“Leaving the Croakers to Annihilate Him”: Thoreau, the Gold Rush, and Nantucket’s Answer to “What Shall It Profit?” by Elizabeth Kalman

Independent Gold-Hunter on his Way to California

On December 27, 1854, Henry Thoreau traveled to Nantucket Island to give a lecture titled “What Shall it Profit?” According to the advertisement in the December 8, 1854, edition of The Inquirer, one of the two island newspapers at the time, he was to speak as part of a “course of Lectures before the Proprietors of the Nantucket Atheneum.” The advertisement went on to say, “The Committee have limited the number of tickets, that the Hall may not be crowded.”  A good turnout was anticipated. On January 1, 1855, following the lecture, The Inquirer published a lengthy article titled “Sketches of Atheneum Lectures, ‘What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ by Henry D. Thoreau, Esq.” A close summary of his entire lecture, this article offered scant sense of the audience’s response, which has universally been assumed to be positive based on Thoreau’s own recorded perception. Now, however, a recently surfaced review from the other island newspaper of the era, The Weekly Mirror, published on December 30, 1854, casts doubt upon that thumbs-up consensus of Thoreau and scholars.Nantucket Town Seal

I lived on Nantucket for twenty-four years, from my mid-teens until I became middle-aged, and I can tell you that to be an island resident is to be continually aware of the island’s history. One source of pride to the islanders is their heritage as hosts to many of the important figures of the nineteenth century. The Great Hall at the Nantucket Atheneum, in particular, hosted many of the great orators and thinkers of the day, including Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, Louis Agassiz, William Ellery Channing, and John James Audubon. Speakers listed in the December 8 edition of The Inquirer for the 1854-1855 course of eleven lectures included Horace Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. 

In May of 2010, I made my own, personal trip to Nantucket, returning to the island I once called home to scatter my father’s ashes and recover from his loss.  I also spent some time at the Nantucket Historical Research Library, pestering librarian Libby Oldham about a booklet in their collection titled, Instructions to Mariners in Case of Shipwreck. Thoreau carried a similar copy when he hiked Cape Cod, and I wanted to see what he’d been reading. While I was there, Libby said, “Surely you know he spoke at the Great Hall,” or something along those lines. She even copied an article by Hobson Woodward for me, “Great Orators From the Great Hall” from The Nantucket Atheneum: A Commemorative Review, produced by Nantucket Magazine, for the purpose of “Celebrating the Restoration of the Nantucket Atheneum.” Woodward’s article included part of a review by The Weekly Mirror published two days after Thoreau’s December 28, 1854, lecture. 

Hobson Woodward is a respected journalist and historian, but Nantucket Magazine is a glossy publication aimed largely at the tourist trade, not an academic journal. The portion of The Weekly Mirror review included in the magazine left me craving more information. With the help of Libby Oldham and Thoreau scholars Ronald Hoag and Jeffrey Cramer, I found what I needed—with surprising results. 

Some background and context are in order. In October of 1854, Thoreau was asked by Asa Fairbanks, a Providence merchant and abolitionist, to deliver a lecture in that Rhode Island city. In his letter to Thoreau, he wrote, “Will you give me liberty to put your name in the program, and say when it will suit your convenience to come every Lecturer will choose his own Subject, but we expect all, whether Antislavery or what else, will be of a reformatory Character.”  Perhaps Fairbanks assumed Thoreau would lecture about abolition, as implied in his request, or because it was of considerable interest in the lyceums of the day. Thoreau, however, had other things on his mind.

Nantucket Public Library & AtheneumIn a December 6, 1854, entry to his journal, Thoreau wrote, “I see thick ice and boys skating all the way to Providence, but know not when it froze, I have been so busy writing my lecture.” Two days later, he expanded his complaint: “Winter has come unnoticed by me, I have been so busy writing. This is the life most lead in respect to Nature. How different from my habitual one!”  These journal entries reflect his disgruntlement at the necessity of becoming an established lecture hall speaker, a career that pulled him away from his devotional observations of nature. Significantly, this conflict became the very topic he chose to lecture about. Presumably the ink was barely dry when he made his first presentation of “What Shall it Profit?” in Providence the evening of December 6.

Only a few weeks earlier, Thoreau sought a place on the Nantucket Atheneum’s lecture series. In their study of Thoreau’s career as a lecturer, Bradley Dean and Ronald Hoag state that Thoreau wrote to one of the members of the Committee on Lectures at the Nantucket Atheneum, Andrew Whitney, on November 25, 1854, asking to be included in their lecture series in mid-December. Whitney responded with an invitation for alternate dates, either December 28th or later in January. Dean and Hoag concluded that though Thoreau was trying to organize a lecture series in the Midwest and Canada during late December and January, his plans had fallen through, making him able and willing to visit Nantucket as part of a lecture tour including earlier stops in Providence first and then New Bedford, Massachusetts.  

Walter Harding’s classic biography characterizes the first delivery of Thoreau’s “What Shall It Profit?” lecture as a “failure,” its “pure Transcendentalism” falling on deaf ears in Providence’s Railroad Hall. Harding quotes Thoreau’s post-lecture journal entry of that same day: “I feel that I am in danger of cheapening myself by trying to become a successful lecturer, i.e., to interest my audiences. I am disappointed to find that most that I am and value myself for is lost, or worse than lost, on my audience.”  Chalk up Providence, then, as less than an auspicious debut for this newly fashioned lecture.

Later that month, on December 26, he again presented the “What Shall it Profit?” speech, this time in New Bedford, and once again it was not well received. Thoreau was the guest of Daniel Ricketson, a tremendous admirer of Walden. Ricketson was ill on the night of the lecture, but he polled some of those in attendance and determined that Thoreau’s topic was “not generally understood” (Days, 345). Dean and Hoag added a quote from the journal of Charles W. Morgan, who had heard the lecture. Morgan wrote, “we had a lecture from the eccentric Henry J. Thoreau— The Hermit author very caustic against the usual avocations & employments of the world and a definition of what is true labour & true wages—audience very large & quiet—but I think he puzzled them a little—“(SAR 1996, 266). Count New Bedford, then, as another apparent miss for “What Shall It Profit?” 

Navigation dangers on Nantucket, Coast Survey, 1845, 1846Thoreau repeated his lecture for a third time on Nantucket. His ride across Nantucket Sound was rough, but it seemed to have been worth the discomfort. According to Harding, “[He] was astounded and delighted to find it a huge success. ‘I found them to be the very audience for me,’ he boasted to Ricketson later” (Days, 345; Correspondence, 362 ). Harding’s comments, combined with Thoreau’s own recorded perception, established the persistent opinion that the Nantucket presentation of “What Shall it Profit?” was a triumph, a judgment unchallenged to this day by the scholarly establishment. Indeed, even Dean and Hoag repeated this apparent truism, stating that the Nantucket lecture “was obviously well received” (SAR 1996, 269).

In the same letter to Ricketson, Thoreau wrote, “I was obliged to pay the usual tribute to the sea, but it was more than made up to me by the hospitality of the Nantucketers. . . . I went with my head hanging over the side all the way” (Correspondence, 362). Winter travel to Nantucket is rarely easy. I often suffered from anxiety and frustration when I traveled to and from the island during the twenty-four years that I lived there; and of all times to visit, there are usually none worse than the end of December. Thoreau, evidently, experienced the same difficulties encountered by today’s island voyagers at year’s end. He also, it seems likely, mistook his island hosts’ hospitality for approval of his lecture. 

The Thoreau Society archives at the Thoreau Institute library hold a letter, dated June 1, 1943, from William E. Gardner of the Nantucket Historical Association to Walter Harding. Gardner wrote, in part: “I have been searching for a reference to Thoreau’s lecture as you requested in your letter of May 10th. Two papers were published here in 1854 (1) ‘The Inquirer’ (2) ‘The Weekly Mirror’ We have no file of the second. We are slowly making one— but as yet have only about 40 issues of 1854 and they do not include issues of December. . . . In the Inquirer—no reference can be found except the advertisement for the Atheneum course.”  Although Harding did not publish his biography till 1965, he apparently never got a look at The Inquirer and The Weekly Mirror accounts of Thoreau’s lecture, so his assumption about the success of that event was probably based on Thoreau’s own perception of his audience’s response, offered in his letter to Ricketson but not mentioned in his journal.

This assertion of a receptive audience is contradicted by Woodward’s The Nantucket Atheneum article, which quotes The Weekly Mirror conclusion that Thoreau’s “views found few sympathizers among the audience.” When I quizzed Libby Oldham again about Thoreau on Nantucket, she advised me to check the new digital archives of the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror. It was there that I read the following full review from The Weekly Mirror.

A New Englander floating a hill of gold, N. Currier, 1849.Atheneum Lecture —That profound thinker Henry D. Thoreau, delivered a lecture last Thursday evening, which in point of originality has rarely been equalled. His object was to show man how to live; or perhaps we should better express it, by saying how not to live.—He condemned in toto, that mode of life which leads a man to labor for the gratification of bodily wants, regardless of the necessities of the soul. He would have the mind feed upon the works of nature, and not trouble itself about “the news.” The manner in which men seek to accumulate wealth, was made the subject of some cutting sarcasms which excited much merriment among the audience; but probably no one will thereby be deterred from feasting his “greedy eye with gold” if an opportunity presents itself. We are inclined to the opinion that his views found few sympathizers among the audience; but his fearless independence cannot fail to secure him respect. Mr. T. never asks if a theory is popular, before identifying himself with it, but thinks and expresses his thoughts, leaving the croakers to annihilate him at their leisure. 

To annihilate him at their leisure! While I didn’t know those particular “croakers,” I do know quite a few of their descendants, and that review leaves little doubt in my mind that Thoreau’s lecture was not well received. The owners and editors of The Weekly Mirror, Samuel S. Hussey and Henry D. Robinson, either using the editorial “we” or referring to themselves as collaborative writers, published their skeptical review for their fellow islanders, the Nantucket readers whose mindset they, presumably, knew how to read. Conceivably, they based the review entirely on their personal opinions. More likely, though, they were privy to post-lecture gossip or, at the very least, spoke from the vantage point of a community sensibility well known to local reporters. In any event, the Mirror was not published till the day after Thoreau left the island, departing unaware of any noses put out of joint by his remarks. Perhaps, moreover, Thoreau misunderstood the audience’s “merriment,” assuming that they were laughing with him rather than at his ideas. Whether the croakers were, in fact, just the newspaper reporter(s), a random few in attendance, or the audience at large, the review contradicts Thoreau’s pronouncement that the islanders were “the very audience for me.”

The report on the lecture in Nantucket’s other paper, The Inquirer, unfortunately offers little to settle the question of Thoreau’s reception. It does, however, remark that a large audience braved bad weather to hear him talk.

Notwithstanding the damp, uncomfortable weather of Thursday evening, and the muddy streets, a large audience assembled to listen to the man who has rendered himself notorious by living, as his book asserts, in the woods, at an expense of about sixty dollars per year, in order that he might there hold free communion with Nature, and test for himself the happiness of life without manual labor or conventional restraints. His lecture may have been desultory and marked by simplicity of manner; but not by paucity of ideas. 

The Inquirer then closely summarizes Thoreau’s entire lecture. The comment that the presentation was “desultory” is the closest the newspaper comes to rendering an opinion on its content. Nuances aside, Thoreau’s theme in “What Shall it Profit?” is not difficult to grasp, so the statement that the lecture was “desultory” may imply that his audience did not follow him to where he would have them go.

In June of 1853, a calendar year before Thoreau spoke on Nantucket, my great-great-grandfather, John Noble Stearns, set out from New York on a journey to China to procure silk worms for his employer. He kept a handwritten journal that I have recently transcribed. It begins with an epigraph, a line from Byron’s “The Corsair.” Stearns was young, not extremely well educated, and not—at that point in his life—a wealthy man. Even though he was engaged in commerce, he had an obvious affinity for English Romanticism.

O'er the glad waters of the dark blue sea," Byron.

Thoreau’s “What Shall it Profit?,” as reported by The Inquirer, also makes use of romantic characters—farmers and stone cutters, sailors and cranberry harvesters—but presents them with a negative Transcendental twist. His representative farmer, rather than being the noble tiller of soil, “depends on markets, and is a speculator in a modern sense, his speculum, or mirror, being the shining dollar.” The stone cutter similarly “grows stony himself . . . moral rocks are in every man’s yard, but he will not split them,” and even the cranberry raker would do better if he “raked thought.” Thoreau, in this lecture, states his preference to “finish my education in a different school than that of labor. I prefer to walk in the woods, though those might think ill of me, who do the work of shearing the woods and make Nature bald before her time.”  

To embrace high-toned Transcendentalism in a bottoming economic crisis was a lot to ask of this Nantucket audience, but ask Thoreau did. Had he held to this scathing but generalized criticism of commerce, Thoreau might have had more success on Nantucket with its predominantly Quaker population, pious and conservative regarding life and faith. But he took his advocacy of the soul over the dollar a step farther—and, for Nantucketers at this historical juncture, likely a step too far. By the mid-1840’s Nantucket had begun a decline into economic recession as the era of whaling dwindled away. A sandbar at the mouth of the harbor made entry to the wharves impossible for the larger whale ships. Historian Nathaniel Phibrick states, “New Bedford, with its deep port and access to the railroad system, was destined to take over Nantucket’s portion of the whaling business.”  

Gold Hunter, c. 1850For many Nantucketers, in fact, there was a new territory to be explored and exploited—in the West, in California’s gold country— far from the whaling grounds that had fueled the country’s lamps and the island’s economy. In his 1848 State of the Union address, President James K. Polk proclaimed the following: “The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory [California] are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation . . . Labor commands a most exorbitant price, and all other pursuits but that of searching for the precious metals are abandoned. Nearly the whole of the male population of the country have gone to the gold districts. Ships arriving on the coast are deserted by their crews and their voyages suspended for want of sailors.” 

The Nantucketers were all in. Languishing whale ships were converted to California transports. Philbrick writes, “But if San Francisco marked the beginning of an era, it also offered stirring testimony to the end of another, as the harbor’s mudflats became the graveyard for hundreds of old ships—many of them whalers— abandoned by their crews for the gold fields” (Away, 244). 

Island historian Kate Stout wrote about the gold rush in Historic Nantucket: “What followed [Polk’s address] amounted to an editorial feeding frenzy—with the two editors, E. W. Cobb of the Inquirer and John Morrissey of the Weekly Mirror, competing in equal fervor for the latest, hottest, most exciting news from the fields—and regularly duplicating stories. Nantucketers got dosed with Gold Fever three times a week, from 1848 well into the 1850s.” In fact, John Morrissey sold the Weekly Mirror to the reviewers of Thoreau’s lecture, Hussey and Robinson, in order to join his fellow islanders in the gold fields. Stout says, “Morrissey, who was thirty-two when he headed West, left behind his wife of eleven years and four children, ages nine, six, three, and one.”  Like the far-flung whale fishery before it, the Gold Rush drew large numbers of able-bodied men off island.

List of Persons from Nantucket, 1850

So here we have the audience who faced Thoreau on that damp December night: Quakers who did not practice their faith in the business arena, islanders who were distressed about their financial losses, and the families that gold diggers left behind, all hopeful that their fortunes would soon be restored by the island’s enterprise in the West. And what did Thoreau—an off-islander renowned for his love of nature—have to offer them? He told his audience this: “The rush to California reflects the greatest disgrace on mankind.—The miner’s hopes rest on luck; and their cause called enterprise . . . men who do thus make God a moneyed gentleman who amuses himself by throwing down pieces of money to see the rabble scrabble for them. What a satire on the Deity! . . . Why are the pulpits silent? Silent, because some of their preachers even are gone to California . . . the gold digger gambles, for what is the difference between shaking dice or dirt.”  I can only imagine the crossed arms and set jaws as the croakers regarded Thoreau at his podium—and laughed at his audacious high-mindedness. 

In his journal on December 29, 1854, Thoreau describes being fog bound on his return voyage from Nantucket: “Still in mist. The fog was so thick that we were lost on the water; stopped and sounded many times. . . . Whistled and listened for the locomotive’s answer, but probably heard only the echo of our own whistle at first” (Journal 7, 96). Without the corrective opinion of others as presented in The Weekly Mirror review, the assumed reception of Thoreau’s Nantucket lecture has also been befogged, reflexively whistling his own thoughts.

 I am tremendously grateful to Ronald Wesley Hoag for his guidance, encouragement, and careful editing throughout this project. Ron generously shared his passion for setting forth an accurate historical account of Henry David Thoreau’s work. I also thank Elizabeth Oldham at the Nantucket Historical Association and Jeffrey Cramer at the Thoreau Institute library for their valued research assistance. 

 Elizabeth Kalman is an essayist from Charleston, South Carolina. Her recent essay, “Sleep On, Slumbering Giant,” was published in Crazyhorse in 2013 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.


1 “Atheneum Lectures,” The Inquirer [Nantucket] 08 Dec. 1854: Section: None. Page 3. 

2 Herbert Stearns Stevens was the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on the island for many years. They were, perhaps, the happiest years of his life. 

3 Hobson Woodward, “Great Orators of the Great Hall,” The Nantucket Atheneum, A Commemorative Review, special issue of Nantucket Magazine (1996): 43-44. 

4 Walter Harding and Carl Bode, eds., The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau (New York: New York University Press, 1958), 345; hereafter cited as Correspondence

5 Thoreau, The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, Vol. 7, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1906), 79-80; hereafter cited as Journal 7

7 Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 342-43; hereafter cited as Days. Thoreau’s words are quoted from Journal, Vol. 7, 79. 6 Bradley P. Dean and Ronald Wesley Hoag, “Thoreau’s Lectures After Walden: An Annotated Calendar,” Studies in the American Renaissance, ed. Joel Myerson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 266-69; hereafter cited as SAR. See also Correspondence, 352-53. 

8 ALS, Walter Harding to William E. Gardner, 1 June 1943, Walter Harding Collection (Series III.N.3ci) in the Thoreau Society Collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden. 

9 “Atheneum Lecture,” Weekly Mirror [Nantucket] 30 Dec. 1854: Section: None. Page 2.

http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Default/Skins/ Nantucket/Client.asp?skin=Nantucket&AW=1334157311489&AppNa me=2

10 Henry D. Thoreau, “Sketches of Atheneum Lectures, ‘What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul!’” The Inquirer [Nantucket] 01 Jan. 1855: Section: None. Page 2. 

11 Thoreau, “Sketches of Atheneum Lectures,” 2. 

12 Nathaniel Philbrick, Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890 (New York: Penguin, 2011), 242-43; hereafter cited as Away.

Donate to the Thoreau Society.

13 James K. Polk: “Fourth Annual Message,” December 5, 1848. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29489

14 Kate Stout, “Read All About It! “Editorial restraint crumbled before the rush of exuberance,”Nantucket Historical Association, Originally published in The Historic Nantucket, Vol 48, no. 3 (Summer 1999), p. 5-8 http://www.nha.org/history/hn/HNstout-readall.htm

15 Thoreau, “Sketches of Atheneum Lectures,” 2.