Public Lecturing in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America
Donald M. Scott
As the editor of Harper's Magazine in February 1854 "looked out over the varied panorama of life and society in our country," he thought he discerned "a new profession growing up" -- public or popular lecturing. Three years later Putnam's Magazine, like Harper's one of the arbiters of intellectual life in mid-nineteenth-century America, asserted that the lyceum was such a great success that it had founded a "new profession." And in 1859, when printing its annual list of major lecturers, the New York Tribune declared matter-of-factly that "the profession appears securely established." 1 From several vantage points such assertions seem well-founded. There was a fairly large and growing body of practitioners who had made lecturing before paying audiences a major if not the exclusive portion of their vocational activity and who thought of themselves, and were regarded by the public at large, as "professional" lecturers. Moreover, the public for this new profession numbered in the millions: by fairly conservative estimate, attendance at public lectures probably reached close to half a million people each week during the lecture season. 2 It was also a fairly lucrative profession, one that Park Benjamin, one-time lawyer, literary agent, editor, poet and journalist, adopted as his "sole profession" in 1849, partly because it could provide him "greater income than any other literary pursuit." 3 The leading figures of the profession, earning between $50 and $150 per lecture and lecturing between 50 and 120 times a season were indeed "well-paid for their labors." Bayard Taylor earned more than $6,000 in the 1854-55 season, nearly three times what was considered a very good salary for a clergyman. Lecturing also appeared to have become an important and honored profession that rivalled press and pulpit in its influence over the mind of the public.