- 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
Once a year the Pratts gave a picnic to which all Concord high and low, rich and poor, old and young, wise and foolish, trooped in a long procession. Probably the only time I ever saw Margaret Fuller was at one of these gatherings. She sat under a great tree with a little girl in her arms. Her long hair was loose and hung about her like a garment. As at that time it was very unusual to see flowing hair, it made a deep impression upon my mind, and I told one of my schoolmates of the wonderful sight and of my great admiration of Miss Fuller’s manner of dressing her hair! My schoolmate confessed that she did not like it, that her mother thought it very untidy, which showed as Carlyle would say that a sense of the eternal verities had not died out even in Concord. Miss Fuller, however, at several different periods must have been a very noticeable figure in Concord society and I well remember hearing the village Doctor say he had just met Mr. Hawthorne who told him all the song-birds must be abroad that afternoon, for first he met Margaret Fuller and soon after Mr. Emerson, both in Sleepy Hollow! A little rustic seat used to indicate the spot where Mr. Hawthorne met these rare and delightful visitants, to those who knew the story. Some of the Concord ladies, however, did not appreciate Miss Fuller’s fine sentiments, among whom it is odd now to remember were two maiden aunts of Mr. Henry Thoreau. “All bosh, my dear!” exclaimed Miss Maria Thoreau to a disappointed matron whom domestic duties kept away from a much anticipated converstion,—“when a woman does not know herself what she wants to say, how can she expect anybody else to find out?”
A child has no chronology and many occurrences crowd my mind which may be synchronous and may be years apart. A glimpse of Hawthorne that I once enjoyed at his home in the Old Manse is, however, just as delightful as if capable of date and verification. I was sent to the Manse with a package of medicine for Mrs. Hawthorne and told to repeat exactly the minute directions I had received. I stood on tip-toe before the ancient door at the end of the long avenue of half-dead ash trees and just managed to reach the ponderous iron knocker. This knocker with the head of an Egyptian sphinx, I have since heard, is said to rise and fall three times when a death is to take place in the family, although at that time I knew nothi’ng half so interesting about it. Mr. Hawthorne himself opened the door and I did my errand and delivered my message. Suddenly he said, “Wouldn’t the Doctor’s little girl like to see the new baby?” Of course the Doctor’s little girl was eager to see anything which was new, and he led me up the aged stairs, then, asking me to wait a moment, disappeared through a partially opened door. Before long he reappeared with the tiniest morsel of humanity I had ever seen in his long, strong arms. He was singularly handsome, of great height, and corresponding breadth, and as he stood there with his raven hair and brilliant dark eyes, I was certain he looked exactly like Prince Charming who aroused the sleeping beauty in the enchanted forest.
I was too much accustomed to children to feel any particular enthusiasm over the baby and gladly obeyed when Mrs. Hawthorne from the inner room asked me to walk in and see her. Once in I forgot all about the baby and ceased to be conscious even of Prince Charming himself.
Concord gossips of that day called Mrs. Hawthorne “homely, plain,” but certainly her room was not. Being an artist she had done what, common enough now, was then very rare—painted her furniture herself. On the head of the bed she had copied Guide’s Aurora and at its foot what she called one of Raphael’s Hours, while on the wash-stand was Venus rising from the sea, and on the dressing table Correggio’s Cupid. It was my first acquaintance with art, and instead of walking home, I appeared to be floating on the clouds.
Mr. Hawthorne cared little for Concord and I fancy at that time Concord returned the sentiment with usury. Mr. Emerson told me not long before his death that he never knew Mr. Hawthorne, but felt always as if there was an impassable gulf between them. Once determined to bridge it, he invited him to accompany him upon a long walking tour. When he left him at his own gate after several days’ constant intercourse, he fancied he had succeeded. But the next time they met the gulf had opened wider than ever. They may have read each other’s writings, although personally I recall no such statement on the part of Mr. Emerson, who indeed read very few of the books written by his contemporaries. It appears incredible, but is I believe true that in spite of the familiar relations he sustained for years with the whole Alcott family, he never even attempted one of Miss Louisa Alcott’s popular stories. Mr. Emerson said after Mr. Hawthorne’s death that Mrs. Hawthorne asked him to look over the account of her husband’s publishers, having an impression that in some respects they had not dealt entirely fairly with her. He complied and, as I understood him, was convinced that the family had actually drawn more money, instead of less, than was rightfully theirs. He left me with the impression that he did not convince Mrs. Hawthorne, but on the contrary inspired her with a distrust of his own probity.