AT THIS TIME each year I notice that some of my gaudier friends in England begin to announce their arrival on these shores. They have only one night in Washington; is it possible that we can have dinner? I do not have to inquire why they are here. They are here on the lecture circuit.

The elcture tour is truly an American phenomenon. It not only supports some of my English colleagues in a state to which they all too easily grow accustomed; it also supports some of my American colleagues in a state beyond the dreams even of a robber baron. But let me stay for a moment with the English visitors, since from the very beginning America has provided this form of outdoor relief to them and they have gazed on such generosity with an approving but acidulous eye.

Dylan Thomas was in the end killed by his tours, but no one has offered a more vivid description of them.

"Across the United States of America, from New York to California and back, glazed, again, for many months of the year, there streams and sings for its heady supper a dazed and prejudiced procession of European lecturers, scholars, sociologists, economists, writers, authorities on this and that and even, in theory, on the United States of America. And, breathlessly between addresses and receptions, in planes and trains and boiling bedroom ovens, many of these attempt to keep journals and diaries."

He said acutely that the lecturers begin to distrust themselves and their reputations, because they find too often that "an audience will receive a lecture on, say, Ceramics with the same uninhibited enthusiasm that it accorded the very week before to a paper on the Modern Turkish Novel." It is not in any mean spirit that one points out that Thomas turned this into one of his most successful lectures. (But given on the BBC at home.)

The tolerance -- or addicition -- of American audiences was noticed early. "One lecture treads so quickly on the heels of another that none are remembered," wrote Charles Dickens in his "American Notes" in 1842, adding that this enabled the lecturer to repeat the same lecture to the same audience with "its charm of novelty unbroken and its interest unabated." Yet he of course came back a second time for the money.

One of the biographers of Dickens who followed in his footsteps as a lecturer, G. K. Chesterton, even questioned whether it was necessary for a lecturer to give a lecture at all. "He might merely exhibit himself on a stand or a platform for a stipulated sum, or be exhibited like a monster in a menagerie. The cirus elephant is not expected to make a speech." Yet, at the call of a booking agent, they go.

They go as lions, actual or stuffed. Many of them get so used to the circus that they cannot remember any other habitat, and on the whole it is as lions that they rather like being treated. The lionizing has often been caricatured -- the lectures take the money, but are not very civil in return -- but some have been able to be more objective. Wyndham Lewis, in a book to which he gave the engagingly modest title, "America, I Presume," thought that "lions of very dubious quality" were sent on the tours.

The trugh is that the lecture tour is two things: its reward, for which the lecturer goes, money; and its price, which the lecturer is willing to pay, fatigue. As he always was, Thackeray was honest. His letters home bubble about the money. "This peripatetic lecturing doesn't at all suit me, and it's only for the money's sake that I pursue it . . . But it is more profitable than book-writing . . . It is a little rain of dollars pray heaven to send plenty of rain." That lack of punctuation, by the way, was characteristic of his letters. It was as if they just tumbled out onto the paper.

But there was the fatigue. When the historian J. A. Froude came on a tour, Carlyle was worried about his "loss of sleep," and wrote imploringly to Froude's wife: "For Heaven's sake bid him be careful about that, take double and treble care in regard to regimen and diet." In our own times, T. H. White expected his one and only tour to America to kill him, and it did.

In his journal before he lefe England -- with the sister of "Camelot" star Julie Andrews as his companion -- he said that the tour will "probably destroy us with exhaustion." He added that he was making it "to distract the private unhappiness of old age, rather like knocking your head against the wall when you have a toothache." He at first thought that his lectures were "complete bosh," but grew to enjoy making them, and then collapsed in New Orleans, having to cancel four of the lectures. "It was that or death."

Two months later, after he had left the United States at the end of the tour, he was found dead in the cabin of the liner that was carrying him to Athens so that he might relax on a Greek cruise. He had paid the price, as he had predicted he would. But he left for us one of the most exuberant celebrations of American life that has ever been written by a visitor. He fell in love with the place.

But so did Thackeray. And so did Dickens, until he caught cold in New York and was confined to his bedroom, about whose excessive heat he, like Englishmen even today, complained with much bitterness. And so also, amazingly, did Oscar Wilde. It is an absolute delight to read his account of his tour in the 1880s, and the letters in which he ordered another magnificent velvet cloak, and of course made sure that he had his exotic flower for his buttonhole. But nothing is more wonderful than his descripiton of when he lectured to the rude miners of Leadville, Colo., 10,000 feet up in the Rockies, on no less an exalted subject than the ethics of art.

He read them passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, "and they seemed much delighted," asking him why he had not brought Cellini with him. When he explained that Cellini had been dead for some time, the miners shouted, "Who shot him?" Two hours before he lectured, two men had been summarily tried and then executed on the very stage from which he was speaking.

The first thing to be said about all this is that it is those lecturers who have given everything to their lectures who have got the most out of America in return. No one could be more droll about humankind than Thackeray, yet he went round open-mouthed at "the vast empire that will be builded here," and even more open-mouthed at the number of young ladies to whom he lost his middle-aged heart. No one could be more supercilious when he chose than Wilde, yet seemed to gather the Whole of America into his cloak with delight. No one had a more observant eye for detail than White -- read his description of a bus ride to the Cloisters in New York -- but every detail filled him with amazement.

I think that there is a lesson in this, and not only for the visitor from abroad. You don't get unless you give. When we lament that America has lost some of its old gusto, or talk of its malaise, the fault may well be in us who are looking and not giving. With textbooks of sociology and even psychology in our hands, we keep on asking not only the wrong but too many questions. We ought instead to be throwing ourselves open.

America is still a place which has to be found. Europe displays itself and its treasures as if in a museum case. As Georgia O'Keeffe once said of european cities, we may never build cities as beautiful again, but they are now oly conversation pieces. I have found nothing more interesting than the fact that the English lecturers are far more exuberant in their letters and journals than in the books which they then go home and write. It is as if everyone feels that he must be solemn about the country -- look for its future, search for its Destiny -- instead of just reacting to it with spontaneity and immediacy.

I have always thought it odd that a republic, by reading Tocqueville so dutifully, tries to understand itself through the eyes of a French aristocrat. But in a way we all go round America with him in our baggage. He was in the baggage of the young Lord Rosebey when he set out for America in 1873, but on the first night out a bottle of champange exploded in his suitcase and soaked Tocqueville. I think that the champagne was making an important point.

In fact one example is the lecture tour itself. It is not my cup of tea. I enjoy speaking now and then, but I am incapable of giving the same speech all again, and I do not like traveling in a hurry. But I still think that the American notion of the lecture is important, even if it does deserve some ridicule, even if it can be an opiate, and even if it is preferable if information and opinions are gathered by reading.

Oscar Wilde would never have been invited to address the miners of South Wales on the ethics of art, and it is no less true that the English lecturer today addresses suburban audiences in America which he would never be invited to address in England. There is still in the lecture tour something of the old-fashioned American idea that culture can be for everyone, the idea which made settlers of new towns build theaters almost as soon as schools and churches.

It ought to be noticed how often -- by Dylan Thomas, by Wyndham Lewis -- the ridicule is turned on the lecturers and not on the audiences. Even those clubwomen -- even those clubwomen! -- had something to be said for them. They were prepared to make fools of themselves in the search of culture, and it is not a bad way in which at least to begin the search for it.

It at least shows some enthusiam, and that brings me to the third of my points. To me the most amazing thing about those audiences is the enthusiasm of their curiosity. They really do want to know about -- as Thomas puts it -- Ceramics and the Modern Turkish Novel. Where do all those clubwomen go when the lecturers are at home recovering from their fatigue? Why, they are jetting all over the world, to the remotest corners of the earth, clumbing over the ruins of lost civilizations and asking their endless questions of the guides.

No sooner does China open its door a crack than jumbo jets of American ladies arrive and scramble over the Great Wall. Many of them are Republicans. They probably still think George C. Marshall or some othr communist like Dwight D. Eisenhower "lost" China. Never mind! They will have dynasties at their feet, and all the time they ask their questions and remember the answers.

For curiosity has always been another American trait, and one which has contributed much to the country's gusto. That is one reason why I think that it will be very sad if the lectures are now only about patting one's own self into shape. Better the Modern Turkish Novel, even if one then never reads one; and Dylan Thomas himself would have agreed as he took another swig to get out of it all.