This letter was written by Wallace to his son William from the Quincy Hotel in Boston, America. Written on 29 October 1886, Wallace had just embarked on what was to be a ten month lecture tour around North America.
The idea for a trip to lecture in America had actually been born a few years previously when Wallace met James Lowell at Darwin’s funeral - both were pallbearers. Lowell, a few years later in 1885, invited Wallace to be a speaker at the prestigious Lowell Institute's lecture series.
In a letter written in January 1886 to Othniel Charles Marsh, with whom Wallace had also discussed the possibility of lecturing abroad, Wallace wrote that,
“... circumstances have led me to contemplate a visit to the United States next Autumn on a lecturing tour around the world."
Although Wallace now had a degree of financial security in the form of a civil pension of £200 per annum that he began receiving in 1882, he cites to Marsh that,
“Serious losses of late years have rendered it necessary for me to do anything in my power to secure a provision for my family, and it is this consideration alone that would make me encounter the risks and fatigue of such a journey at my age and with my somewhat precarious health.”
And so it was that he left Gravesend on Saturday 9 October 1886 on a steamship, docking in New York, two weeks later on Saturday 23 October.
Wallace’s letter to William came when he had been in America six days and he writes of the voyage over, and of his activities since his arrival. He writes of seeing the “great” Statue of Liberty - which had actually been dedicated the day before Wallace wrote his letter on 28 October.
He stayed in New York for four days before travelling to Boston, from where he wrote to William. He records in the letter his thoughts on Central Park, it being,
“something like Epping Forest & something like Wales -- small hills and rocks everywhere with trees & flowers, and lakes in the hollows.”
On the journey to Boston Wallace observes all around him, commenting on the landscape, “rocky but not very hilly” and likening the wooden houses in the towns and villages he passed to “toy houses”.
WCP423: Wallace's letter to William from Boston
Wallace gave his first lecture two days after this letter was written on Monday 1 November to a sold-out audience; the lecture was entitled “The Darwinian Theory”. In total he gave 41 lectures, his last being in August 1887.
He never did make it around the world - his original plan which he outlined in his letter to Marsh was to travel to New Zealand and Australia from America and then onto the Cape of Good Hope before heading home to the UK. He did, however, make it to California to see his brother John, who he hadn’t seen in more than forty years.
At the time of the lecture series, Wallace was the greatest living naturalist - Darwin having died in 1882 and he was able to use the series to talk on a variety of subjects, including Darwinism. His most popular lecture was the first he ever delivered “The Darwinian Theory”. Although the lectures were not as forthcoming as he had initially anticipated, he still managed to talk on a variety of topics, including an apparently extremely successful lecture on Spiritualism entitled “If a Man Die, Shall he Live Again?” given in San Francisco in June 1887.
The trip, no doubt also helped him organise his thoughts on Darwinism as two years after the end of his trip, in 1889, he published Darwinism, his defence of natural selection.
Although, not a very well-known chapter in Wallace’s life, the lecturing tour around America is nonetheless interesting and can be explored through the letters in Wallace Letters Online. An excellent new book, "Alfred Russel Wallace's 1886-1887 Travel Diary" by Charles Smith, was published in 2013, giving a very detailed account of the tour.