Friday, October 16, 2009

8: Concord, the sequel: Transcendentalists and Fluff

Walden Pond ain’t what it used to be. I could practically hear Henry David Thoreau muttering that in my ear as my friend Michelle and I picked our way along the wire-fenced trail and dodged young cross-country runners getting in their training mileage. Saying that Walden Pond is a popular spot would, of course, be an understatement.

We walked as far as the site of Thoreau’s cabin and contributed a stone to the pile marking the spot (a tradition started by Bronson Alcott after Thoreau’s death) and then felt the need to escape the crowds attracted by the solitude of nature.

Not exactly what we had envisioned. But then Thoreau’s Walden experience (that lasted two years and two months beginning July 4, 1845) wasn’t exactly what we might envision either. When we read his account of his experiment, we have to consider the parts he left out. He didn’t live as a hermit and didn’t claim to—he does write about having visitors: “I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” But he conveniently fails to mention that he often walked into town—to take meals with friends and to have his mom do his laundry. So, in his mind living “deliberately” and “so sturdily and Spartan-like” meant having mom rinse out his long johns—but then I suppose the Spartans’ moms probably washed their duds too.

And Thoreau doesn’t mention his mother once in Walden.

He had hoped to have his cabin-by-the-pond experience several years earlier: In 1841 the Flint family refused to allow him to build on their land by Flint’s Pond in Lincoln. At that time he wrote in his journal: “My friends ask what I will do when I get there. Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?” Employment enough, yes, certainly. Especially if he didn’t need to make money to lease the land—thank goodness for Ralph Waldo Emerson, who did give him permission to build on his Walden Pond property four years later, or none of us would ever have read Walden.

It is rather remarkable that Emerson was open to the idea of Thoreau living in his woods—the year before, while camping out in with a friend, Thoreau accidentally started a fire that burned three hundred acres of Concord forest (and caused over $2,000 worth of damage, but then Thoreau wasn’t one to concern himself with money).

Emerson wrote of him:

“He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State … He had no talent for wealth, and knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance. ...”

Emerson paints his friend in a generous and Romantic light. Thoreau didn’t exactly live alone—well, he did famously in that little Walden cabin, but he bounced from one place to another, living at home with his parents for most of his life and occasionally with the Emerson family, serving as an odd combination of handyman and nanny.

Thoreau refused to pay that historic poll tax in an act of “Civil Disobedience,” but, as he says, “some one interfered and paid that tax.” No, no, Hank, don’t say thank you, just puff yourself up and declare, “I have paid no poll-tax for six years” and leave out the part that for each of those six years (and for every year for the rest of your life) your aunt “interfered” and paid it for you.

“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him …”

It seems to me that if taking that stand mattered so much, he might have refused to allow his relatives pay his tax and maybe even tried to convince them not to pay their own. But that’s just me.

Or maybe not. Emerson expressed a blunter opinion of his outdoorsy friend when he wrote in 1849: “Thoreau wants a little ambition in his mixture.”

I’m not saying that Thoreau wasn’t a wonderful writer and thinker—many of his ideas are powerful—but I’m sure he sorely tried the patience of his family and friends.

It’s understandable that Emerson would lose patience with the lot of his Transcendentalist buddies now and then. They all seemed to take advantage of his generosity—Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thoreau.

After leaving Walden Pond we visited Emerson’s house.  But first, a food interlude.

Lunch at the Walden Grille. (The restaurant is located in downtown Concord in what used to be the Central Fire Station. The fire station came along long after Thoreau’s accident, so there’s no historic tie—just an amusing coincidence.) Feeling “green,” we had salads—a huge Cobb salad and a creative Walden salad (that included candied walnuts, apples and cranberries tossed with greens and grilled chicken).

After lunch a magnetic force pulled us into the Concord Cheese Shop across the street. Major distraction. So many cheeses to ogle (not to mention all the other goodies in the place). And a friendly cheese monger tempted us with samples and entertained us with his own enthusiasm for the morsels. There’s a man who has found his calling. (We had to return after our museum visits to make some purchases.)

We walked to the Ralph Waldo Emerson House and, as instructed by a little sign at the front door, rang the bell to request a tour. There were four in our tour group: a husband and wife and Michelle and I. The guide was diligent in keeping us together and moving along. I would have liked a little time to look more closely at the details—the books on the shelves, the portraits of friends like Thomas Carlyle and John Muir, the toys in the nursery.

The house—unlike Orchard House and The Wayside, which I visited on an earlier trip—is in fine condition. Emerson lived here from 1835 until he died in 1882; his widow Lidian lived here another ten years and daughter Ellen until her death in 1909. The house is still owned by members of the Emerson family. Many of the furnishings are original to Emerson’s time, like the “Sunday chair” that Thoreau rigged up with a drawer under the seat where Emerson could keep his Sunday gloves—since he was often late getting to church because he couldn’t find them.

In 1872 fire significantly damaged the house (none of the family was hurt). When our guide mentioned how upset Emerson had been, Michelle said, “I know just how he felt.” Our companions on the tour were fascinated by her story of a fire in her home last year—she had to throw her dog out the window, then climb out after her (and I’m not sure the dog has forgiven her yet).

Emerson bought the house with money he received from the estate of his first wife, Ellen Tucker, who died of tuberculosis in 1831, just two years after their marriage. She was just one of many losses Emerson faced in his life: His father died just before Emerson’s eighth birthday, he had a brother and sister who died in childhood and two more, Edward and Charles, who died in young adulthood (both of tuberculosis). One of his own children, Waldo, died at age five.

He remarried in 1835, and he and Lidian moved to Concord. Charles, a lawyer, handled the purchase of the house for his brother Waldo. The two of them had a vision of gathering the family together to live in Concord in close community. Emerson was never to realize that dream with his brothers, which may have been why he gathered up his collection of Transcendentalist fellows, helping Alcott and Hawthorne find houses in the area and taking in Thoreau periodically as well as letting him build his cabin at Walden Pond. He was the responsible one of the group.

He had two surviving brothers. William, the oldest of the Emerson siblings to live to adulthood, was already settled in New York with a family of his own. And Bulkeley, who was developmentally challenged in some way (we have no way of knowing exactly what his condition was), boarded out to farms in the area to do day labor, although sometimes he had to be institutionalized. His two brothers saw to his care throughout his life.

Emerson wrote and lectured extensively on a broad range of topics and was recognized even in his day as one of the major figures in American thought. (Learn more about his life and works.) The actual furnishings of the study where he did much of his work are on display at the Concord Museum (across the street from the Emerson House). Also in the museum are the bed, desk and chair Thoreau had in his Walden cabin, among many other Thoreau artifacts

We visited on National Museum Day, so admission was free. The day is sponsored annually by the Smithsonian Museum as a way to encourage people to visit museums.

Not only was it Museum Day, it was also the day of the annual Fluff Festival, celebrated in Union Square, Somerville, where Archibald Query (great name!) invented the marshmallow marvel in 1917. The festival—a street fair with music, food (yes, Fluffernutters), a poetry contest, official t-shirts and assorted silliness—was worth the visit despite the traffic and seemingly endless search for a parking spot. The festival, like Fluff itself, is best enjoyed in small doses. Too much gets sticky.

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