Concord, as seen through the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson, Alcott, and Hawthorne
Buss, Janet Lothian
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Starting with the admission that Thoreau was the only one of the Concord group to be born there, we are faced with the big question, "What brought the others?" Surely "Emerson" is not the entire answer. For, indeed, what brought Emerson? What was there about Concord that made her the ideal town to harbor the Transcendental group? After a thorough consideration of the facts, we can conclude that Emerson, Alcott, and Hawthorne joined Thoreau in his love for the town for the following reasons: (1) its lack of enterprise or distinction which kept the town relatively untouched although neighboring communities were being industrialized; (2) its opportunities for solitude or selusion; (3) the advantages of an uncluttered or simple life; (4) its peace; (5) its beauty; (6) its good society; (7) its easy proximity to Boston; (8) the low vost of living; (9) its unchangeableness and (10) its sense of stability, in contrast to the frontier. The New England Transcendental group, leaning on the German and Far Eastern philosophies for the backbone of its thinking, found kindred spirits across the water in Carlyle, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. And although Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau heartily embraced Transcendental thought, Hawthorne was a man apart. Hawthorne (1804-1864) had much of the Puritan strain in him since he was concerned with human sin and its earthly expiation. Although he came to Concord in 1842 with his bride, he remained at the Old Manse just three years before he entered service at the customs house in Salem. He continuously alternated the life of a writer and the life of a political apointee. And when he returned from Europe to Concord to spend the last four years of this life at Wayside, his creative genius was worn thin and his sensitive nature recoiled from any social contact with his neighbors. Emerson (1803-1882) had the ties of family to bring him to Concord; his ancestors had been the town's ministers for generations. And when he bought what we now know as the Emerson House in 1835, it was to be home for his remaining years. He found the quiet and repose of the little village, her innocent river, her woodland walks, all necessary to the new life he had chosen, that of the poet-philosopher. Alcott (1799-1888) was drawn to Concord by Emerson's powerful influence but stayed to love it on its own account. He will be remembered mainly for his efforts in spreading the "new" thought by his famous Conversations, rather than by any actual writings he has left for posterity. He was considered by Emerson and his contemporaries as a great man, and we must keep this in mind when we pass judgement on his most obvious practical failures in life. Thoreau (1817-1862) was Concord's most radical thinker, and he acted accordingly. He looked askance at the growing materialism of his age and immediately cut down his own needs in order to live as simply and as genuinely as possible. He went the farthest of the group in the actual intimate contact with nature, and is consequently considered more the poet-naturalist than the philosopher. His Walden experiment has immortalized the little Concord pond of that name, and has given title to a work now somethings of an international classic. The group as a while enjoyed very little free social intercourse with the rest of the Concord townspeople. The town respected intellect, but looked upon the outcropping of philosophers as a freakish phenomenon, the subject of many a homely joke along the Mill Dam. Concord of one hundred years ago as seen through the works of these four authors, was a provincial community still living close to the land. Foreign help was a relatively new innovation but in most respects the town was untouched by the industrial changes apparent elsewhere. Of Concord's famous landmarks, Hawthorne gives a delightful picture of the Old Manse where he spent the happiest three years of his life, and invests it with all the trappings of the Gothic romance, complete with ghosts. Nearby lay the battleground, described by both Thoreau and Hawthorne, and the abutments of the rude bridge of Emerson's "Concord Hymn". Hawthorne was more interested in the graves of the fallen British, however, and was to weave a local legend concerning the fallen foe into the novel of his last years at Wayside, Septimius Felton. In that novel, Septimius paced up and down Revolutionary Ridge, actually the same wooded hill that rose behind Orchard House and Wayside. In Concord Days, Alcott describes the wide panorama he sees from his rustic bench under the shadow of this same ridge. But the great marvel of the age, the Fitchburg Railroad, linked Concord and Boston by 1844, and induced comment from all four writers. Of Concord's natural surroundings, volumes of praise have been written. True, the climate was variable, and cruel in its extremes. But the muddy, sluggish little Concord River has had more tender descriptions than any other river in history. There were too, the level unpretentious meadows and farmlands conducive to reflection and study. And one must nor overlook also the benefits of the garden, both practical and aesthetic. The woods were acknowledged as a high source of inspiration, and walks to the clear lucid waters of Walden Pond were frequent and stimulating. And of the inhabitants, our authors tell us, there were the townspeople, set apart from the farmers by occupation, the simple stalwart farmers themselves, the literary pilgrims with the lunatic fringe that followed as a necessary evil, and on the river the half-savage class of Indians, hunters and trappers, and finally the Irish brought in originally to work the railroad and not yet assimilated into the texture of town society. What then was the relative value of all this descriptive material these four authors have left concerning the little town of Concord? We can conclude that Hawthorne, with the exception of some of his best short stories written at the Manse, did not write his best work in or about Concord, and never really made union with Concord earth. Emerson on the other hand was never an author until he came to the town and considered that the town and surroundings provided him with all his ideas in the rough. But except in his poetry Emerson used the concord sene as the point of departure for the ideal, and used specific homely references only as illustrations of universal truth. Alcott cannot be adequately judged except as a teacher, reformer and philosopher, so it remained for Thoreau to immortalize the little town in his special treatment of all its most minute details. This he did and admirably in his short life, feeling, and rightly, that man must seek for beauty close to home or fail miserably in the search.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University, 1950