- Historic Sites
Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Thoreau, Miss Alcott, Mr. Emerson, And Me
A childhood reminiscence of Concord, that special Massachusetts town where the Transcendentalists chose to live their rarefied lives
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
The manuscript entitled “Concord, Massachusetts, Its Men and Its Women, “from which the following article has been drawn, found its way to the archives of the Free Public Library in Concord, Massachusetts, some years ago, where its existence was called to my attention by Mrs. Marcia Moss, the curator of collections. No author’s name was attached—just the postscript “Andover, Massachusetts, November 10, ’91“—but it was obvious from its contents that it had been written by a woman who had been a child in Concord during the 1840’s.
The only additional clue was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s identification of the writer as “Doctor’s little girl “However, Mrs. Hawthorne’s doctor at the time her daughter Una was born was Josiah Bartlett, whose daughters were the wrong age to have written this manuscript. Who then did write it? The story of how the author was identified is too long and complicated to tell here, but she eventually proved to be Annie Sawyer Downs, whose father, Benjamin Sawyer, was a homeopathic physician in Concord whom Mrs. Hawthorne occasionally consulted.
Annie Sawyer Downs was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, about 1836 and moved to Concord with her family in the early 18Ws, where she lived for about ten years. In 1852 the Sawyers moved to Haverhitt, Massachusetts, and Annie was educated at the nearby Bradford Female Academy (now Bradford College). She later married S. M. Downs, a music instructor at Abbott Academy, and settled down in Andover. She had a lifelong interest in botany, wrote “flower poems” for religious journals, and also published historical sketches, children’s stories, and a verse history of Andover. She died on December 9, 1901, in Andover, survived only by her husband.
The manuscript is a rough draft, for it contains many repetitions, revisions, and corrections (which here have been edited out, along with some general history of the town), but it apparently served as the basis for a lecture she gave at the dedication of the public library in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in February of 1892.
Most of the names in these sketches are well known or amply identified by Mrs. Downs, but a few need a word or two of explanation. Samuel Hoar was Concord’s leading citizen, and his son Rockwood later became attorney general in President U. S. Grant’s cabinet The “Mr. Channing” several times mentioned is not the famous Unitarian divine, but his nephew and namesake William Ellery Channing, a minor poet who later became Thoreau‘s biographer. Fruitlands was an ill-fated Utopian experiment conducted briefly in Harvard, Massachusetts, by Bronson Alcott and a few of his friends.
Although Mrs. Downs’s recollections are in general accurate, it should be remembered she was writing half a century after most of the events she recalled, and thus there are occasional discrepancies between what she remembered and what actually happened. For example, although Concord lore is filled with tales of the ill-fated summerhouse Akott and Thoreau built for Emerson, Mrs. Downs’s delightful version is apocryphal, for the summerhouse stood in Emerson’s yard for a number of years after its construction—though Emerson’s mother’s calling it “the Ruin” the day it was completed lends credence to at least the atmosphere of Mrs. Downs’s tale.
And as Thoreau himself once said, it matters little whether such tales are true or not, for at least they give the reputation.—W.H.
It is as true of a state as of a college, of a town as of an individual, that the end depends upon the beginning. And not the end only, but each successive step of intermediate history.
Therefore to those acquainted with the circumstances, it does not appear surprising that so many remarkable persons were attracted to Concord, Massachusetts, between 1830 and 1880. The name of the town is itself significant of the character and aim of its founders. What appears to have been the most important factor in the fashioning of Concord character was the presence in the settlement from a very early period of an unusual number of books. The fact that there were so many books is probably due to the liberal education and easy circumstances of the founders, and the wide and constant use of the books themselves, to the sheltered situation of the town, and that it never offered any inducements to trade or manufacturers. Mr. Hawthorne used to say Concord character was like the Concord river,—so slow that even Henry Thoreau never was quite certain it had any current!
However that may be, it is undoubtedly true that there never has been in Concord any sympathy with the hurry, distraction, and never-ending whirl characterizing adjacent towns and cities. On the contrary, circumstances have always favored plain living, honest speech, and a singular quality of condition which may have existed in Utopia, but I know not where else.
And what more could be desired to render a beautiful village fit residence for poets, orators, and genius generally than a library … proximity to Boston and Harvard College, an appreciative constituency, a history of two hundred years, and numerous woods, fields, and thickets wherein to roam at will? Only one thing more, that this paradise should be inexpensive, even cheap, which was exactly what it was when in 1835 Ralph Waldo Emerson made his home in the “Old Manse,” which has been for more than a hundred years the harbor where the whole Emerson family have put in when they needed repairs in mind, body, or estate.