American Audiences

THERE was a time, nearly fifty years ago, when an American popular lecturer might say with truth, in the words of Emerson, “ Europe stretches to the Alleghanies.” One needed then to go beyond that barrier to find the first distinguishing footprints of young America, these being seen in the shaping influence produced on the growing West by the New York Tribune, the Atlantic Monthly, and the popular lecture system, otherwise called the Lyceum. The two former influences, however modified, are not yet extinct in the nation, we may claim; but the popular lecture system in anything like its original shape has vanished, even as a theme for discussion. Let us for a little while recall it, and for that purpose try to bring back some almost forgotten features of the young American community to which it came.

It is impossible for any but the very oldest to recall the astounding social effects produced upon all occupations and the whole way of living in America by the introduction of railways. I possess a copy of the notes of “The Rangers’ Trip to Westboro or Lion Quickstep,” a march composed for the Boston Rifle Rangers, in 1834, when they took part in the first excursion made upon the Boston and Worcester Railway, just then opened to Westboro, thirty-two miles away. On this sheet of music is represented the train which bore that illustrious military company upon a pioneer excursion. The little train is drawn up beside the track in a series of small cars much resembling cupboards in their narrowness and sidelong arrangement. They are best described in one of the quaint notebooks of Samuel Breck of Philadelphia, then residing in Boston: “This morning at nine o’clock I took passage in a railroad car [from Boston] for Providence. Five or six other cars were attached to the loco, and uglier boxes I do not wish to travel in. They were huge carriages made to stow away some thirty human beings, who sit cheek by jowl as best they can. Two poor fellows, who were not much in the habit of making their toilet, squeezed me into a corner, while the hot sun drew from their garments a villainous compound of smells made up of salt fish, tar, and molasses. By and by, just twelve — only twelve — bouncing factory girls were introduced, who were going on a party of pleasure to Newport. ‘Make room for the ladies!’ bawled out the superintendent. ‘Come, gentlemen, jump up on the top: plenty of room there.’ ‘I’m afraid of the bridge knocking my brains out,’ said a passenger. Some made one excuse and some another. For my part, I flatly told him that since I had belonged to the corps of Silver Grays I had lost my gallantry, and did not intend to move. The whole twelve were, however, introduced, and soon made themselves at home, sucking lemons and eating green apples.” 1

It is worth while dwelling a little further upon Mr. Breck’s criticisms, so illustrative of the period. He thus goes into the social philosophy of this matter and expounds it as if to imply that he is guided by something more than a whim: “Undoubtedly, a line of post-horses and postchaises would long ago have been established along our great roads had not steam monopolized everything. Steam, so useful in many respects, interferes with the comfort of traveling, destroys every salutary distinction in society, and overturns by its whirligig power the once rational, gentlemanly, and safe mode of getting along on a journey. Talk of ladies on board a steamboat or in a railroad car! There are none. I never feel like a gentleman there, and I cannot perceive a semblance of gentility in any one who makes part of the traveling mob. . . . To restore herself to caste, let a lady move in select company at five miles an hour, and take her meals in comfort at a good inn, where she may dine decently.

. . . After all, the old-fashioned way of five or six miles an hour, with one’s own horses and carriage, with liberty to dine decently in a decent inn and be master of one’s movements, with the delight of seeing the country and getting along rationally, is the mode to which I cling, and which will be adopted again by the generations of after times.” 2

It was for a primitive community like this, just beginning to expand, that there grew up in New England, in New York, and at length as far as the Mississippi, an organization under the name of the Lyceum. There was, perhaps, some special local charity to be established in a settlement, or a church to be built, or a school to be endowed, so that a ready impulse was created among the so-called leading citizens, with devout women not a few, to organize a course of lectures.

Some of these were usually furnished by the prominent men of the vicinity, the clergyman, the lawyer, possibly even the member of Congress. The lecture became the monthly or weekly excitement of the place, and people drove long distances to reach it. Originating almost always with the New England element in the population, there grew up larger lecture societies, and these were soon, with the American love of organization, bound together more or less extensively. “ The Association of Western Literary Societies,” for instance, formed in 1867 or earlier, extended its range from Pittsburg in Pennyslvania to Lawrence in Kansas. In the winter of 1867-68, the agent of this association, Mr. G. L. Torbert of Dubuque, Iowa, negotiated between thirty-five lecturers and a hundred and ten societies, furnishing for each society a course of lectures, longer or shorter, and for each lecturer a tolerably continuous series of engagements.

Each lecturer carried his letter of instruction in his pocket, and went forth with confidence to seek his dozen or his fifty towns, although in many cases their very names might have been previously unknown to him. He might reach the people solely on the endorsement of the agent, or he might be one whose very name was a magnet to bring people fifty miles. From the moment he entered the hall, or even the town, he was under strict observation. He was to be tested by an audience altogether hospitable, merciless in its criticism. In an eastern city, where lectures were abundant and varied, he would have for audience only those who knew him; but in the western community he reached all. Men and women wholly different from him in social position, creed, political party, even moral convictions, came to hear him just the same, and the hackman who brought him from the little inn hitched his horses at the door and came in to criticise the lecture. It was in one sense more of an ordeal to face the audience of a country town than that of a city, from the very fact that the speaker had the whole town to hear him, to pass a verdict upon voice, dress, and opinions. In a majority of cases, the speaker spent in the sleeping-car the night intervening between two lectures, and as he sat for a while over the fire in the smoking-room before turning in, he was very likely unrecognized, and called upon to discuss the features of his own lecture or take a hand in the funeral of his own reputation. Emerson wrote in his diary, “ I never go to any church like a railroad car for teaching me my deficiencies.”

The immediate source of the whole system of teaching American audiences by courses of Lyceum lectures was doubtless Horace Mann, who became secretary of the Board of Education of Massachusetts in 1837. Mann held this post for eleven years, during which, as he testifies, he did not allow himself a day for relaxation, or an evening for a friend’s society, but traveled constantly about the state, impressing on every town the need of popular education. It was not long before other highly educated men, among whom Emerson and Sumner were leaders, adopted the same path. Emerson, it is recorded, lectured twenty successive years in Salem, Massachusetts; and the present writer, being called upon to manage for the first time a course of Lyceum lectures in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1847, found himself expected to include Emerson every year and pay him twenty dollars a lecture, while no other speaker received more than fifteen. Of course, the lecture system soon spread rapidly westward, though never southward. At first there were no professional lecturers, but each course had a few stars from a distance, and was mainly carried on by the professional men of the neighborhood, even as Thackeray’s Barnes Newcome addressed his English constituents on “The Poetry of the Domestic Affections.” In America, poetry and even science held the field only for a time; and public questions of all sorts took their places, until there were signs of danger lest these departments of wisdom should exclude all others, and the popular lecture should represent only what had hitherto been designated irreverently as the stump. Above all, the desire prevailed to see every performer in his war paint, as it were, and take his measure. For this reason even the women lecturers, who soon took the field, found the elegances of costume a convenient aid; and Anna Dickinson, for a long time the most popular of this class, swept the rough floors of many a barnlike lecture room with expensive silks, excusing herself on the direct plea that audiences liked to see them.

Financially, the lecture system was at its highest in America soon after the Civil War, when all prices were high; and a hundred dollars were paid for a lecture more readily than fifty dollars earlier or later. It was thought a bold thing in Henry Ward Beecher when he raised his price to two hundred dollars, but Gough and Anna Dickinson soon followed his example. Gough’s income from this source extended far beyond the ordinary Lyceum season, including indeed the whole year round, and was popularly estimated at thirty thousand dollars a year. When I was first planning to raise a regiment during the Civil War, I went to him to urge him to become chaplain of it, justly holding that he would exert over the soldiers a great moral power. But he convinced me that he was already committed to send a long list of young men to college, and must look to his next year’s lectures to give him the money for that.

There were at first very few women on the lecture platform, and they were only very slowly borrowed from the anti-slavery and temperance reforms, where they took an earlier place. This fact was more definitely emphasized for a time in the year when a “ World’s Temperance Convention.” having been called in New York and taken up with much and varied energy, was split from the very outset by the refusal of the more conservative to allow women on the platform, this resulting in two distinct organizations: the World’s Temperance Convention and the Whole World’s Temperance Convention, at which latter the present writer presided. In a similar way, there were divisions among the male lecturers, resulting not merely from opinions, but from occupations; the lawyers and the clergymen furnishing most of the lecturers at the outset, although these last steadily tended to become a class by themselves. There were from the beginning grades of popularity, roughly marked by the prices paid the lecturers. Gough, Beecher, and Chapin stood easily at the head: then followed Charles Sumner, George William Curtis, Ralph Waldo Emerson,Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips,Bayard Taylor, Dr. O. W. Holmes, Edwin P. Whipple, and Frederick Douglass, Great lawyers, as Daniel Webster and Rufus Choate, took their share of the service, when permitted by their professional engagements. Temporary political prominence easily brought forward a lecturer; as, for instance, John P. Hale, whose prominence as an anti-slavery leader in the national Senate led to his appearing before a great Boston audience on an occasion where I remember to have sat next to Emerson, who, like most of the audience, had never seen Hale before, and studied his appearance with interest.. His final verdict as expressed to me was this: “ See what an average looking man he is. Looks just like five hundred other men. That must be where his power lies.” This remark was soon verified from a different standpoint by the ablest lawyer of that day, Benjamin R. Curtis, who went up to New Hampshire to argue a law case in which Hale was his opponent. He was perfectly astonished, it appears, by the outcome. “I had with me all the evidence and all the argument, but that confounded fellow, Hale, got so intimate with the jury that I could do nothing with them.” These men, and such as these, were the lecturers of that day, and some of them, no doubt, were led to judge of their auditors very much as Curtis estimated his jurymen. In respect to audiences, there was inevitably some difference between the older and newer communities. Western emigration took away from the leading towns, as it still continues to take away, many of the brighter minds and more energetic natures. It also removed more of the light weights, and therefore had a mingled result. In the choice of lecturers and the preference of themes a more intellectual quality was perhaps visible in the audiences left at the East. In some of the older country towns, especially, the lecturer found himself confronted with what seemed a solid body of somewhat recusant and distrustful hearers, and went home discouraged, only to be assured in the next morning’s local newspaper that his hearers had been greatly pleased. As compared to these, a western audience would almost always be more demonstrative as to approval or disapproval, or more prone to exhibit vacant seats upon the benches as the lecture went on. A story was told of the elder Richard H. Dana, the poet, that, becoming gradually more disturbed by such repeated interruptions, he once calmly paused and said with dignity to his hearers that as he feared he was not successful in interesting them, he would pause for five minutes and give those who wished to withdraw the opportunity of doing so. He sat down, closed his eyes, and when he opened them again more than three quarters of his audience had vanished.

I remember well to have again discovered this same difference, in the early days of Radcliffe College, when I had been invited to read Browning to a number of the pupils at some private rooms; although in that case the difference was indicated more agreeably. I had chosen for reading The Flight of the Duchess, as covering a greater range of variety between gay and serious than any other poem of the same length. I saw before me on the front seat a number of maidens having a grave and thoughtful appearance, and in the back part of the room a group of young girls of whose attention I did not feel quite so sure. As the reading proceeded, the former sat without moving a muscle; they seemed thoroughly attentive, but it was impossible for me to tell whether the reading met with their approval and indeed whether the poem itself did. This was disappointing, and I found myself addressing my words more and more to the distant group who listened with equal faithfulness, but seemed to smile or sigh with the poet himself, so that I could have asked no pleasanter audience. After the reading was over, when I mingled with my auditors, I found that those from whom my discouragement had come were all faithful students of Browning, and had, by their own statement, enjoyed the reading. Their questions and criticisms were of the most satisfactory and even suggestive kind; while the girls in the rear, who came forward with the greatest cordiality to meet me, had been hitherto absolutely unacquainted with Browning, and were going home to read him. Nothing indicates better than this the shade of difference which may still be found lingering between eastern and western audiences. It must be remembered, however, that the greater ease of intercommunication tends constantly to equalize these, like all other variations.

It is a curious bit of tradition, kept over from a time when all public addresses were sermons, that audiences in the days of the Lyceum were decidedly more tolerant as to length, in listening to a lecture, than would now be the case. This was true, for instance, with Theodore Parker’s lecture on the Anglo-Saxons, which was a favorite with audiences, although it was two hours long and made up of solid fact with almost no anecdotes or illustrations. Another remarkable triumph also often occurred on the part of an orator whose style of speaking was marked by force rather than grace; this being true in the case of Charles Sumner. He had been invited to Worcester, when I lived there, to give his argument in favor of accepting the new constitution formed for the State by the Constitutional Convention in 1853, of which he had been a member. The address began at eight, but I was delayed by other engagements, and did not arrive there until quarter past ten, when Sumner was evidently drawing a prolonged paragraph to a close. I regarded the audience rather with pity, because Worcester was then a place of quiet habits and early hours. He was finishing his sentence, however, in his somewhat stately and ponderous way, saying, “I have now refuted, as I think, the twelfth argument brought against a new constitution. I pass to a thirteenth objection;” this last offer being followed by a round of applause. It is fair to say that, in spite of this cordial response, the new constitution was defeated by an overwhelming majority which included, I believe, the city of Worcester.

Every lecturer had through such tests the inestimable advantage of learning day by day something of his own strong points, and yet more of his weak ones, He might go to his rest soothed by a sense of success or harrowed by the thought of some fatal blunder. It was, of course, possible for him to receive only wellbased or well-worded compliments. It was, alas, more possible, nay probable, that the speaker might be haunted for twenty-four hours, waking or sleeping, by the ghost of some error, called forth from an exhausted mind. These misfortunes happen to everybody, and their only compensation is the slight comfort of observing that there still remain audiences, large or small, who can stand a great deal in the way of blunder, at least, until after a day’s reflection on it. I remember quoting once, in a rural antislavery convention, a passage from Wendell Phillips, comparing slavery and war; and after enumerating the daily tragedies of slavery I closed with his fine cadence, “Where is the battlefield that is not white, white as an angel’s wing, compared with the blackness of that darkness which has brooded over the Carolinas for centuries! ” I presently discovered, by the chuckling of some young women in the back seats, that I had substituted, in my enthusiasm, a raven’s wing for an angel’s, — “ white as a raven’s wing,” I had said, — and I could only stumble on the hasty excuse of “the tendency of slavery to confuse black and white” in order to withdraw myself from the difficulty, if that was to be called withdrawing. Even in the midst of my mishap, however, I could take some satisfaction in watching the comparative degrees of slowness with which the rather rustic audience detected my blunder, and the gradual smile which broke over the faces of partially deaf uncles, in the extreme background, to whom my error was being slowly explained by patient but smiling nieces.

These are the blunders which were sometimes visited only too severely in those earlier days upon the often exhausted traveling orator. On the other hand, the Lyceum gave to the literary man, especially, not only a different form of reaching the public, but a readier test of his own powers. He must face the people, eye to eye, as absolutely and irresistibly as does a statue in the public square. This test was a severe one for the oversensitive or those ill furnished with voice or presence. Horace Greeley got the better of a large western audience which had assembled to meet him for the first time, by an opening sentence which told its own story. “I suppose it to be a fact universally admitted,” he said, “that I am the worst public speaker in America.” The very defects of his manner justly implied that he must have something worth hearing in spite of them, and so his hearers listened. But if every speaker had his rebuffs, he might also, if he watched carefully, see his own progress. It is one of the pleasures of public speaking that there is sometimes drawn from the speaker some happy phrase or sentence of argument or illustration such as he has vainly sought by the fireside or in the study, so that he has found himself saying to another what he could not possibly have said first to himself.

Personally I was for three years an officer of a lecture association in Worcester, Massachusetts, whose net annual profits for that time averaged twelve hundred dollars, after paying to each lecturer an average price of a hundred dollars. It is pleasant to know that the proceeds of this course became the foundation of the excellent natural history collection of that city. It is also pleasant for me to remember that my connection with it brought the only interview I ever had with Thackeray, who was invited to be one of the speakers in this course, and who declined the invitation on the ground that some other course had offered him a larger sum. I remember how pleased his kindly face looked when, after he had stammered out an awkward refusal on this ground, I assured him that no apology was needed in America for accepting a higher compensation instead of a lower one. The suggestion seemed to relieve his mind to a rather amusing extent, though I had supposed it to be one of those obvious doctrines which the light of nature sufficiently teaches. It was more easily learned by another lecturer, of much note in his day, who was offered, within my knowledge, twelve thousand dollars a year on the assurance that he would give his time solely to editing a certain New York weekly paper, or else five thousand with the privilege of lecturing as much as he pleased. By his own statement he unhesitatingly chose the latter.

Most valuable of all the experiences gained by the American lecturer was, perhaps, his increased knowledge of his own country, and his appreciation of its vastness. I remember my own delight when a woman at whose house I stayed in Nebraska, on being complimented upon her selection of an abode, replied with some discontent that she did not like living in the western country so well as living in Illinois, as if Illinois had not then seemed to me nearly as far off as Nebraska; and I recall with delight an occasion on a night train over the Michigan Central Railway when the conductor had just called “London,” and a wondering little girl sprang From the seat in front of me, saying to her mamma, “ Oh, mamma, do we really pass through London, that great city ? ” Pleasant sometimes, though sometimes fatiguing, were the casual intimacies with strangers of all degrees; as when a young schoolgirl once opened a long traveling conversation in Iowa, which she justified by an apology when we parted, by saying that she thought I looked like one who might like to read Ruskin.

It was refreshing, too, when a young child traveling eastward from the far West held a conversation close beside me with a very pallid and worn-out mother, which perhaps deserves narrating more fully. I never saw a woman more utterly exhausted, while the child seemed as fresh at sunset as at dawn. It was when the through trains on the Boston and Albany still stopped at West Newton, and the conductor had just called with vigorous confidence the name of that station. After a pause, the child exclaimed as vigorously “Mother,” to which the mother responded, perhaps for the two hundredth time that day, in a feeble voice, “ What, dear ? ” when the following conversation ensued: “What did that man say, mother ?” “He said West Newton.” A pause for reflection, then again “Mo-

ther.” “What?” “What did that man say West Newton for, mother?” To this the mother, with an evasiveness dictated bv despair, could only murmur “I don’t know.” This was plainly too well-tried an evasion, and the unflinching answer came, “Don’t you know what he said West Newton for, mother?” She being thus pursued, fell back on the vague answer, “Said it for the fun of it, I guess.” By this time all the occupants of the car were listening breathlessly to the crossexamination. Then came the inevitable “Mother,” and the more and more hopeless “What ?” “Did that man say West Newton for the fun of it, mother?” “Yes,” said the poor sufferer, with an ever increasing audience listening to her vain evasion. The child paused an atom longer; and then continued, still inexhaustible, but as if she had forced her victim into the very last corner, as she had, “What was the fun of it, mother ? ” Upon this, the whole audience involuntarily applauded, and did not quite cease its applause until the train finally stopped in Boston. It is possible that more than one lecturer returning home from a long trip, and hearing these successive inquiries, may have asked of himself a similar question. Yet there was unquestionably fun in a western lecture, after all.

  1. Recollections of Samuel Breck, p. 275.
  2. Ibid. pp. 276, 277.