- 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
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aunt, Miss Mary Emerson, was the youngest child of the Rev. William Emerson who lived in the house at the time of the battle of the 19th of April , and it gives me an impression of great age as I remember that I … once heard her tell how being a child in arms (she was, in fact, two years old) her mother held her up to the window that she might see the red coats.
She was a lady of very marked peculiarities and we all shivered as we heard an eyewitness tell of an encounter she held with Mrs. Thoreau, the mother of Henry Thoreau. Miss Emerson was past eighty and Mrs. Thoreau beyond seventy when the latter called upon the former wearing immensely long bonnet ribbons of a very brilliant yellow. During the entire visit Miss Emerson kept her little bright eyes tightly closed. As Mrs. Thoreau rose to leave Miss Emerson said, “Perhaps you have noticed, Mrs. Thoreau, that I have been sitting with my eyes shut! I have done so because I did not wish to see the ribbons you are wearing, so unsuitable for a child of God and a person of your years.” Gossip declared that Mr. Emerson once answered a member of his family who asked why he always wanted everybody else to go to church when he never went himself, “For the same reason that Aunt Mary always wants everybody else to be a Calvinist!”
But when I first remember the Old Manse, Mr. Hawthorne, not Mr. Emerson, was living in it. The latter had bought upon his second marriage with Lidian Jackson of Plymouth what was known as the old Coolidge estate at the other end of the town on the Lexington and Boston road. In this house he lived for almost half a century and in it he calmly and peacefully died in 1882. This long residence of Mr. Emerson in Concord would of itself have made the place famous, and his name and renown undoubtedly decided many who, if he had not been living there, would have selected Boston or Cambridge. Hawthorne’s reason for coming to the Old Manse was very much what Emerson’s had been. He was just married, had nothing to live on, and desired a cheap rent as well as congenial society for his wife, himself being not only indifferent but intolerant of society. Margaret Fuller, the Channings, George William Curtis, the Thoreaus, Hazewells, Hoars, and Alcotts were names I oftenest heard when a child. Another family exercised perhaps even more direct influence upon our own household as living in our quarter of the town we saw them oftener. This was the family of Mr. Minot Pratt, who had been among the most enthusiastic and persevering of the Brook Farm community, and who when forced to acquiesce in its abandonment, continued to practice through a long life the self-denial and ascetic simplicity there demanded.
Mr. Pratt’s daughter, Miss Caroline Pratt, who died young, was so far as I ever heard the first if not the only baby living at Brook Farm. Indeed it used to be whispered in Concord that Mrs. Pratt produced the actual breaking up of the community by declaring that whatever else they had in common they should not have the Pratt baby!
The whole family are intimately associated with literature, not only through this early connection with Brook Farm, but from the fact that the eldest son, Mr. John Pratt, married Miss Anna Alcott, the Margaret of Little Women , and was thus the father of Miss Louisa Alcott’s Little Men. Mr. Minot Pratt was as good, perhaps even a better botanist than Mr. Henry Thoreau, but, lacking the latter’s literary ability, had fewer opportunities to make evident his wide and accurate knowledge. He lived with his family upon one of the most beautiful and most valuable farms in Concord, but the household ways were almost painfully plain and the whimsical theories of Mr. Alcott, Mr. Channing, and Mr. Thoreau were sure sooner or later to be carried out at the Pratts. At the Emersons if we were invited to a meal, and it happened to be a time when meat, butter, eggs and milk were forbidden luxuries, we might be served with rusks boiled in water, but there was always a maid to wait upon us. At the Pratts we all sat at a great table in the kitchen with the hired men in their shirtsleeves and waited on ourselves or went without just as we pleased!
Mr. Pratt, whose appearance was noticeable even in Concord, as no matter what the season, he always wore a straw hat and seldom even an inside coat, was the delight of every child who knew him, and what child did not? “Mr. Pratt, Mr. Pratt, has that field mouse built his nest in your mowing field this year?” “Mr. Pratt, we have to find out before tomorrow afternoon how many goldenrods grow in Concord, please tell us right off.” Or “Mr. Pratt, did the white owl really say, ‘How der do’ to you?” are specimens of the questions hurled at him in every street....