Little Concord's Literary Largesse

  • It must have been something in the air. Why else would little Concord, Mass., have had such a concentration of famous writers and social reformers in the 19th century, from Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau--all deep-breathing worshippers of New England's gentle beauty? Thanks to massive efforts by preservation and environmental groups, today's Concord retains not only the homes of its noted sons and daughters but also its own natural charms. Visitors can pace the floors, walk the trails and canoe the water lanes once frequented by their literary idols.

    The Concord Museum, a natural first stop, provides a cram course in transcendentalism--the belief that the beauty of the natural world is a manifestation of divinity--as well as exhibits about transcendentalist writers Emerson, Thoreau and Bronson Alcott. They were all friends and neighbors, and the galleries reflect their coziness. A room replicating Emerson's study contains his circular writing table and books often borrowed by Louisa May Alcott. Next door is the Thoreau gallery, with the desk, bed and chair from that famous rustic cabin Thoreau built on Emerson's land at Walden Pond, as well as Thoreau's walking stick, notched in inches so that he could take accurate measure of all he observed during his frequent peregrinations. Also in the museum collections: a doll and teakettle that belonged to Louisa May Alcott, and the wood-soled mud shoes worn by her neighbor Sophia, Hawthorne's wife.

    A few steps from the museum, across Cambridge Turnpike, is the house where Emerson lived from 1835 until his death in 1882. Here he entertained the Alcotts, the Hawthornes and Thoreau, who was so frequent a visitor that Emerson's children regarded him as a member of the family. On view in the nursery are the children's 18th century rocking horse and a dollhouse with the original handmade furnishings. Articles of Emerson's clothing--his tall beaver hat, the "Gaberlunzie" robe he probably wore when he got up early and his wife Lydian slept late--hang in other rooms.

    On Lexington Road is the rambling, dormered, brown-frame Orchard House, where in 1868 Louisa May Alcott wrote her masterpiece, Little Women, about four lively sisters, based on her real-life family. Visitors can still see the angels May Alcott ("Amy" in the book) sketched in her own room and the calla lilies she painted in the room where Louisa ("Jo") slept.

    Next door is the Wayside, where the Alcott sisters engaged in the childhood adventures Louisa recalled later in Little Women. In real life it was inhabited by a succession of local celebrities--the Alcotts (1845-48), before they moved to Orchard House; Nathaniel Hawthorne (1852-53 and 1860-64), who gave the house its current name and added the Italianate tower topped with a "sky-parlour"; and Harriett Lothrop (1883-1924), who under the pen name Margaret Sidney wrote the classic Five Little Peppers books.

    On Monument Street, several blocks north, the brooding gray Old Manse boasts an equally rich literary pedigree and original furnishings to match. Emerson, who lived there in 1834-1835, began writing his first great essay, "Nature," in the second-floor study. Hawthorne lived there with his beloved bride Sophia from 1842 to 1845, writing Mosses from an Old Manse. On windows throughout the house, Sophia used her diamond wedding ring to etch words of joy about her marriage and the beauty that surrounded her, including the ice-draped trees outside that she described as "glass chandeliers." The vegetable garden in the back was planted by Thoreau as a wedding gift.

    The cabin Thoreau built in 1845 and lived in for two years on Walden Pond, south of town, was sold during his lifetime and disassembled to patch a barn and roof a pig sty. But the site is marked by a cairn of rocks, started by Bronson Alcott after Thoreau died in 1862 and supplemented over the years by reverent visitors. Nearby, a facsimile of Thoreau's tiny, spartan home reflects his belief that freedom lay in simplicity. "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself," he wrote, "than be crowded on a velvet cushion."

    The houses of Concord reveal a lot about the men and women who made the town famous, but it is the great outdoors that provided much of their inspiration. Visitors should plan to spend an afternoon swimming in the clear, spring-fed water of Walden Pond, searching for frogs along its fringe and exploring the 1 3/4-mile trail that encircles it. Another day, families may want to pack a picnic, rent a canoe at South Bridge and paddle the Sudbury and Concord rivers to North Bridge, tinderbox of the American Revolution and the setting of Emerson's Concord Hymn, which celebrated the "shot heard round the world"; or rent bicycles in Lincoln and ride the Revolution's Battle Road trail. Half an hour west by car is Fruitlands, the apple-studded farm where in 1843 Bronson Alcott cultivated the utopian community satirized by Louisa in her book Transcendental Wild Oats.

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