In nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America, lectures were another form of publication. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once jotted in his journal, "a lecture is a new literature, which leaves aside all tradition, time, place, circumstance, & addresses an assembly as mere human beings, no more" (p. 224). By the end of the Civil War, virtually every town in the country had a local organization, often a lyceum or literary society, which sponsored a series of six to eight lectures during the late fall and winter designed to edify rural audiences between harvest and spring plowing. Particularly in the Midwest, these local organizations sometimes joined with others in nearby towns to sponsor lecturers who were otherwise too expensive. Lecture bureaus, such as the American Literary Bureau (1866), the Redpath Lyceum Bureau in Boston (1868) and Chicago (1871), and the Williams Lecture and Musical Bureau (1869), were also established.
James Redpath (1833–1891), a former journalist and editor, effectively systemized the business, managing lecture tours on commission, usually 10 percent of the "box" or box-office income. "Lecturing is becoming a distinct profession," he wrote in 1871. "The system has grown up without system; it has never been organized by competent managers or carefully studied by competent observers; but as it extends itself it will be reduced to order, its attractions multiplied, its sphere widened, its popularity increased, its influence for good augmented a hundred-fold" (Horner, p. 187). Between 1870 and 1900, the Redpath Bureau organized tours for literally hundreds of speakers, among them the minister Henry Ward Beecher, the suffragist Susan B. Anthony, the explorer Henry M. Stanley, the actor Joseph Jefferson, and such literary figures as George William Curtis, William Dean Howells, and Bret Harte. Redpath's "Star Courses" featured a headliner or two during its winter-long weekly series of lectures and filled in the other dates with second-stringers, such as the Civil War general Nathaniel Prentiss Banks and the author Edward Eggleston. Redpath required the local lecture committees or sponsors to subscribe to the entire series, and in turn the committees required auditors to purchase tickets to an entire lecture season rather than pay to see only the headliners. As a result, both lecture fees and profits for promoters increased dramatically in the 1870s. No longer could a sponsor entice a speaker to a town with a promise of $5 and three quarts of oats for his horse, the payment Emerson once accepted.
Speakers in Redpath's stable typically received $100 to $150 per date, though a third-tier figure such as William Emerson, Ralph Waldo's brother, charged $40 plus expenses. The feminist Victoria C. Woodhull was paid $250 per lecture, and Charles Sumner, the Radical Republican senator, was paid $300 to $500. Redpath paid Beecher $1,000 for a single lecture at the Boston Music Hall in 1872 and still made a profit of nearly $2,000. Redpath offered Harte $5,000 for twelve lectures when he first arrived in Boston in 1871—when Mark Twain was earning a mere $150 per date. Some celebrities cleared thousands of dollars in a single season. By her own estimate, Kate Field, the socalled Rose of the Rostrum, earned $8,000 during her first season on the hustings (the lecture platform). Anna E. Dickinson earned an estimated $20,000 per year, John Bartholomew Gough and Artemus Ward (the penname of Charles Farrar Browne) about $30,000, and Beecher more than $40,000.
Following Redpath's lead, the burgeoning lyceum circuit after the Civil War gradually evolved from an educational or instructional medium into a form of entertainment at fifty cents a ticket or a dollar per series. The speakers who succeeded on the circuit (e.g., George Washington Cable, James Whitcomb Riley) were typically entertainers skilled at performing. J. B. (James Burton) Pond (1838–1903), who succeeded Redpath as the head of the Bureau in 1875, recalled that John Bartholomew Gough's two-hour temperance lecture "was an unbroken succession of contortions and antics that left him dripping with perspiration" (p. 5). And humorists such as Twain, Ward, Thomas Nast, Petroleum V. Nasby (a pseudonym for David Ross Locke), and Josh Billings (the penname of Henry Wheeler Shaw) enjoyed lucrative careers on the platform. In contrast, though Bret Harte (1836–1902) earned his livelihood between 1872 and 1875 by delivering his lecture "The Argonauts of '49" about 150 times across the country, his career in the field was utterly undistinguished. As he later explained, "what the people expected in me I do not know. Possibly a six-foot mountaineer, with a voice and lecture in proportion. They always seemed to have mentally confused me with one of my own characters" (Dam, p. 50). Some speakers became famous for their signature lectures, such as Twain ("An American Vandal Abroad" and "Roughing It"); Russell H. Conwell ("Acres of Diamonds"); Elihu Hubbard ("A Message to Garcia"); and Anna Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young ("My Life in Bondage").
GOOD PAY AND HARD WORK
Some lecturers during the period (e.g., Gough, Anthony, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass) advocated such causes as temperance, suffrage, spiritualism, and civil rights, to be sure. But the lure for most of them was money. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once told Herman Melville, a lecturer was a "literary strumpet who prostituted himself for an abnormally high fee" (Howard, p. 256). Kate Field admitted that she began to lecture "because it pays better than anything else, and I am tired of grubbing along" (p. 48). Mark Twain (1835–1910) put it this way: "A sensible man lectures only when butter & bread are scarce" (Letters 5:539). He recalled in Roughing It (1872) that while still in California he "launched out as a lecturer" with "great boldness. I had the field all to myself, for public lectures were almost an unknown commodity in the Pacific market" (p. 418).
Twain, of course, made several extended lecture tours during his career, including seventy-seven performances in sixteen weeks in 1871 and 1872, 103 performances in three months in company with George Washington Cable in 1884 and 1885, and 140 performances between July 1895 and July 1896. The "Twins of Genius" tour with Cable (so advertised by Pond) netted about $24,000—$16,000 for Twain, $5,000 for Cable (whom Twain paid a flat $450 a week), and $3,000 for Pond. Twain's round-the-world lecture tour in 1895 and 1896 enabled him to erase the estimated $80,000 debt he assumed in 1894 as the result of the failure of his publishing company. As he remarked while in Seattle: "Now, if I have to pay my debts by writing books as Scott had to write them, I might easily kill myself in five years as he did. But I have the advantage of this lecture bureau system, which has grown to such enormous proportions" ("Twain Brands a Fake," p. 8). Lecturing was one of the few careers open to women, moreover, much to the disdain of Twain, who never suffered rivals gladly. The "courted lady-lecturers" soar along "on a lucrative notoriety nine-tenths" the product of self-promotion, he protested in 1870 (Letters 4:291). Henry James (1843–1916) also satirized women lecturers in The Bostonians (1886) in the character of Verena Tarrant, whose lover concludes she "had queer, bad lecture-blood in her veins" (p. 253).
The occupation was not without other critics. For example, an editorial in Scribner's Monthly in 1872, probably penned by Josiah Gilbert (J. G.) Holland (1819–1881), the magazine's genteel editor, protested the turn from substance to entertainment. Once upon a time, the editorial complained, lecturers discussed "important topics," but now "a lecture may be any string of nonsense that any literary mountebank can find an opportunity to utter. Artemus Ward 'lectured;' and he was right royally paid for acting the literary buffoon." The editorial contended that such "triflers and buffoons" were "a constant disgrace to the lecturing guild, and a constantly degrading influence upon the public taste" ("Triflers on the Platform," p. 489). By the end of the century, lectures such as Field's "Eyes and Ears in London" had become virtual variety shows, often accompanied by popular music and illustrated with slides projected by a "magic lantern."
More to the point, professional lecturers had to cope with a variety of problems apart from their performances. First, they either hired a booking agent or bureau or booked their own lecture tours to save money. Harte repeatedly quarreled with his managers, including Redpath and D'Oyly Carte, for their failures to schedule him where he was willing to lecture, and Twain fumed in January 1873 that "there isn't pluck enough in the whole gang of lecture bureaux to run a one-horse circus" (Letters 5:275). Next, lecturers worried about the halls or venues where they spoke. Twain noted in 1871, for example, that he "never made a success of a lecture delivered in a church yet. People are afraid to laugh in a church" (Letters 4:434). Acoustics were also a concern. Many a lecture was ruined by the destructive echoes of a hall.
Long-distance travel by rail was not only inconvenient but potentially hazardous, especially in bad weather. On tour with Twain in 1885, George Washington Cable (1844–1925) wrote Major Pond that they "had to take cars three times yesterday & wait in and about little stove-heated way-stations, for belated trains. The whole day was taken up in going about 100 miles. The thermometer started at 24° below zero, but climbed up nearly to the zero point. We reached Oberlin at a quarter to seven and were to go upon the platform at seven" (Turner, p. 101). Seventeen years later, Twain remembered that the frenetic tour with Cable was "the hardest work I have ever known. It was made up of the most absurd railway jumps from one lecture point to another" ("Mark Twain Bids Missouri Farewell," p. 3). As Cable's comment suggests, moreover, winter weather was often a problem. Harte once "travelled in the dead of winter from New York to Omaha 2000 miles, with the thermometer varying from 10° to 25° below zero" (Scharnhorst, p. 106). In Kansas in 1873, Harte's train broke down and left him "at four o'clock, fifteen miles from Atchison on the edge of a bleak prairie with only one house in sight" (Letters of Bret Harte, p. 27). A lecturer often risked his health, particularly in the West. William Dean Howells (1837–1920) complained to Pond from Kansas in 1899 that he could not "stand the racket" in the hotels and could not "sleep without drugs" (Pond, p. 335). Similarly, Harte wrote from rural Iowa in 1873 that he had "risen at midnight—have driven directly from the lecture to the depot, have spent three nights without sleep consecutively, until I wonder at what unknown resources of vitality I am drawing upon" (Selected Letters, pp. 86–87).
Then there were the social obligations of the visitor, the receptions in his or her honor, and the tour of the town once he or she arrived. Howells found these duties onerous: "If I could lecture every night (which I cannot) and arrive every day too late for an afternoon reception, and get away as soon as I read my paper, it would be fine, but that is impossible" (Pond, p. 335). Twain agreed: "I had to submit to the customary & exasperating drive around town in a freezing open buggy . . . to see the wonders of the village. . . . All towns are alike—all have the same stupid trivialities to show, & all demand an impossible interest at the suffering stranger's hands" (Letters 3:395–396). Years after he abandoned the stage, Twain reminisced that a "country audience is the difficult audience; a passage which it will approve with a ripple will bring a crash in the city. A fair success in the country means a triumph in the city" (Autobiography 1:151). Field also loathed "the majority of the country audiences" (p. 88). Finally, a professional speaker feared the possibility that a quick-fingered reporter sent to cover the lecture might transcribe it verbatim and publish it in the local newspaper, ruining it for delivery in neighboring towns. Twain excoriated those "devils incarnate" who pick the lecturer's pocket "with their infernal synopses" (Letters 4:522).
LECTURES OUTSIDE THE LYCEUM
Other forms of lecturing also prospered during the period. Ironically, the popular Chautauqua movement, founded in 1874 in upstate New York, continued the educational function of the pre–Civil War lyceums but with a twist. The movement was almost exclusively aimed at the edification of rural audiences. At the peak of the movement early in the twentieth century, twenty-two separate "tent circuits" featuring educational lectures and other forms of practical instruction visited a total of approximately 8,000 American communities for a week at a time. "Oblivious to the sneers of the sophisticates," as Joseph Gould notes in The Chautauqua Movement: An Episode in the Continuing American Revolution (1961), "tent Chautauqua flourished in the United States for more than twenty years" (p. 81).
Political orators, including Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Robert Marion La Follette, and Woodrow Wilson, barnstormed the country on "whistle-stop campaigns." Aimee Semple McPherson and other tent revivalists converted souls and became the target of such satires as Elmer Gantry (1927) by Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951). The Concord School of Philosophy, founded by Amos Bronson Alcott in 1879, hosted highbrow speakers and eager audiences on the sacred ground of Concord, Massachusetts, until 1888. Though political orators still barnstorm and evangelicals still hold revivals, the system nurtured by the lecture bureaus and the Chautauqua between 1870 and 1920 was inevitably doomed, destroyed by radio and motion pictures.
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"Lectures." American History Through Literature 1870-1920. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/lectures
"Lectures." American History Through Literature 1870-1920. . Retrieved May 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/lectures
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