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Visionaries, Founders, and Madness: Charles King Newcomb hosts Thoreau in Providence

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Author: Nancy Austin, Ph.D. | © Nancy Austin 2016

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Download slide presentation thumbnails here.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 [Slide #1, Title] We struggle to tell the remarkable but complex story of our nation’s founding history. And in our passionate eagerness to share our visions of that history, we can never be certain what we have actually conveyed. What take-away messages have indeed been taken away? If any! How can impact be measured? What interpretive mediums and methods are even the best for stacking the odds towards success? Place-based historical walking tours have become a common place method for engaging the senses in a more immersive history-telling experience as we share our founding stories. But do they work? And what does “successful sharing” really look like? When can my beloved memory become your memory? Does walking together help?

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I ask us to confront this puzzle today by considering a cautionary tale. My paper proposes some lessons learned from highly curated, founding-history walking tours given to the Transcendentalist writer, Henry David Thoreau, during Thoreau’s only visit to nearby Providence, Rhode Island in December 1854. There are two main reasons for my focus. First, the walking tours that Thoreau was taken on are remarkable and worth revisiting today. They introduced me (a subject matter expert) to even more complex dimensions of Rhode Island’s founding history and the implications of these now-forgotten place-based tours deserve to be part of our conversations, today. Especially today — as generations and cultures collide loudly, clamoring to make sense of how the past should direct action in the present toward a better future, today. Maybe walking together awhile can help?

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 [Slide #2, Walden interpreted] My second focus addresses the current concern over assessing impact when one historical guide guides another. How do we negotiate interpretation and how should we determine impact? [Slide #3, Walden selfies] Our founding stories are ours, and no one convinced Thoreau (or Emerson, for that matter) to embrace the passion with which, for example, Rhode Islanders engage their own history as renegade outcasts from Massachusetts; soul liberty seekers. The challenging fact remains that Thoreau did not hear the story as told. [Slide #4, Walden cairns] Instead, Thoreau’s walking tour experience was generative in the sense that anything can be fodder to a creative mind. But, as we will see, Thoreau interpreted the tour itineraries in his own distinctive transformative way that strayed imaginatively afield of the intended outcome. So what was impact? [Slide #6, Thoreau desk at museum exhibit] For Thoreau, it was about resistance. He held the key to his own locked desk, insistently restating and rediscovering his own identity in his self-surveyed inner space – sending forth words and books when ready. I argue here that Thoreau’s Providence walking tour was a failure — but a generative failure. Let’s look more closely at this case study.

The Guided & the Guide: Thoreau (1817 Concord, MA – 1862 Concord, MA) & Charles King Newcomb (1820 NH – 1894 Paris)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 [Slide #6, portraits] Thoreau’s tour guide was Providence native and fellow Transcendentalist, Charles King Newcomb. At this time in 1854, both were writers in their thirties who had started out as Ralph Waldo Emerson proteges. Both were now aspiring adult men swimming independently from the previous, larval stage of complicated, dependent, paternalistic Emersonian mentorship. Both Thoreau and Newcomb had graduated from college in 1837, the year of Emerson’s famous American Scholar address: Thoreau from Harvard and Newcomb from Brown. The aftermath of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the Panic of 1837 and the economic depression that followed all deeply shaped both of their coming into adulthood in a changing still-young nation. Both Thoreau and Newcomb first became published writers in their twenties through a close relationship with the older Emerson (1803-1882). Because of Emerson, both had writing accepted for the 1843 third issue of The Dial, a volume edited by Emerson. Newcomb contributed his darkly rambling short story known as “The Dolons”. Thoreau’s contributions included the essay, a “Natural History of Massachusetts”. From 1841 to 1845, Newcomb spent a chunk of his twenties living in the utopian Brook Farm collective experiment, before returning to live in Providence at the request of his widowed West Indian-born, feminist mother, and sisters. Thoreau’s domestic role was also (when not at Walden or the Emerson’s) as an unmarried son in a household of strong, if confined, women.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 So we can say that at the moment of this tour, both the guided and the guide shared similar enough profiles. They were aspiring single male writers in their thirties, highly educated and underemployed, who had been acquainted with one another for over a decade and traveled in roughly overlapping social circles. At this juncture, they were in not dissimilar points in their own (to-be-invented and unscripted) vocational journeys, unsure of how or if to belong in a changing America. As we know, Thoreau died in Concord within the decade, while Newcomb went on to become an expat in Paris, dying forty years later, in 1894.

The Book, the Public Lecture, the Walking Tour: Providence December 6-8, 1854

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [Slide #7, RR Hall etc] But first. Wait. What was Thoreau even doing in Providence to begin with in December 1854? Thoreau had been invited to speak as part of a paid public reform lecture series organized by Rhode Island’s progressive creative sector. The lecture was to take place in the main hall of the impressive new Railroad Terminal complex (shown in the upper right) on Wednesday evening, December 6, 1854. As you can see from the newspaper ad in the lower left, Thoreau was promoted as the “Author of Life in the Woods,” that is Walden.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Thoreau was coming to Providence because he was a respected emerging writer. Thoreau was held with a respect solidified by the recent publication of his Walden just six months earlier, in August 1854. A copy of Walden had been immediately obtained for the collection of the local Providence Athenaeum. (The title page of that copy is illustrated here.) For Thoreau, this Providence speaking engagement was a sought after beginning to his post-Walden effort to get out there in the marketplace and succeed as a sought-after lecture tour speaker, not unlike what Emerson had successfully done by way of vocation. And indeed, Providence’s progressive community reached out post-Walden, and almost immediately hired Thoreau to come and address them, during the decade when Emerson was no longer invited to speak in Providence – for reasons I will go into later.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In response to this lecture commission from the folks in Providence, Thoreau purpose-wrote “What Shall It Profit” — a lecture Thoreau first delivered in Railroad Hall on December 6, 1854. As is well-known, Thoreau went on to revise and deliver this important lecture often, before eventually publishing it as the seminal “Life Without Principle”. To date, the historiography has uncritically accepted Thoreau’s account of what happened during the lecture’s debut at this speaking engagement gig in Providence.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 He clearly was anxiously distressed by the performative public persona needed to make it on the lecture circuit. Thoreau much preferred instead (as he wrote after delivering his lecture) to communicate by writing a book.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Thoreau’s Journal entries on this trip to Providence include brief notes referencing walking tours he was taken on. These notes allowed me to establish itineraries that I have been able to unpack, with surprise. My journey of retrieval made me realize how much Thoreau’s walking tours were a critical part of his speaking tour trip out from Concord. These shadow walking tours have never been considered germane, yet they should be. Walking tour itineraries in themselves are a rhetorical mode of communication, offering another context for asking of Thoreau’s body of work: What is a public lecture? What is a walking tour? What is a book? What kinds of communication does each facilitate? What protocols? What kinds of identity do we assume to make each verdant or fallow? Thoreau’s Journal provides unexpected insight into how Thoreau thought about these questions. They set out a larger context for understanding the Providence walking tours I turn to now. These were experiences for Thoreau which I have described as generative failures.

Walking Tour #1: Fine Foundings & Fattened Geese

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 [Slide #8, text] On December 6th Thoreau set out from Concord to Boston to Providence, by train, anchoring himself on the route with the landmark Blue Hills south of Boston. An anchor was needed on this three-hour leg of the trip since his Journal entry opens with a mood of disjunction: he is off to Providence to lecture. And what does Thoreau see out the train window? Boys skating effortlessly on thick ice all the way to Providence. He reflects on his unworldly absorption in writing the lecture he carries with him; time passed and he can’t recall when the ice could have frozen so deeply as to liberate the boys across the RI border to literally be walking on water all the way to Providence.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 From here his journal-writing circles back to mark the Blue Hill, a natural landmark destination, before circling again with the train as it arrives around the cove into Providence’s impressive new brick cathedral of a train station. Here, Thoreau will lecture inside this building. “Lectured in it,” he writes. Union Station was itself a landmark, newly designed by a 22-year old architect who almost certainly was in Thoreau’s audience that night. Inside this elegant mixed-use transit hub, in 1858, the Rhode Island Governor will hang commissioned oil portraits of representative Rhode Islanders — and the first RI Representative Man chosen will be a woman. An inventor. Welcome to a different place. Welcome to Antebellum Providence where Transcendentalism looks quite different. Welcome! Walk with me.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 [Slide #9, map] Newcomb greeted Thoreau at the train station and they walked (as from here to Emerson’s house) to the Newcomb house on the East Side’s Benefit St. From there they sauntered down to the coastline to grasp Providence as global port city and historic haven for free-thinking heretics. They crossed the Seekonk River to enjoy a view down Narragansett Bay into the Atlantic Ocean. And by that winter’s evening Thoreau was back at Railroad Hall in the gas-lit dark to address the people of Providence. Here he met Clark and Vaughn and Eaton – radical communitarians working on a naturalist land preservation project at this time.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 [Slide #10, Williams @Seekonk/Blackstone]That first day, Newcomb took Thoreau on the quintessential walking tour itinerary retracing Rhode Island’s founding myth. Newcomb and Thoreau walked to the colony’s original eastern boundary at the Seekonk River and visited Slate Rock, where the original exiled settlers first landed. RI History 101 recounts the tale of how the Reverend Roger Williams was unjustly exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in mid-winter and escaped first to the eastern bank of the Seekonk River, before the Pilgrims too forced Williams to move on from those Massachusetts-held lands, too. And so, Williams and the others in the boat with him, crossed the Seekonk River and – as legend has it – were met by friendly Narragansetts on the Indian shores opposite. Here they were greeted with the warm welcome: What Cheer. Netop – my companion and friend. What Cheer. Netop: it was a multi-lingual welcome grounded on Williams already having built a language and respectful trading relationship with the area’s native tribes.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 And so the founding story continues that in 1636, Williams buys the land he calls Providence and goes on to establish the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations governed after 1663 by a world-historical Royal Charter uniquely granting this “lively experiment” a separation of church and state. In this powerful founding story, Roger Williams established a state governed by the rule of law and founded on the principle of tolerance and freedom of conscience. It is a tribute to what Williams, himself an unaffiliated religious seeker, called “Soul Liberty”. The ubiquitous seal illustrating this founding story is shown at the bottom of the slide here. It was common currency in Rhode Island, and was prominently placed on this 1849 Walling map.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 One might think that many things about this Rhode Island founding story might appeal to Thoreau, but you would be mistaken. To begin with, Thoreau places Williams’ landing in the Blackstone River, not the Seekonk River. A minor mistake, perhaps. The mighty Blackstone River ends just north of Providence, after flowing down from the Worcester area.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 [Slide #11, Key & Blaxton] In truth, mistaking the Seekonk for the Blackstone matters. The Blackstone River was named for Rev. William Blackstone (or Blaxton), the Thoreau-like figure who, in point of fact, a year before Roger Williams, became the first European settler in what would become Rhode Island. Thus, Blackstone is a dissenting founding figure who triggers a contested founding history. Is Soul Liberty only possible alone in the woods? Or is it possible at the scale of a governed State? Today, William Blackstone is most often remembered as Boston’s first European settler, since he lived hermit-like alone on or near Boston Common in a Walden-like hut. In 1625, he decamped with his library to the deep solitude of the woods north of Providence. A whole year before Roger Williams arrived with fellow travelers in a boat to settle: group meeting group for challenging but optimistic collaboration. Can you hear my beloved founding story?

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 [Slide #12, Pale Seekonk, late-night reflections] After Thoreau had delivered his lecture in Providence that nearly Full-Moon night in December 1854, sometime later he took to his Journal with a second dispatch: Thoreau was a writer, not a lecturer. His public audience was uncomprehending, or asking of him to be a lesser, average man. Providence did not hear him. [quote] “I should suit them better if I suited myself less.” [end-quote] I want my audience to come to me. A lecture is course; while writing is fine.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 [Slide #13, text details] Thoreau continues: a lecture shares thoughts formed far away in time and place and requires delivery by forcible sharing with a promiscuous audience. This is as violent as fattening a geese by cramming, but in this case they do not get fatter.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 What an image!

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 [Slide 14, Seekonk map details] What futile task is as violent as fattening a geese by cramming? I return with new eyes to consider Thoreau’s response to the afternoon’s walking tour to the Seekonk, a Wampanoag Indian word, after all, for what we know of as Canadian geese. In this reading, I now see Thoreau casting Roger Williams as a proselytizer in a violent founding narrative. Williams extends his hand to shore in something far less than a gesture of friendship. This founding moment on a rock occurs in a waterway already irrigated with prodigy aplenty by that book-loving, founding hermit, William Blackstone. The boys skate effortlessly all the way to Providence on the Blackstone’s thick ice. The power of self governance. Solitary, and libertarian, no?

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [Slide #15, Key 1643 & Indian Journals, 1846-61] In Life Without Principle, Thoreau wrote: “Only the character of the hearer determines to which it shall be open, and to which closed.” Why was Thoreau so closed to hearing the story told by Newcomb’s first walking tour? Why couldn’t Thoreau find common ground with Roger William’s remarkable 1643 Key to the New England native languages? Why does Thoreau’s longer Journal entry from later that night descend into deeper rejection of what has happened? The historiography of Transcendentalism for over a century has been content to unquestioningly accept the disparaging point of view taken by its prominent actors as regards the people of Providence – a people almost always portrayed as a mass audience of unregenerate, uncomprehending, market-busy, “others”. This bias is most egregious with Emerson and Margaret Fuller, but it is noteworthy here with Thoreau as well.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Let’s consider: why?

Walking Tour #2: Getting home

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [Slide #16, Sullivan Dorr house] Thoreau stayed overnight in Providence after his lecture, almost certainly with Charles King Newcomb. Did you know the Newcomb’s were neighbors to the Dorrs? And that son Thomas was dying in this house in December 1854, would die within weeks at age 49, his health broken by his solitary confinement imprisonment for Treason? Don’t you know this history? My history? Our history? Walk home with me and let me tell you my neighborhood tales; the stories that matter in this place.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [Slide #17, Dorr photo] A missing context in Transcendentalist historiography is any mention of Rhode Island’s populist Dorr Rebellion of 1842-43. During this national crisis, disenfranchised Rhode Islanders rose up against the State and self-organized to practice popular democratic sovereignty. “The people” convened an election outside the system and elected Governor Dorr to represent them, while the white property-owning men disqualified this renegade election and answered with armed troops. At the exact same time and for comparison, Brook Farm and other utopian communities were acting from a chaste distance in their efforts to transform society so as to live a life filled with principle. At this very same moment the Dorr Rebellion gave the “citizens” of “Rogue Island” – black and white, men and women – a taste of what it would mean to collectively practice democratic governance. To live the principle of Soul Liberty in community as first espoused by Roger Williams. The ongoing legal battles for justice for Dorr after his conviction for Treason continued into 1854. To this day Dorr’s grave is controversially decorated and marked, recognizing Dorr as an elected Governor of Rhode Island. How can my stories not matter to you? Come; Listen.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 [Slide #18, 1841 community dinner] The Dorr Rebellion has had no impact on the study of Transcendentalism, despite the fact this flash-point political crisis predates the citizen Raid at Harper’s Ferry by more than a decade. Among other things, the Dorr War spelled the end of Providence invitations to Emerson to deliver his lecture series (after January 1844). Emerson did deliver a few isolated lectures in Providence between 1845-49, but by and large, Emerson never lectured again in Providence from the Dorr Rebellion until the aftermath of the Civil War – and this was during the very period when Frederic Henry Hedge was serving his ministry in Providence, RI (1850-1856).

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 [Slide #19, double portrait] I believe Providence’s 1854 lecture invitation to Thoreau (and not to Emerson) was in part a conscious gesture extended as the destroyed citizen behind the Dorr Rebellion declined toward death and the Missouri compromise conversation shifted the national conversation dangerously. Perhaps 37 year old Thoreau was the public intellectual for the hour? Might the shared experience of walking tours make my memories matter to you? Make them your stories too as we puzzle a way forward? In this the parties failed. Our nation’s histories are complex and often at odds. It’s hard to hear. Harder to want to hear.

Walking Tour 3: Neutakonacut

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 [Slide #20, Dec. 7 journal entry] If December 6th was filled with novelty for Thoreau, one can only imagine what he felt after the walking tours of December 7th. Thoreau’s Journal entry for this day only includes two brief references and might not seem like much to go on. But I have unpacked them; my research has been filled with surprises I will summarize here.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 [Slide #21, map out to Johnston] I puzzled for a long time where Newcomb could possibly be taking Thoreau on a walking tour three miles west of Providence into my own terra incognito? It was a mystery. Today, this is a dense urban area, economically challenged and untouched by, say, historic preservation conversations. I had never explored here. And yet! Newcomb curated what would seem to be the pitch-perfect walking tour itinerary for Thoreau. Who knew? Neutaconkanut Hill(on the map at the far left) is actually the highest point in Providence.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 [Slide #22, Neutakonacut] Neutaconkanut Hill is an 88 acre woodland area of highly unusual geological outcroppings and vistas that would surely be of interest to Thoreau. Its most remarkable geological features was a giant erratic hornbeame boulder perched on a mica ledge and illustrated in Charles T. Jackson 1840 Geological Survey of the State of Rhode Island.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 If Neutakonacut Hill’s distinctive natural history wasn’t enough, this place was also the original north-west boundary of Providence. It was here in 1636 that Roger Williams met with the Narragansett Sachems Canonicus & Miantonomi to establish this northwestern boundary of the new settlement beyond the reach of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded as a haven for Soul Liberty. Indian rituals were said to take place here into the 20th century.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 How should we align the guide’s intended impact and the records left by the guided? What does it really mean to assess impact? What do we want success to look like, anyhow? What can we say about the disconnect?

Walking Tour #4: Caleb Fisk Harris (1818-1881) – major private library focused on American Poetry & Slavery as an institution; ancestor William Harris (1610-1681)

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 [Slide #23, Harris private library; Jesuit Letters] There are so many streams feeding our nation’s history beneath the solid ice we skate along upon. We need books, lots of books. And libraries. But we also need the books to get off the shelf, get out there, circulate, and inform action. Walking the landscape together talking can help too.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 I have come to believe Thoreau’s December 7th walking tour itinerary included a stop at C. Fiske Harris’s incredible world-class private library near the train station. As some of you may know, the Harris Collection is famous even today for its twin foci on American poetry and the history of slavery as an institution (and its abolition). Harris’s collection included the work of Las Casas (1484-1566) on indigenous slavery, ephemera on the British path to abolition, odd material from his ancestor who had been enslaved in Algiers by the Barbary Pirates, as well as Roger Williams’ Key, the Eliot Indian Bible, and, yes, newly printed copies of two Jesuit Letters. (Also in the John Carter Brown private library on Benefit St.)

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 At first, I had assumed the Harris referred to in Thoreau’s Journal was Thaddeus W. Harris, the naturalist and librarian at Harvard so important to Thoreau. But I have to conclude that he visited with C. Fiske Harris, Brown Class of 1834. Everything about this complicates simple narratives. Not least because Harris’s ancestor was William Harris – one of the original settler in that boat with Roger Williams on the Seekonk River. Incredibly the two founding settlers’ visions collided over private vs. collective property ownership, and due process, and Williams at one point actually arrested William Harris for Treason, (although a special Court acquitted him.) The daily practice of democratic governance is hard. Blackstone’s contemplative sanctuary in the woods must have sounded tempting in trying time.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 [Slide #24, Dec. 8th text from home] Thoreau returned home and regrouped at Walden the very next day. He looked out at the mountains so fair at a distance and the beauty that comes when: “You travel only on roads of the proper grade without jar or running off the track”. And yet, he noticed: here is a river frozen over but the skating is hobbled like a coat of mail or thickly bossed shield. …What was his vocation to be?

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 [Slide #25, Walden book, Walden rubble, Thoreau portrait]

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 To conclude: In 1854, Thoreau presented himself at many thresholds. In 2016, we are still opening the door to discover who is there. Sometimes we find a thoughtful listener, sometimes an inspiring collaborator. Sometimes a critic, and sometimes a crank. I don’t know why Thoreau was so unhappy in Providence, and seems to have never returned. But that’s ok. I’m happy to be here sharing other stories, in the Thoreau Society boat reaching out. Watching the geese soar.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 [Slide #26, Title Slide] Thank you!

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Source: http://commons.digitalthoreau.org/tsag2016/friday-july-8/visionaries-founders-and-madness-charles-king-newcomb-hosts-thoreau-in-providence/

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