American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide



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Concord: The Heart of Transcendentalism

The marble walk that leads up to [Emerson’s] door has been trodden by the feet of many pilgrims from all parts of the world, drawn thither by their love and reverence for him. In that famous study, his townspeople have had the privilege of seeing many of the great and good men and women of our time, and learning of their gracious host the finest lessons of true courtesy. I have often seen him turn from distinguished guests, to say a wise or kindly word to some humble worshipper sitting modestly in a corner, content merely to look and listen, and who went away to cherish that memorable moment long and gratefully.
Louisa May Alcott, from an article in The Youth’s Companion

While much of the exchange between the Transcendentalists occurred in Boston, without a doubt the heart of the movement was in the nearby small town of Concord. Located just twenty miles west of Boston, Concord was the birthplace for Henry David Thoreau and a long-time home for members of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s extended family. Having spent boyhood summers in the town, Emerson settled here as an adult. The Hawthornes and Alcotts also lived in the small town for some years. 

By the 1850s, Concord had become a pilgrimage destination, as people from all over the United States – and indeed the world – came to pay homage to the great sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson. This timeline of events provides an excellent overview of the Transcendentalist movement in Concord. To visualize the area, see this excellent collection of historical maps of Concord.

Right: Map of Concord, Library of Congress Geography and Maps Division.

Earlier in its history, Concord had been the site of the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Visitors to Concord should consider the factors that contributed to the small town’s emergence as a crucial place in American history and culture. Useful in getting oriented in Concord is the Minute Man National Historical Park.

Left: Concord River from the North Bridge (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, det 4a22974).

Without a doubt, the place to stop in Concord is the Concord Museum, built on part of the Emerson apple orchard. Here visitors can see Emerson’s study, brought in full from the Emerson House (across the street from the museum), as well as Thoreau’s desk, walking stick, and bedstead from his cabin at Walden Pond. 

Left: “Henry David Thoreau” (Richard Smith, center), with Shepherd College class, Concord Museum, Concord, Massachusetts (collection of Linda Tate).

The most famous home within Concord proper is the home Nathaniel Hawthorne dubbed “The Old Manse.” Inhabited by several generations of ministers in Emerson’s family, the Old Manse was both the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson and, later, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne.

It was here that Emerson wrote “Nature,” the 1836 essay that marked the start of the Transcendentalist movement. Here also, Hawthorne wrote a famed collection of prose pieces, Mosses from an Old Manse. The Hawthornes got to know Thoreau while they lived in this home. Later, Emerson moved to another house across from the Concord Museum, and the Hawthornes moved to the Wayside (next door to the Orchard House). Read Linda’s thoughts about the Old Manse.

Left, top: The Old Manse, Concord, Massachusetts (photo by Anna Hughes). Left, bottom: The Wayside (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, det 4a31668).

Located nearby is Orchard House, where the Bronson Alcott family lived for some time. Orchard House is open to the public, and visitors – including cyber visitors – can tour the rooms of Orchard House. The rooms still feature daughter May Alcott’s drawings. Because the family had little money for art supplies, the Alcotts allowed their gifted daughter to draw directly on the walls. The drawings are still preserved exactly as May first drew them. Particularly notable in this family were the father, Bronson Alcott, and his daughter, Louisa May Alcott, called by one source the “daughter of the Transcendentalists.”

Directly next to Orchard House is Bronson Alcott’s School of Philosophy, part of his effort to reform education. Read Cat’s thoughts on Bronson Alcott, and then be sure to read what Tiffany has to say about him. Read Linda’s reflections on Louisa May Alcott.

Left, top: Orchard House (photo by Cat Hall). Left, bottom: School of Philosophy (photo by Cat Hall).

After leaving the Old Manse, Emerson established his own home in Concord. It was here that many visitors came to talk with the great founder of Transcendentalism. Margaret Fuller, the leading woman in the Transcendentalist movement and the editor of the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, said this in an 1842 letter to Emerson: “I like to be in your library when you are out of it. It seems a sacred place. I came here to find a book, that I might feel more life and be worthy to sleep, but there is so much soul here I do not need a book. . . .”

Left: Emerson House, Concord, Massachusetts (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-11360 DLC).

No visit to Concord would be complete without a trip to Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Here, travelers can visit the graves of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Alcotts, among others. Read Lizzie’s poem, “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.”

Left: Emerson’s grave (photo by Anna Hughes).

“American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide” was produced by students in ENGL 446, American Transcendentalism, and ENGL 447, American Literature and the Prominence of Place: A Travel Practicum. These courses were team-taught in the Department of English at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in Spring 2002 by Dr. Patricia Dwyer and Dr. Linda Tate. For more information on the course and the web project, visit “About This Site.” © 2003 Linda Tate.