One hundred and thirty years before the hippies of Haight Street started dropping acid and believing in peace and love, a major awakening took place in American society on the opposite coast, an intellectual and philosophical movement which would shape American culture for generations to come. This awakening centered around a small group of friends in the small town of Concord, MA, very close to where the first battle of the American Revolution took place.
I had been to Concord and Walden Pond before, but for some reason, I had never visited the Emerson house. I was driving into town when it caught my eye, and I pulled a sudden U turn. I was very influenced by the Transcendentalists during my college days, particularly Emerson and Thoreau, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to tour the house of the man who made it all happen.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a much more influential person than I ever realized. His fame, even during his lifetime, was worldwide. And in his hometown he was a central pillar of the Transcendentalists. The Transcendental Club met in Emerson’s home, and he sponsored many of his peers in many ways, including financially.
Many are familiar with the story Henry David Thoreau, who went to live in the woods for two years, in an attempt to drop out of society, recounting his experiences in the now famous book Walden. He was actually living on Emerson’s woodlot, two miles from his mentor and friend’s house. After he moved out of his little cabin on Walden Pond, Thoreau moved in with Emerson, living there off and on for many years.
Amos Bronson Alcott was a teacher and philosopher, a friend of Emerson’s. His style of teaching was remarkable, well ahead of his time. He made the classroom atmosphere more conversational, more respectful of the students’ perspective, rather than being focused on correctness and punishments for error. He understood that people learn better when they are engaged and interested. He was an abolitionist and an advocate of women’s rights and plant based diets. He was also poor. I was told that Emerson actually bought the Alcott's home for them, so much did he esteem the Bronson and want him as a neighbor. This home later became the setting for the famous book, Little Women, written by Alcott’s daughter, Louisa May.
I went to visit the Alcott home as well, though I did not take the tour there. Next time, I will! My interest in the Transcendentals has suddenly been piqued. I did take the tour of Emerson’s house, which is still owned by his family. Some of his grandchildren are still alive, and they have kept the house almost exactly like it was when Ralph Waldo (he preferred to go by Waldo) lived there. After he passed his eldest daughter Ellen lived there, keeping things much the same. She never married, though she did invite two school teachers to live there as well, and they lived out there lives there, even after Ellen passed. Once they were gone (sometime in the early 20th Century) the house was not lived in again. It became a museum organically and slowly over years. It was so neat to be in Emerson’s house, seeing his robes, his hats, his canes, his books and his paintings. He had photograph hanging on the wall of Mt. Shasta, from the late nineteenth century. It had been given to him when he took a trip out to the west coast.
Emerson did not have a desk. He preferred to read and write in a comfortable chair, on his lap. He took walks every day, with a usual route being out to Walden and back, a four mile journey. He also traveled a lot, going to give lectures around the world. When he was gone, Thoreau often stayed and helped look after the house, playing with Emerson’s kids, bringing firewood, and building fires. When the tour took us through the nursery, we were shown a beautiful doll house full of tiny furniture, which Thoreau made for the kids. Emerson had four kids, though the first died fairly young. Thoreau was present in the lives of the other three, Ellen, Edith, and Edward.
Thinking about the lives of these people, living in pre-Civil War New England, I can’t help but feel a connection between them and my own life. Thoreau has always been one of my biggest influences, and his relationship with Emerson reminds me of my friendship with Jerry. In fact, Jerry’s place, Gateway Gardens, has a lot in common with Emerson’s house, and he with Emerson. The table at Gateway was like a symposium for ideas and forward thinking, and a meeting of many great minds occurred there over the years. Jerry, Bill, Andre, Richard, and Cass, all with their unique outlooks and diverse backgrounds. We also had some recurring visitors like Phil Hawes and SunRay Kelley. The conversations we had at Gateway were epic, and I soaked them all in, trying absorb as much as I could.
I could feel the imprint of such intense conversational energy there at Emerson’s house. The late nights, the debates, the revelations… it was as though the laughter and admiration were yet echoing through the room, and I wanted nothing more than to just be there with them for one of their meetings.
I missed out on those meetings, but I am fortunate to have access to their minds through their writing, through which I am able to know these people who feel so much like kin, centuries withstanding. Louisa Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, and Waldo Emerson left us their thoughts and ideas in their books, and I’m so thankful they did! It is for this reason that I write. I have so much enjoyed the insight into the minds of others through their writing that it only seems fitting that I offer my own reflections as they did. When I was in college, I was greatly moved by something Emerson wrote.
“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.”
I was already writing fiction at that point, and thinking about it like this encouraged me to want to continue to write. I never thought much about who would read it. I knew somebody would. There were others like me out there, who just want to know the story, who want to connect with others over space and time. Writing is the one way inter-dimensional doorway.
I was perusing the books at my grandparents’ house once, and my mom told me that the bookshelf I was looking at was actually a collection of my great grandparents’ books. My grandpa’s parents were both teachers, his father being a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, where my grandpa and uncle were also teaching, and his mother a high school teacher. I had a great time looking through those books. When I saw a collection of Emerson’s essays, I picked up and looked through it. It had belonged to my great grandmother Kathryn. I discovered that she too had underlined the same passage in her copy of Emerson’s works.
I very much enjoyed the tour of the Emerson home. I learned so many little details about the Emerson’s life, and I am glad to have a broader sense of his family, all of whom were very interesting. They were a family of erudition, generosity, compassion, and social consciousness, and their legacy lives on even now, beyond the fame of their father.
America has gone through a lot since Emerson's time. Our circumstances here are very different now, and yet I feel we could really benefit from the perspective of Waldo Emerson, whose wonder and appreciation for nature and whose insistence on freedom of the individual is more pertinent now than ever.
Many thanks to the Emerson family for keeping the treasure of Waldo's creative space intact for all these years, and for opening up the house to visitors. This is a place well worth visiting, and if I get the opportunity, I will go back. So much was discussed that I could not absorb, and next time I'll take better notes.
It was wonderful to further get to know the man I've always thought so highly of, and feel encouraged to continue with the work I have set out to do. We can change our world. We must. The time has come, and we are here to be the actors in this great new production. So let's dig in!