Monday, November 5, 2007

Thoreau Comes to Town: Henry David Thoreau's 1848 Gloucester Lyceum Lecture and his Return to Cape Ann Ten Years Later




(1854 crayon portrait of Henry David Thoreau, by Samuel Rowse; Riverdale, by Fitz Henry Lane, as Thoreau would have experienced the parish during his walking tour of Gloucester in September 1858)


Henry David Thoreau was fond of telling people that he had traveled a good deal in Concord. As a consequence, many of his readers and lecture audiences came to believe that the writer and naturalist seldom strayed from the confines of his hometown. While it is true that he was scarcely the traveler that his friend and earlier mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson had been—even in his seventies Emerson was still on the Chautauqua lecture circuit in Oklahoma and Texas, not to mention camping out with John Muir in the California Sierras—Thoreau was not as sedentary as some imagine, or as he sometimes ironically gave the impression of being.

He traveled as far west as Minnesota, and north to Canada on the first rail excursion that was offered from Massachusetts to Montreal. As a younger man he spent a dreary winter on Staten Island, in New York, tutoring Emerson’s brother’s children. He covered most of Massachusetts and New Hampshire on foot; and before his tragically short life ended, he made three trips to Maine and several to Cape Cod.

Significant for North Shore residents, however, are the two trips Thoreau made to Cape Ann—one by invitation, the other on his own—for they show him in action in our home territory during two distinct phases of his life. An examination of these relatively obscure visits reveals how Gloucester first reacted to Thoreau as a social critic and how he, in turn, responded to what an earlier, more pastoral Cape Ann offered in the way of unspoiled landscape and natural beauty.

In 1848, after the Gloucester Lyceum (now the Sawyer Free Library) heard that Thoreau had given a successful lecture on November 22 in Salem, they engaged him to speak the following month. According to biographer Walter Harding, the Salem Observer thought that the thirty-one year old Thoreau had “created quite a sensation.” His Salem lecture, which he would repeat in Gloucester, was an early version of the first chapter of Walden, entitled “Economy.”

Thoreau offered his “Life in the Woods” as an antidote to the money-grubbing spirit of his age with its rising industrialism. But he didn’t suggest, as many think, that we should all build cabins in the wilderness as he had done at Walden Pond, in Concord, three years before, in 1845. Rather, he stressed that each one of us discover for ourselves some “essential” mode of life in accordance with our own inner promptings, so that, as he wrote, when we came to die, we would not discover that, in fact, we had not lived. Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose husband once—and not disparagingly—compared Thoreau to a “Red Indian,” when they were neighbors in Concord in 1843, found his Salem lecture “enchanting.”

Thoreau arrived in Gloucester on Wednesday evening, December 20, preceded by this notice in that morning’s Gloucester News and Semi-Weekly Messenger:

“Mr. Thoreau lectures before the Lyceum this evening. This lecturer is one of the eccentric characters of the age, of whom Ralph W. Emerson predicted a few years since that ‘He would be heard from.’ From the notices we have seen of Mr. Thoreau, we think an original and highly entertaining lecture may be expected.”

Since there exist no entries for 1848 in his otherwise voluminous and outspoken journal, we do not know what Thoreau himself expected of Gloucester, nor of his reactions to what he got here.

The anonymous reviewer of the Gloucester News reports approvingly on December 23 that Thoreau “attacked with keen but good-natured sarcasm the customs and fashions of the present age, and ridiculed with much force the folly of men.”

After summarizing Thoreau’s account of how he had built his cabin at Walden Pond, the reviewer somewhat skeptically reports Thoreau’s assertion that “good, wholesome food sufficient for one hermit can be procured for four cents a week,” and counters it with an interesting bit of localism:

“There are, we have been often told, families of eight or ten souls in this town, who live a year on one hundred and fifty dollars, which falls considerably within Mr. Thoreau’s estimate.”

Having apparently had his fill of Thoreau’s practical Transcendentalism (what the followers of Emerson would characterize as “plain living and high thinking”), the reviewer soon asserts the status quo:

“Mr. Thoreau and a few other men in the world can despise the pleasures of society, worship God out-doors in old clothes, can hear His Voice in the whistling or 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.”

Although the writer goes on to say that the lecture “certainly lacked system…and some of Thoreau’s flights were rather too lofty for the audience,” his does comment positively that “in originality of thought, force of expression, and flow of genuine humor, Thoreau has few equals.” Yet he found Thoreau’s delivery “decidedly Emersonian.” To him it was evident “that in this respect he is an imitator,” a consideration, in the reviewer’s words, “which always detracts much from the force of genius.”

He concludes that “although the lecture was entertaining and original, it was not calculated to do much good, and we think may be considered a literary curiosity [rather] than a practical dissertation on economy.”

The reviewer for Gloucester’s second newspaper, the Telegraph, which advertised itself as “Devoted to Patriotism, Sound Morals, Temperance, Literature and News,” reports also that Thoreau’s lecture was “rather a unique performance.”

Just the same, to Thoreau’s now famous “I have traveled a good deal in Concord: and everywhere in shops and offices and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways,” he—or she—has this to say:

“The lecturer gave a very strange account of the state of affairs at Concord. In the shops and offices were large numbers of human beings suffering tortures to which those of the Brahmins are mere pastimes. We cannot say whether this was in jest or in earnest. If a joke, it was a most excruciating one—if true, the attention of the Home Missionary Society should be directed to that quarter forthwith.”

The reviewer concludes:

“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 take the liberty of expressing the opinion that a certain ingredient to a good lecture was, in some instances, wanting.”

So much for the most famous chapter of Walden, a book destined to stand alongside such classics of the American Renaissance as Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter and Leaves of Grass (all published within the same five-year period) and to remain in print since it was first published in 1854.

Gloucester, unlike Salem,” Walter Harding concludes, “had had enough of Thoreau.” There is no record of his ever having been invited to lecture here again.

Leaving Gloucester, Thoreau went on to speak before large and approving audiences from Concord, Massachusetts to Portland, Maine. Publisher Horace Greeley devoted an entire editorial page of the New York Tribune, on April 2, 1849, to the success of Thoreau’s lecture tour.

“There is not a young man in the land—and very few old ones,” Greeley wrote, “who would not profit by an attentive hearing of that lecture.”

When Thoreau next traveled to Gloucester it was ten years later, in 1858; and he came not as a lyceum lecturer but as a typical late summer or early fall visitor of the time, with a pack on his back, and probably, as the reviewer of the News had written, worshipping God “out-doors in old clothes.”

The Henry David Thoreau who arrived in Gloucester on September 22, 1858, was a somewhat different person from the Walden hermit whose lyceum lecture here ten years earlier had seemed for the most part to have fallen on deaf ears. For one thing, he was older. He appeared to his friends as a more substantial yet serene presence in their midst. Many would attribute this to the fact that he had published two books of astonishing originality and force of expression—A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden—the making of which had doubtless solidified his character, integrating many of his interests and concerns, especially his ability to observe and write about nature and the outward world, while also describing the inward world of his own thoughts and feelings.

A Week, published in 1849, a year after his first visit to Cape Ann, did not sell well. Unable at first to find a publisher who would take the manuscript at his own risk, Thoreau had finally paid Emerson’s publisher, James Munroe of Boston, to bring out his first book, which had been ten years in the making. Undaunted by the book’s poor sale (a recent rare copy sold for $19,500) and even poorer critical reception, Thoreau took back 706 unsold copies from an initial printing of 1,000, placed them on his personal bookshelves in the attic of his family’s home in Concord, where he had his room, commenting wryly in his journal:

“I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself.”

But those who had read A Week and who had truly understood it were well aware of its importance. The young naturalist and teacher, fresh out of Harvard when he made that trip on the rivers with his brother John, in 1839, was already predicting the impact of industrialization on the agrarian life and rural ecology of the New England of his time. Thoreau was the first writer to warn us about the adverse effects upon our waterways and the air we breathe of the new mills and factories under construction in the Merrimack Valley. In A Week and subsequent writings and lectures he pointed out how the once-clear waters of the great Merrimack were running purple and black from the dyes of Manchester’s cotton mills. He also noted the emergence of an entirely new kind of pollution in America—noise pollution—a result of the railroads and the new technologies of the factory system, which he also felt had the chilling effect of turning its laborers into human machinery.

In his imaginative use of local history and in the precision and accuracy of Thoreau’s descriptions of the places he and John visited during their travels on and off the two rivers, A Week stands today as one of the last visions of a pristine rural America before the Industrial Revolution destroyed its human scale agrarian economy forever.

Unlike A Week, Walden sold well when it was first published in 1854. As particular as Thoreau’s experience in the Concord woods had been—Henry James called it “parochial”—the book told a universal story. In detailing his encounter with the divinity and with himself at edge of the “holy well” of Walden Pond through all the seasons of the year, Thoreau gave us “one of the last great religious books of the West,” according to poet Gerrit Lansing.

As a rejoinder to those skeptics, mostly journalists, who poked fun at his “out-door religion,” Thoreau wrote in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” one of his most scathing essays, “We are not a religious people, but we are a nation of politicians. We do not care for the Bible, but we do care for the newspaper!”

“Slavery in Massachusetts” was originally a lecture given in Framingham, in 1854, in which he warned his audience of startled Abolitionists that they had better address themselves to their own servitude to material possessions and a corrupt state government at home before they began trying to free Black people in Nebraska and the South.

But in September 1858, Thoreau did not come to Cape Ann to lecture or otherwise engage in polemics. He was on a walking tour of the North Shore with his friend John Russell of Salem. After examining the Indian relic collections at the Essex Institute (today the Peabody Essex Museum) in Salem, the two men toured Salem, Marblehead, Beverly and Manchester, “botanizing along the way,” as Thoreau wrote in his journal.

They “scuffed” along what Thoreau refers to as the “musical sand” of Singing Beach in Manchester and cooked their supper in a salt marsh “some two miles this side of Gloucester, in view of the town.” That night they “put up in Gloucester,” after enjoying some late blackberries, the persistence of which Thoreau attributed to “the cool air of the Cape.” He also notes that “the foliage had but just fairly begun to change.”

The next morning, September 23, the two men set out for Rockport. Thoreau writes:

“Having reached the shore, we sat under the lee of the rocks on the beach opposite Salt Island. A man was carting seaweed along the shore between us and the water, the leather-apron kind, which trailed from the car like the tails of oxen, and when it came between us and the sun, was of a warm purple glow.

“On the edge of the beach you see small dunes, with white or faun-colored sandy sides…Just before reaching Loblolly Cove, near Thacher’s Island [we] sat on a beach composed entirely of small paving stones.

“We could see the Salvages [T. S. Eliot’s "Dry Salvages"] very plainly, apparently extending north and south and east-northeast of Straitsmouth Island…”

“Rockport well deserves its name—several little rocky harbors protected by a breakwater, the houses at Rockport Village backing directly on the beach. At Folly Cove, a wild rocky point running north, covered with beach grass…”

The hikers paused there to look across Ipswich Bay to Newburyport and Plum Island before setting out for Annisquam. Thoreau continues:

“In Annisquam we found ourselves in the midst of boulders scattered over bare hills and fields. This was the most peculiar scenery of the Cape…”

He is referring to the moraine of the Dogtown section of Gloucester, and Thoreau’s description of his experience of this still relatively wild interior of Cape Ann is worth quoting complete:

“We struck inland southerly, just before sundown, and boiled our tea with bayberry bushes by a swamp on the hills, in the midst of these great boulders, about halfway to Gloucester, having carried our water a quarter of a mile, from a swamp, spilling a part in threading swamps and getting over rough places. Two oxen feeding in the swamp came up to reconnoiter our fire. We could see no house but the hills strewn with boulders, as if they had rained down, on every side, we sitting on a shelving one.

“When the moon arose, what had appeared like immense boulders half a mile off in the horizon now looked by contrast no larger than nutshells or buri-nut against the moon’s disk, and she was the biggest boulder of all.

“When we had put out our bayberry fire, we heard a squawk, and, looking up, saw five geese fly low in the twilight over our heads. We then set out to find our way to Gloucester over the hills, and saw the comet very bright in the northwest. After going astray a little in the moonlight, we fell into a road which at length conducted us to town.”

On the following morning, September 24, the two men left Gloucester, Thoreau proceeding immediately to Concord by train. A last note reads:

“There is a scarcity of fresh water on the Cape so you must carry your water a good way in a dipper.”

In his journal entry of September 30, Thoreau returns to the Gloucester visit:

“In our late walk on the Cape, we encountered Gloucester each time in the dark and mid-evening traveling partly across lots till we fell into a road, and as we were simply seeking a bed, inquiring the way of villagers whom we could not see, the town seemed far more home-like to us than when we made our way out of it in the morning.

“It was comparatively still, and the inhabitants were sensibly or poetically employed, too, and then we went straight to our chamber and saw the moonlight reflected from the smooth harbor and lighting up the fishing vessels, as if it had been the harbor of Venice

“Walking early in the day and approaching the rocky shore from the north, the shadows of the cliffs were very distinct and grateful and our spirits were buoyant. Though we walked all day, it seemed the days were not long enough to get tired in. Some villages we went through or by without communicating with any inhabitant, but we saw them as quietly and distantly as in a picture.”

Although Cape Ann obviously left an indelible impression on him—some of his descriptions invite comparison with the views of native painter Fitz Henry Lane, who was an exact contemporary—Thoreau never returned. Four years after his second visit here, he succumbed to his lifelong struggle with tuberculosis, dying on May 6, 1862, two months before his forty-fifth birthday. His last two books, Cape Cod and The Maine Woods, accounts of other journeys he made in his beloved New England, were published posthumously, along with his masterful journals, in which the report of his walking visit to the North Shore can be found in its entirety.

(Earlier versions of this essay appeared in North Shore and Essex Life magazines.)

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