In Concord with Emerson and Thoreau as guides

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When entering this peaceful village with its graceful Colonial homes and churches, meadows gently rolling out to the even more gentle river, and its overriding sense of 345 years of history comfortably blended in with the present , travelers often feel that they have been to Concord before.

This is particularly true if they have read some of the most vivid and alluring recollections ever written about a town -- the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts. True, the town has grown a bit from the 2, 000 noted in Thoreau's journal, and the main street, still known as the Mill-dam , is paved and crowded with cars. But the essence described -- and to a large part created -- by its 19th-century writers-in-residence can still be found.

It is sought yearly by thousands of pilgrims who tramp through the Old Manse, where Nathaniel Hawthorne spent three euphoric years; Emerson's stately, white-clapboard house; the period rooms of the Museum of the Concord Antiquarian Society, which include the furnishings of Henry David Thoreau's Walden House; the rambling Wayside, which has fostered at least three literary successes; and, of course, the Alcotts' Orchard House, where "Little Women" was both created and set.

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It is also sought by walking along Walden Pond -- it helps to hurry past the parking lot and picnic grounds to the site of Thoreau's "tight shingled and plastered house," where "every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity." Or by canoeing down the Concord River, where Hawthorne, aside from calling it "the most unexcitable and sluggish stream that ever loitered imperceptively toward its eternity," enjoyed observing the white lilies floating on its surface and the eels, speckled frogs, and mud turtles lurking beneath.

Hawthorne had ample opportunity to observe the river, because the Old Manse, to where he took his bride, Sophia, in 1842, is next to it. The homestead, built in 1765 for Emerson's grandfather, welcomes visitors during spring and summer, who can still see the phrases etched by Sophia in the dining room windows with her diamond ring. Originally painted white, by Hawthorne's day it had weathered to its present somber gray that the occupant admired. "To repaint its revered face would be a real sacrilege," he wrote in his journal. "It would look like old Dr. Ripley in a brown wig."

According to his journal, Hawthorne spent his three years in the Old Manse reveling in the pastoral setting and enjoying such household charms as the ghost that made rustling noises in a corner of the parlor each evening. Hawthorne explored Walden Pond and the river with his good friends Emerson and Thoreau, but, for the most part, shunned the frequent visitors to Emerson's house, calling them "queer, strangely-dressed, oddly behaved mortals, most of whom took upon themselves to be important agents of the world's destiny, yet were simply bores of a very intense variety."

He also had little interest in the historic Revolutionary battleground just to the left of the Old Manse, a prime tourist attraction then and now. Even here, at the site of Concord's important role in the Revolution, the town's literary influence is felt. North Bridge, leading over to Daniel Chester French's Minute Man statue, has been known as "the rude bridge that arched the flood" ever since Emerson wrote the "Concord Hymn" in honor of the monument's dedication in 1837.

Emerson's importance to Concord is evident throughout the town. Not only was he on hand to immortalize the monument, but he wrote and presented the dedication speech for the public library in 1873 and the consecration speech for Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in 1855.

Today French's imposing statue of Emerson dominates the library's first floor , and original manuscripts and early editions of his and of other Concord authors are housed in glass cabinets all around the room. On Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow, tourists visit the graves of emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Alcotts.

But Emerson's house, the first visible landmark to visitors making the 20 -mile drive northwest from Boston, is where the "Sage of Concord" can best be appreciated. A few years after Emerson moved here in 1835, he wrote in his journal: "When I bought my farm, I did not know what a bargain I had in bluebirds, bobolinks, and thrushes, which were not charged in the bill; as little did I guess what sublime mornings and sunsets I was buying. . . . Still less did I know what good and true neighbors I was buying, men of thought and virtue. . . ."

As that entry suggests, his years here -- nearly all his adult life -- were largely happy ones. A tour through the house today reveals a life spent among books and bookish society. Because he regarded his books as his most important possessions, his hall bookshelves are portable units that can be easily rescued in case of fire.

On the first floor are his study (furnished with replicas of the original objects now housed in the Antiquarian Museum across the street) and the Empire-style parlor where the Transcendentalist Club met for long discussions. Emerson's home was also home to his wide circle of literary friends -- Thoreau lived here during two winters and filled the woodbox that still stands outside the back door; Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller were frequent guests; among occasional visitors were Walt Whitman (who dedicated "Leaves of Grass" to his host), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thomas Carlisle, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Bret Harte; and the often financially strapped Alcotts had an open invitation to move in.

Although the Alcotts never did, Bronson accepted financial support from his friend until his daughter Louisa became successful enough to keep her family in comfort. Although Alcott was a noted philosopher and innovative thinker -- some of his theories of childhood education are in practice today -- his ventures rarely resulted in making a living.

After returning from one of his failed experiments, life on a primitive farm misnamed Fruitlands, the Alcotts moved just down the road from Emerson to a house they called Hillside, but which was later renamed Wayside by Hawthorne, who lived there next. Now open to the public, the house bears the marks of the writers who lived there -- the wings and piazzas added by Bronson Alcott and the further additions, including a tower study, by Hawthorne. In later years Margaret Sidney, who wrote "Five Little Peppers," also lived at Wayside.

The Alcotts lived in the house for only a year, then moved next door to Orchard House in 1858 when Louisa was 25. The house was already over a century old and showed its age, but Bronson rebuilt most of the exterior and his daughters painted and papered the inside. May Alcott's delicate wall paintings are still much admired by the legions of visitors who tour the house each year.

When the renovations were finished, Alcott was proud of the result and wrote in his journal: "My neighbors flatter me that I have one of the best placed and most picturesque houses in our town. I know very well the secret of what they praise. 'Tis simply adapting the color and repairs to the architecture, and holding these in keeping with the spot."

The family spent the next 20 years here and Louisa used it for the setting of "Little Women," depicting a stable childhood she had never known. For readers of her book, the cozy, low-ceilinged rooms filled with familiy memorabilia often seem as familiar as the homes they grew up in, no matter where they are. The house is so popular among Japanese tourists, for instance, that a major Tokyo magazine recently featured the old homestead in a full-color spread.

Although Thoreau wrote that Walden's ice "is an interesting subject fit for contemplation," the best time to visit these literary shrines is from April to November, as many of them close during the winter. And just as important, visitors should first read some of what those remarkable neighbors wrote about the village they left behind.

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