In the mid-1800s, the American Lyceum provided a public forum that brought great scholars and thinkers—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, and others—to speak before communities in the United States.
“The lyceum is remarkable to me because such ideas and language lived not only in essays but also in the form of lectures that were authentically popular,” said poet and Cayuga Community College English Professor Howard Nelson. “This is fascinating, and it raises fundamental questions about levels of public discourse then and now.”
Nelson recently had the opportunity to explore the lyceum culture more deeply as a selected participant in the weeklong National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) workshop, The American Lyceum and Public Culture: The Oratory of Idealism, Opportunity, and Abolition, at Northeastern University in Boston.
During the week, Nelson and other college teachers selected by NEH visited popular sites along the lyceum circuit, including the Trinitarian Congregational Church and Masonic Temple Lodge in Concord, Mass., and Lyceum Hall in Salem, Mass. Several actors portrayed the historical figures and delivered some of their famous speeches in these sites.
Historians and literary scholars presented talks on some of the most famous orators and the hot topics these orators addressed: abolition, moral reform, women’s rights, and opportunity for self-improvement in America.
Nelson, who is a nationally recognized scholar on 19th century poet Walt Whitman, said the experience will help enrich his lectures in the Cayuga courses he teaches, particularly American Literature: The 19th Century and Public Speaking.
Nelson also noted that lyceums, according to American scholar Robert D. Richardson, were for working class people “intent on bettering themselves through practical education” and that “Lyceums provided then what...community colleges provide now.” Nelson seeks to inspire students in his courses to engage with topics in a similar way.
“In my classes, we return to the lyceum in connection with other writers—Thoreau, and also Herman Melville, who lectured here in Auburn, N.Y., during his brief and not very successful lyceum career,” Nelson said, adding that the reviewer in the local newspaper described Melville as having given quite an interesting lecture but “mumbling in his beard.”
“I want to do justice to the literature on the page, but I also want to make the writers and their words living presences,” he said. “I try to accomplish that through anecdotes and biographical background, photographs and other visual images, and also considerable reading aloud both, by me and by the students. In a way, I am trying to recreate some of the vitality of the lyceum, and this visit certainly gave me a great deal of new material to work into my courses.”
Attending workshops and conferences like this one has also helped Nelson network with scholars from across the country who share a similar passion for 19th century America. For example, through his connections to fellow Whitman scholars, he was invited to contribute to both Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (Garland Publishing, 1998) and A Companion to Walt Whitman (Blackwell Publishing, 2006). He is also the editor of Earth, My Likeness: Nature Poetry of Walt Whitman (North Atlantic Books, 2010).
In July, Nelson will present a paper on the subject of Thoreau as inspiration and subject for poets at the Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society in Concord, Mass. Nelson has himself called upon Thoreau and Whitman as subjects in his own poetry writing, and will share one of his own poems during his lecture.
The NEH workshop may stir up the muse again in Nelson to write more about these significant figures and this period of time in American history.
“I had an interesting conversation with Henry Thoreau, in the person of re-enactor Richard Smith, in Concord,” Nelson said. “I might write a poem about that.”