Mapping Thoreau Country

Explore Pilgrim Hall, the oldest continuously operating museum in the U.S.

Plymouth, MA

Plymouth Harbor, J.W. Barber, 1844

Thoreau lectured five times in Plymouth, delivering a two-part rendition of his Walden experience in February 1852, another two-part discourse on "Walking" and "The Wild" the following May, then returning in October 1854 to give a talk entitled "Moonlight."  His lectures in Plymouth came at the invitation of his Harvard classmate Benjamin Marston Watson, a horticulturist who had been drawn into the Transcendentalist circle in part as an investor in George Ripley's Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education, an experiment in communal living undertaken in the 1840's in West Roxbury.

With his wife Mary Russell Watson, a close friend of the Emersons, Watson instituted a lecture series at Leyden Hall that was held on Sundays to provide those who preferred not to go to church an alternative venue in which to consider "the leading social and moral questions of the day."  The Watsons' free-thinking approach attracted an impressive list of speakers including, along with Emerson, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, James Russell Lowell, Horace Greeley and other prominent regulars on what was then becoming a national lyceum circuit.

The Watsons apparently did not intend the lecture series to stray too far from what would be regarded as appropriate for a Sunday discourse, at least as far as we can tell from a letter Thoreau wrote to Marston Watson in December 1852:


Concord, December 31, 1852.

Mr. Watson,

—I would be glad to visit Plymouth again, but at present I have nothing to read which is not severely heathenish, or at least secular,—which the dictionary defines as "relating to affairs of the present world, not holy," —though not necessarily unholy; nor have I any leisure to prepare it. My writing at present is profane, yet in a good sense, and, as it were, sacredly, I may say; for, finding the air of the temple too close, I sat outside. Don't think I say this to get off; no, no! It will not do to read such things to hungry ears. "If they ask for bread, will you give them a stone?" When I have something of the right kind, depend upon it I will let you know.

Plymouth Rock from the Burying Hill, 1846.