Tuesday, September 22, 2009

3: Concord, first foray: Oh, those crazy Transcendentalists

Concord, Massachusetts, is bursting at the seams with history from the Minute Men to Little Women with bunches of other stuff in between. There’s even too much to tackle in one day for my limited purposes, so Concord will be a double-header. Here’s visit one.

In addition to its Revolutionary and literary history, Concord is family history for me—my mom grew up here. So who better to take along on this field trip?

Our first stop was The Wayside, now part of Minute Man National Historical Park. The Wayside was home for a time to the Alcott family, then Nathaniel Hawthorne and later Margaret Sidney (pen name for Harriet Lothrop). Lothrop and her husband Daniel Lothrop were early visionaries regarding historic houses and purchased The Wayside because of its illustrious residents with the intent to preserve it. They were literary names in their own right: Daniel Lothrop was a publisher and one of his authors was Margaret Sidney, creator of The Five Little Peppers. Their daughter Margaret opened the home to tourists in the 1920s (even while she still lived in part of it). When my mom was a teenager, she worked as a tour guide for Miss Lothrop, so this was familiar territory for her. (It also made her a bit of a celebrity with our ranger guide Charlie.)  

Unfortunately, The Wayside is in less than perfect shape these days. A broken sprinkler pipe caused significant water damage around the house. Parts are closed to tours—including the room with the secret hiding place built by the Alcotts to shelter two runaway slaves in the winter of 1846.

Bronson Alcott made other renovations to the house, enlarging it by adding a section on to each side (partly so his four daughters wouldn’t all have to share one room). The sections were the two halves of an unused building that had been sitting on the property across the street—owned Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bronson, possessor of big ideas, also moved (or had someone else move) a barn from Emerson’s property. I’m guessing that Emerson—a good friend, a patron of his fellow writers or an enabler, depending how you look at it—gave Alcott a really good deal on the buildings. Even so, the Alcott family only lived here for a few years. Tight economic straits forced them to move back to Boston, and they sold the house to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1852.

This was the only house Hawthorne ever owned (more about him as a tenant later). Ironically, less than a year after he moved in Hawthorne was appointed US consul to Liverpool, England. On his return to Concord almost seven years later, Hawthorne enlarged the house some more, including a “sky parlor” constructed atop the house as a private writing space. The additions didn’t turn out the way he had envisioned and he called the house “the absurdest anomaly you ever saw.”  He never really had the opportunity to enjoy much time in his own home; his health began to fail, and he died (probably of intestinal cancer) in 1864.

For the brief time Hawthorne did live at The Wayside, his next-door neighbors were none other than the Alcotts, who had returned to Concord and purchased Orchard House, where Bronson ran his School of Philosophy and Louisa May later made a name for herself when she wrote Little Women.

A large group of students from Japan was touring the house when we arrived. When our guide, Louise, came to the shelf filled with copies of Little Women in many different languages, she said that the students had pointed excitedly to the Japanese edition as the one they read as children.

I was both amused and exasperated by our guides at The Wayside and Orchard House—both kept trying to lay claim for their respective house as being the place where the Little Women lived their lives. Let’s remember that the March family wasn’t real. Jo didn’t write in any garret, Beth didn’t play her music in any parlor. Sure, Louisa May Alcott drew on her own family’s experiences, but if—for example—she was playing Pilgrim’s Progress on the stairs of Orchard House at the age of 26 (that’s how old she was when the family moved in), then Bronson’s educational efforts with his daughters resulted in some serious developmental delays. (They don’t call it fiction for nothing.)

When I was a kid, I thought Louisa May had it great—she got to learn from all those fascinating Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, her own father) and she was a writer. Oh for my lost innocence. Those crazy Transcendentalists weren’t all self-reliant, nature-loving, intellectual individualists; they had their warts. (If you don’t believe me, read Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury.) I used to think it would be cool to time-travel back and hang out with Louisa May and rest of them, but no-o-o—it would be too much like hanging out with some of the more dysfunctional members of my own family. Yes, Concord is tied to my family history, but this part of it is just in my head. (Skip ahead if you want to bypass the this-is-the-kind-of-weird-stuff-that-goes-on-in-my-head riff.)

Bronson Alcott. He used to say stuff like “Providence will provide” and never notice that it was his wife and daughters who were doing all the hard work to put food on the table. (Racking it up to Providence likely meant he never had to say “thank you,” and he could somehow take credit.) There’s a bench in front of Orchard House that he used to sit on with a basket of apples by his side to offer to travelers going by on the road. A hint to how this turns out: When Hawthorne lived next door, he’d look out the window whenever he wanted to walk to town, and if he saw Bronson on the bench, he’d go out the back door and over the hill rather than pass Bronson on the road. Unsuspecting travelers would accept the offer of an apple and a place to sit and rest a moment and find themselves the audience of an unsolicited lecture from The Philosopher. This reminds me too much of my father (who was also a fan Providential provisions), a Civil War buff who would launch into accounts of what his latest research had uncovered whether anyone cared to hear it or not. BLAH BLAH BLAH.

So when I look at that bench, I see a traveler with a pained expression on his face nibbling an apple as Bronson Alcott holds forth. BLAH BLAH BLAH. I can’t help it. He just drones on and on.

As good a time as any to break for lunch.

We stopped in at Main Streets Market & Café for some killer sandwiches with whoopie pies for dessert. We sat by the window looking out at the street, and my mom pointed out landmarks (or landmarks that were missing) from her childhood. After lunch we took a detour from the literary points of interest to drive by the house where she grew up. The current owners were out in the yard, and they invited us inside for a tour. How cool is that?

But back to the Transcendentalist tribe.

We headed for The Old Manse, Emerson lived here with his step-grandfather for a short time in the 1830s (after he had left the ministry and before he had established himself as a writer) before buying his own house. Looking out over the fields from one of the house’s windows, he wrote his essay “Nature” and developed his views of the world.

“The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their land-deeds give them no title.”

Several years later Emerson urged newlywed Nathaniel Hawthorne to move to Concord and arranged for him to rent The Old Manse. Hawthorne and his wife Sofia lived here for three years—and were less than ideal tenants. While he lived here, Hawthorne wrote most of the stories that were collected in his book Mosses from an Old Manse. His preface, “The Old Manse,” describes the house and its surrounds and his impressions of them—he doesn’t seem too impressed by much of it and rather oppressed by some of it.

“The boughs over my head seemed shadowy with solemn thoughts, as well as with rustling leaves. I took shame to myself for having been so long a writer of idle stories, and ventured to hope that wisdom would descend upon me with the falling leaves of the avenue …”

Of his study he writes, “When I first saw the room, its walls were blackened with the smoke of unnumbered years, and made still blacker by the grim prints of Puritan ministers that hung around. … They had all vanished now. A cheerful coat of paint, and golden-tinted paper-hangings, lighted up the small apartment; while the shadow of a willow-tree, that swept against the overhanging eaves, attempered the cheery western sunshine.”

The redecorating—in gaudier colors than the owners might have liked, not to mention he stuffed those glowering portraits in the attic—was one thing, but some of the unwise words that Hawthorne (and his wife) wrote were something else. The young couple recorded some of their fond memories in the house by etching notes on the window glass with Sophia’s diamond ring. Just the kind of tenants a landlord longs for. Oh, and they didn’t pay their rent for the three years they lived here.

Louisa May would have understood my irritation. I know she felt it too, though she was probably more forgiving than I am. She captured some of the perplexing attitudes of her father and his fellows in her short story, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” that satirized her father’s utopian experiment at Fruitlands.

“Reform conventions of all sorts were haunted by these brethren, who said many wise things and did many foolish ones. Unfortunately, these wanderings interfered with their harvest at home; but the rule was to do what the spirit moved, so they left their crops to Providence and went a-reaping in wider and, let us hope, more fruitful fields than their own. …

“About the time the grain was ready to house, some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away. An easterly storm was coming up and the yellow stacks were sure to be ruined. Then Sister Hope gathered her forces. Three little girls, one boy (Timon’s son), and herself, harnessed to clothes-baskets and Russia-linen sheets, were the only teams she could command; but with these poor appliances the indomitable woman got in the grain and saved food for her young, with the instinct and energy of a mother-bird with a brood of hungry nestlings to feed.”

More about Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the second visit to Concord.

1 comment:

  1. Your assessment of the strange rivalary between The Wayside and the Orchard House for better claim to Little Women is a breath of fresh air. The book is, after all, fiction - no matter how much people like it.

    Speaking of fiction, I hope you don't use Susan Cheever's book American Bloomsbury for anyhting more than entertainment. Very few facts can be gleaned from that book. Consider it a historical romance at best.