau was the hero of the story Greeley printed in the Tribune and continued:

[17]    The subject of this lecture was Economy, illustrated by the experiment mentioned [in the Tribune].  This was done in an admirable manner, in a strain of exquisite humor, with a strong undercurrent of delicate satire against the follies of the times.  Then there were interspersed observations, speculations, and suggestions upon dress, fashions, food, dwellings, furniture, &c. &c., sufficiently queer to keep the audience in almost constant mirth, and sufficiently wise and new to afford many good practical hints and precepts.

[18]    The reviewer concluded by noting that Thoreau’s performance “has created ‘quite a sensation’ amongst the Lyceum goers.”  Another indication the lecture was quite successful is that a couple of months later the managers of the Salem Lyceum voted to have Thoreau return and lecture again.

[19]    Now about the qualification I mentioned.  The review I just read from opens with these comments:

Mr. Thoreau of Concord gave his auditors a lecture on Wednesday evening sufficiently Emersonian to have come from the great philosopher himself.  We were reminded of Emerson continually.  In thought, style & delivery, the similarity was equally obvious.  There was the same keen philosophy running through him, the same jutting forth of ‘brilliant edges of meaning,’ as Gilfillian has it.  Even in tone of voice, Emerson was brought strikingly to the ear; and in personal appearance also, we fancied some little resemblance.
[20]    As I’ve mentioned, comments like these appear again and again in reviews of Thoreau’s lectures during the late 1840s and early 1850s, but they appeared even as late as 1859, when, for example, a Boston reviewer noted that Thoreau’s “manner of speaking resembles that of Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

[21]    This particular reviewer, though, did not actually charge Thoreau with willfully imitating Emerson, for he continued:

The close likeness between the two would almost justify a charge of plagiarism, were it not that Mr. Thoreau’s lecture furnished ample proof of being a native product by affording all the charm of an original.  Rather than an imitation of Emerson, it was the unfolding of a like mind with his; as if the two men had grown in the same soil and under the same culture.
[22]    Given the amount of testimony, though — and there’s quite a bit of it — I think Thoreau actually did take on many of Emerson’s mannerisms in the months after graduating from Harvard.  For instance, James Russell Lowell, who knew Thoreau at Harvard before Thoreau got to know Emerson and was therefore in a position to judge the change in Thoreau, said in July of 1838, less than a year after Thoreau’s graduation, “it is exquisitely amusing to see how [Thoreau] imitates Emerson’s tone & manner.  With my eyes shut I shouldn’t know them apart.”  But Lowell, I suggest, was wrong to use the word “imitates” because that implies a conscious process.  George Bartlett, one of Thoreau’s neighbors, was speaking rightly, in my opinion, when he said of Thoreau’s so-called imitation of Emerson that it “was, of course, involuntary.”  As I’ll point out later, though, some reviewers expressed their opinion that the imitation was quite conscious on Thoreau’s part.

[23]    The “sensation” that “Economy” caused in Salem spilled over (as it were) into neighboring Gloucester, and Thoreau soon received an invitation to deliver the lecture there.  Judging from the two responses we have, he was not as successful in Gloucester as he had been in Salem.  Apparently the audience as a whole enjoyed the delivery, but at least some of the auditors disliked the lecture.  In other words, everyone seems to have felt entertained, but some felt insufficiently instructed.

[24]    After the lecture, a reviewer for one of the local papers called it “a unique performance” and noted that Thoreau often “brought down the house” with his quaint remarks.  “Now and then,” the reviewer said, “there was a hard hit at the vices and follies of mankind, which told with considerable effect” — though he added, “There were hits, too, not remarkably hard.”  In summing up, he said, “We believe that concerning this lecture there are various opinions in the community,” which no doubt was true.  But then he left his own opinion quite clear:  “With all deference to the sagacity of those who can see a great deal where there is little to be seen — hear much where there is hardly anything to be heard — perceive a wonderful depth of meaning where in fact nothing is really meant, we would like to take the liberty of expressing the opinion that a certain ingredient to a good lecture was, in some instances, wanting.”

[25]    The reviewer for another Gloucester paper seems to have had about the same opinion of the lecture, but expressed his ambivalence more clearly. “This sketch of a hermit’s life,” he said, “was highly entertaining, being interspersed with beautiful descriptions of natural scenery, well told anecdotes, many philosophical digressions, and quaint sentiments.”  A highly entertaining sketch, he said — but the scheme or manner of living Thoreau propounded he thought highly impracticable: “only the ardent [and] devoted lover of nature could endure it three weeks,” much less one or two years, and continued, “Mr. Thoreau and a few other men in the world can despise the pleasures of society, worship God outdoors in old clothes, can hear his voice in the whistling and gently sighing wind, and read eloquent sermons from the springing flowers; but the great mass of men do and will always laugh at such pursuits.”

[26]    He also thought that Thoreau’s lecture “certainly lacked system” and that some of Thoreau’s flights “were rather too lofty for the audience,” but he conceded that “in originality of thought, force of expression, and flow of genuine humor, [Thoreau had] few equals.”  As for Thoreau’s platform manner, the reviewer hit him with what I’ve pointed out was almost a standard charge during this time:  Thoreau’s “style and enunciation — alternately — dwelling — on — and jerking-out-his-words — are decidedly Emersonian, and it is evident that in this respect, he is an imitator.  We guess Mr. Thoreau often relieved the tedium of his secluded life by frequent intercourse with his neighbor, Mr. Emerson.”  “On the whole, though,” he said in closing, “the lecture was entertaining and original [but] was not calculated to do much good, and we think may be considered rather a literary curiosity than a useful dissertation on economy.”

[27]    Thoreau’s next delivery of the first “Life in the Woods” lecture was in Portland, Maine, and was to prove relatively momentous because unlike the deliveries in Salem and Gloucester, it produced responses well beyond the immediate locale.  As we’ll see, however, the responses it produced, with one relatively insignificant exception, did not reflect particularly well on Thoreau.

[28]    When the doors of the lecture hall in Portland opened an hour before Thoreau spoke, conditions were not at all favorable for a successful lecture.  A brisk southerly wind had blown in an equinoctial storm, and rain was pounding the roof of the hall, making soup of the already muddy streets.  Nevertheless, what Thoreau later called “a good audience” had assembled by 7:30, when he was introduced.

[29]    As one reviewer afterward said, Thoreau was able to keep the audience “wide awake, and most pleasantly excited for nearly two hours” — this in spite of the storm raging outside.  William Willis, an officer of the lyceum, went home afterwards and wrote in his diary, “lecture at Lyceum by Mr. Thoreau of Concord, Mass.” — and he summed up the lecture in just three words, each of which we have heard before:  “queer, transcendental & witty.”

[30]    The next day, one of the Portland papers said the lecture was “unique, original, comical, and high-falutin. . . .  It was like the dashing out of a comet that had broken loose from its orbit — hitting here and there, a gentle rap at this folly, and a severe one at that — but all in good nature.”  Another paper, the Portland Transcript, ran a long review and a 121-sentence summary of the lecture, which together take up almost three full columns.  The reviewer obviously liked the lecture, saying in part:

In his lecture Mr. Thoreau took us with him to his lonely retreat, and pointed out some of the principal features of the great battle of life, of which the earth is the scene.  But he saw them in the colorings given by his own mental vision — sometimes clear and lifelike, sometimes picturesque, and anon grotesque, sometimes humorous and playful, but always genial, and without misanthropy or malice.  It was refreshing to go out of the beaten track, and follow an original mind in its wanderings among life’s labyrinths, and it was amusing to witness the play of fancy and strokes of wit which were scattered along its course.
In his summary, the reviewer concluded that Thoreau’s lecture “was the pepper, salt, and mustard of the course, and certainly gave an excellent relish to the whole.”

[31]    Five days after Thoreau left Portland, Horace Greeley came to lecture in the city.  Greeley stopped in at the office of the Transcript, read the editor’s long, detailed summary of Thoreau’s lecture before it was set in print, and took a few notes.  When he returned to New York, he published a brief article in the Tribune mentioning that “Henry D. Thoreau of Concord, Mass. has recently been lecturing on ‘Life in the Woods,’ in Portland and elsewhere.”  After a brief summary of the lecture, Greeley expressed his opinion that “If all our young men would but hear this lecture, we think some among them would feel less strongly impelled either to come to New York or go to California.”  (At that time, the gold rush to California was going on, and large numbers of young men from all over the country were leaving for the gold fields.)

[32]    A few days after this article appeared, someone signing himself Timothy Thorough wrote a response, which Greeley published under the headline “How to Live — Mr. Thoreau’s Example.”  Timothy Thorough told Greeley that he “felt a little surprised at seeing such a performance [as Henry Thoreau’s life in the woods] held up as an example for the young men of this country,” and he supposed that he “must have mistaken the sense of [Greeley’s] article.”  So he asked his wife what she could make of it.  “She will have it,” he told Greeley, “that the young man [Henry Thoreau] is either a whimsy or else a good-for-nothing, selfish, crab-like sort of chap, who tries to shirk the duties whose hearty and honest discharge is the only thing that in her view entitles a man to be regarded as a good example.”

[33]    Greeley, in his reply, pointed out, as so many have since, that “Nobody has proposed or suggested that it becomes everybody to go off into the woods” and live as Thoreau did at the pond, and he added his impression that “Mr. Thoreau has set all his brother aspirants to self-culture, a very wholesome example, and showed them how, by chastening their physical appetites, they may preserve their proper independence without starving their souls.”  (Incidentally, soon after this Greeley wrote a lecture entitled “Self-Culture” that contained a long passage about Thoreau’s wholesome example, though he didn’t mention Thoreau by name in the lecture.  He delivered the lecture widely and, as he told Thoreau, was frequently asked by his auditors who the young man was.)

[34]    At any rate, the spirited exchange between Timothy Thorough and Greeley attracted quite a bit of attention around the country, even here in Concord.  Under the banner headline “OUR TOWNSMAN — MR. THOREAU,” the editor of the Yeoman’s Gazette asserted that Thoreau was “a gentleman of rare attainments” and “All the good things which the Tribune says of this gentleman are richly deserved.”  At least three newspapers in Boston and Philadelphia reprinted the Tribune article without comment.

[35]    The Philadelphia U.S. Gazette, a Democratic or conservative paper that frequently feuded with the much more liberal Tribune, also reprinted the article, but with surprising long and relentlessly scathing commentary.  According to the editor of the Gazette, Thoreau was nothing more than “an idle student . . .  laboring no more than barely to maintain his own single, selfish existence” — and Greeley and all others “who encourage such economic and philosophic perversion of life” were encouraging “idleness and the most egotistic meanness.”  Large portions of this commentary appeared as filler in several other newspapers around the country — in Washington, DC, New York City, Albany, and Newark, for example — but not a word of it was calculated to enhance Thoreau’s reputation as a lecturer — or as anything else, for that matter, except perhaps a misanthoropic oddball.

[36]    However, not everyone who read one of the newspaper summaries of Thoreau’s Portland lecture disagreed with the views he expressed, as we know from the charming testimony of a young woman named Mary, who lived on the western side of Maine and subscribed to the Portland Transcript.  She read the three-column review of “Economy” in the Transcript and wrote to the editors the following week, saying, “I was well pleased with your excellent paper of the 31st of March, and especially with the account you gave of Mr. Thoreau’s lecture.”  After giving her opinion about the way Thoreau lived — the thrust of which was basically “to each his own” and “more power to him” — Mary said that Thoreau’s account of the way he lived reminded her of “a very small woman with a pleasant countenance, and three small children and a little dog” who had come to her town the preceding summer and who lived in much the same fashion Thoreau did at the pond.  After telling this woman’s story — about how she set up housekeeping next to a small stream, did her cooking outdoors, and similar sorts of things — Mary told the editors, “Now Sirs, it is my opinion [that] if this poor widow’s story and character had such a narrator as Mr Thoreau, it would far exceed many of the stories with which ‘All Europe rings from side to side.’“

[37]    At about the same time Thoreau had received the invitation to lecture in Portland, he had also received the invitation to lecture again in Salem.  He accepted, and delivered his second “Life in the Woods” lecture there on the 28th of February 1849.  The reviewer of the second lecture — “Judging,” he said, “from the remarks we have heard concerning it” — concluded that Thoreau was “less successful this time in suiting all, than on the former occasion.”  And he continued, “The diversity of opinion is quite amusing.  Some persons are unwilling to speak of his lecture as any better than ‘tom-foolery and nonsense,’ while others think they perceived, beneath the outward sense of his remarks, something wise and valuable.”

[38]    These were fairly typical responses to both the second and third “Life in the Woods” lectures.  Which opinion a given auditor had seems to have depended on whether he or she thought Thoreau’s brand of transcendentalism was worthy of serious consideration or was just so much fluff.  The reviewer I just quoted seems to have thought it was fluff, but a Salem correspondent to a Boston newspaper was a bit more charitable in her assessment, saying that the lecture was “a delectable compound of oddity, wit and transcendentalism.”  Most of the auditors, though, probably agreed with the first reviewer’s assessment.  After all, Thoreau never received another invitation to lecture again in Salem.

[39]    A month after this spate of lectures in Salem, Gloucester, and Portland, Thoreau was invited to deliver his entire course of “Life in the Woods” lectures in Worcester.

[40]    Two reporters were among the audience for the first lecture, and both reviewed it in their respective papers.  Their responses are wonderfully illustrative and, I think, pretty much representative of the sort of responses Thoreau’s lectures often received.  Both agreed, as did the two reviewers in Gloucester earlier, that the lecture entertained; but they had differing opinions about whether the lecture instructed.

[41]    After conceding that the lecture was “witty, sarcastic, and amusing,” one of the reviewers insisted that philosophers like Thoreau “only illustrate the absurdities the human mind is capable of.”  To this reviewer, a forest full of such philosophers was good for “Nothing but curiosities for people to look after, as they pay their shilling to see a menagerie.”  And he fired his parting shot in this fashion:  “A wheel-barrow with an Irishman for its vitals renders the world a far better service.”

[42]    The other reviewer, as I said, listened to the very same lecture; but he thought it was “a very agreeable lecture,”  “an intellectual treat of no ordinary character, — one of those which, while they interest and please us in the delivery, leave us with the consciousness that we are the wiser and the better for them.”

[43]    The first of these two reviewers went to hear Thoreau’s second lecture the following week and, oddly, found it somewhat better than the first lecture — apparently because it contained a larger dose of instruction.  But he did not find all the instruction edifying.  For him, the second lecture was “a mingled web of sage conclusions and puerility — wit and egotistical effusions — bright scintillations and narrow criticisms and low comparisons.”  Thoreau, he said, “has a natural poetic temperament, with a more than ordinary sensibility to the myriad of nature’s manifestations [and] says many things that not only amuse the hour, but will not easily be forgotten.  He is truly one of nature’s oddities, and would make a very respectable Diogenes.”  Considering his earlier remarks about “Economy,” this was high praise indeed.

[44]    But this reviewer also saw in Thoreau what he called “a constant struggle for eccentricity” and said that only when Thoreau “seems to forget himself” does the listener forget “that there is in the neighborhood of Walden Pond another philosopher whose light Thoreau reflects.”

[45]    The other philosopher, of course, was Emerson.  And as though to prove the truth of the observation that Thoreau struggled to imitate Emerson, a reviewer in another paper makes almost exactly the same comment.  Thoreau, he wrote, “evidently is not deficient in ability and might very probably attain to a more respectable rank [as a lecturer], if he were satisfied to be himself, Henry D. Thoreau, and not aim to be Ralph Waldo Emerson or anybody else.  But, so far as manner, at least, was concerned, the lecture was a better imitation of Emerson than we should have thought possible, even with two years of seclusion to practice in.”  Even Thoreau’s ideas and style were, for this reviewer, “mostly Emersonian, with occasional interludes in which the lecturer gave us glimpses of himself.”  But in Thoreau’s favor, he adds, “we are perverse enough to consider ourself better pleased with him as Thoreau than as Emerson, so far as these [occasional interludes] afforded us the means of judging.”  He then closed by encouraging his readers to attend Thoreau’s third lecture and said he “would not miss going on any consideration of an ordinary character.”

[46]    Unfortunately, we have only one response to the third Worcester lecture.  I say “unfortunately” because the response we have is so strange.  It was written by a self-described “youth” and member of “the Worcester sofa-lolling literati.”  This youth attended the entire course of “Life in the Woods” lectures and was emphatically not impressed.  He wrote a kind of open letter to Thoreau — much of it almost incomprehensible, the syntax is so fractured — yet he was somehow able to get it published in one of the Worcester papers.

[47]    In this open letter, as I call it, the youth chastizes Thoreau for having “winged but a stupid flight on wings of Carlyle or Emerson, through formless mist-clouds or smoke of burning brush-heaps, where snapped and crackled wit or nonsense, as the case may be.”  The youth also claimed to have implicit faith in Thoreau’s “power of drawing inspirations from nature,”  but said he had no faith at all in Thoreau’s “ability to become an effective prophet and priest of the Divine in Nature.”  According to this youth, transcendentalism had become quite “chop fallen,” and Thoreau’s touted simplicity was nothing but “a drug on the market.”

[48]    At one point in his letter, the youth gives Thoreau some advice about writing lectures for “the genteel lecture-going world.”  “Come down from your place of instruction,” he suggested; lecture-goers “gather not before you to be instructed but to be amused.”  Thoreau probably never saw this youth’s strange letter.  Interestingly, though, he soon afterwards did follow the youth’s advice by coming down (somewhat) from his so-called place of instruction.

[49]    Encouraged, perhaps, by the dramatic success, and possibly even by the notoriety of his “Life in the Woods” lectures during the latter part of 1848 and the early part of 1849, Thoreau began working on another series of lectures in the fall of 1849, immediately after returning from his first excursion to Cape Cod.  Within eleven weeks, he was able to write a course of three lectures describing the excursion.  This course was very short-lived, though; as a matter of fact, it was all but still-born, because almost as soon as Thoreau finished writing the three lectures, he was asked to deliver two lectures before the Concord Lyceum.  So he hastily collapsed the three lectures into two and delivered them on the last two Wednesdays of January 1850.

[50]    James Chapin came over from Lincoln to listen to both lectures and commented briefly on each in his diary.  Of the first, he wrote, “[Thoreau’s] ideas are strange, many of them, yet I think had he been any other than a ‘native’ of Concord he would have been well liked by most people” — a telling remark about Thoreau’s relations with his townsmen, I think, but one clearly suggesting that most of his townsmen in the audience that night didn’t enjoy the lecture.  Of the second lecture the following week, Chapin wrote only that Thoreau “seems to have a great faculty of saying a great deal about a very small affair” — and then he added, “rather too much so I think.”

[51]    Although Chapin’s remarks give the impression that Thoreau’s auditors were not pleased with the Cape Cod lectures, Emerson gives a totally different impression about their response.  A week after the second Cape Cod lecture, he wrote to Thoreau:

I was at South Danvers on Monday Evening, & promised Mr C. Northend, Secretary of the Lyceum, to invite you for Monday the 18th of February to read to his Institution.  I told him there were two lectures to describe Cape Cod, which interested him & his friends, & they hoped that the two might somehow be rolled into one to give them some sort of complete story of the journey.
Then he wrote, “I hope it will not quite discredit my negotiation if I confess that [Mr. Northend & his friends] heard with joy that Concord people laughed till they cried when it was read to them.”

[52]    It’s difficult to account for the disparity between Chapin’s remarks and Emerson’s.  I suppose a possibility would be that the auditors enjoyed the humor of the Cape Cod story but for some odd reason would not permit themselves to like the lecture.  I suggest this as a possibility because it actually occurred later with a different audience, as I will point out shortly.

[53]    In any case, Thoreau accepted the invitation to lecture in South Danvers and began rolling his two lectures into one.  So, when he finished, instead of a course of three or even two lectures on Cape Cod, he had only one lecture on the subject.  But, as it turned out, that was all he needed.

[54]    He delivered the lecture three times after reading it in South Danvers — first in Newburyport, then in Clinton, and finally in Portland, Maine.  No reports survive of either the South Danvers or the Newburyport deliveries, but we do have responses from the other two.

[55]    About a month before Thoreau arrived in Clinton, Horace Greeley delivered his lecture on “Self-Culture” there.  This lecture, you’ll recall, is the one in which Greeley referred to Thoreau’s two-year experiment in the Walden woods as a wholesome example to young men aspiring to self-culture.  Sometime after his lecture, Greeley apparently identified Thoreau as the person he referred to because the Clinton newspaper, in its advertisement for the Cape Cod lecture the following month, called Thoreau “the type of Mr. Greeley’s isolated education.”

[56]    The editor of the same paper went to hear “Cape Cod” and complained in his review afterward that he was not instructed at all by the lecture — that he was only entertained.  Thoreau’s lecture, he wrote, “was one of those intellectual efforts which serve to wile away an hour very pleasantly, but which leave little or nothing impressed upon the memory of real value.”

[57]    A week after Thoreau’s lecture, one Thomas Drew lectured very instructively on “The Influence of Mechanic Arts upon Civilization.”  In his review a few days later, the editor said of Mr. Drew’s lecture that it placed Thoreau’s “Cape Cod amongst those ‘trifles, light as air,’ which serve to amuse, but not instruct, the listener.”

[58]    Two weeks after giving the lecture in Clinton, Thoreau took it to Portland, Maine.  William Willis, the lyceum officer who had heard “Economy” two years earlier, was not able to hear “Cape Cod.”  Someone told him about it, though, because he wrote in his diary the next night that it was “said to be a very poor lecture.”  A friend of Joel Benton’s apparently agreed because she later told Benton that Thoreau’s “general appearance and manner were droll” and that Thoreau “was far from being eloquent.”

[59]    One of the two editors of the Portland Transcript, however, had a very different response, which he recorded in an extraordinarily long review of the lecture.  Since this is, in my opinion, the most significant review of any of Thoreau’s lectures, I will read fairly large extracts from it, though the extracts I’ll read are a small portion of the whole review.

[60]    After saying that Thoreau’s performance “was unique, eccentric and original”; that Thoreau’s style was “singularly graphic”; and several other remarks of that sort; the editor said:

[Thoreau] reaches out into the immensity of nature and startles you by bringing dissimilarities together in which for the first time you perceive resemblances.  Again he bewilders you in the mists of transcendentalism, delights you with brilliant imagery, shocks you by his apparent irreverence, and sets you in a roar by his sallies of wit, which spring from ambush upon you.  He lies in wait for you, and dodges around about, ever and anon thrusting grotesque images before you.  You cannot anticipate him.  He is the most erratic of travellers.  One moment he is in the clouds, and the next eating hen clams by the sea shore, or whittling kelp, that he “may become better acquainted with it.”  You have scarce ceased to smile at his last pun, before you are overwhelmed by a great thought or what, by the manner of its clothing, is cleverly made to appear such.  All this, you feel, is not the result of effort.  It is the natural out-pouring of the man.  He could not speak otherwise if he would.  His style is a part of himself, as much as his voice, manner, and the peculiar look which prepares you for something quaint and adds its effect far more than words.
[61]    Further on in the review, the editor expressed an opinion that I think goes a long way toward explaining the wide range of responses Thoreau got from his auditors.  The editor’s point is very simple:  as a lecturer, Thoreau required of his auditors — if not sympathetic ears, then at least open or imaginative minds.  As the editor himself wrote, “To men with imagination enough to enjoy an occasional ramble through the domains of thought, wit, and fancy for the ramble’s sake, [Thoreau] is a delightful companion; but to your slow plodder, who clings to the beaten track as his only salvation, he is incomprehensible.”

[62]    To illustrate his point, the editor said he strolled around the hall after the lecture listening to the various responses:

One worthy man, [he says] who has more of the practical than the imaginative in his composition, was demanding with a smile forced from him by the tickling fancies of the lecturer, that the [lyceum] committee should “pay him for the time lost in listening to such trash!”  A fair philosopher of sixteen thought he possessed “a vein of satire, but spoke of the clergy with too much levity.”  A sober young man declared it “the greatest piece of nonsense he ever listened to,” while another thought it trivial, and even prophane!  But then, again, there were others who were infinitely amused with his quaint humor, delighted with his graphic descriptions and far-reaching flights of imagination.  To them it was “a rich treat.”  Then there were those, as there always are, who were ready to quarrel with the lecture because it did not square with their pre-conceived standard of what a lyceum lecture should be.  It was very well as almost anything else than a lecture!  If they had come to listen to a story, they would have been delighted, but as it was given to them as a lecture, they could not enjoy it!
[63]    The editor then gives his own response in summation:  “For ourselves, we were content to receive [the lecture] for what it was — a most original, quaint, humorous, life-like, and entertaining description of Cape Cod and its inhabitants.”  And as though replying to the editor in Clinton, he concludes, “Nor do we think [the lecture] without instruction.  We shall certainly never think of Cape Cod without recalling images of rocky shores and their ghastly dead, its desert beaches, its masculine women, and its veteran wreckers.  Cape Cod is no longer blank on our mental map.  Its natural features and its inhabitants are pictured there, and we have added so much to our knowledge of ‘men and things.’”

[64]    Any modern-day assessment of Thoreau’s performance as a lecturer must, of course, be based on the responses of people who actually heard him lecture.  We have many, many dozens of such responses, only a small portion of which I have just surveyed for you this morning.

[65]    I have given you three assessments of Thoreau as a lecturer — my own and those recorded in two college-level anthologies of American Literature.  My own, again, is that Thoreau achieved a reasonable amount of success as a lecturer.  Let me read again what I think is the more critical of the other two assessments:

Thoreau achieved little success on the lecture platform, for he was a poor speaker and often more interested in the sound of his own words than in the reactions of his audience.
[66]    In closing, I ask you to assume that the responses I have surveyed this morning are fairly representative.  Then, if you will, decide for yourselves what sort of lecturer Henry Thoreau was.
 

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