- 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
Hawthorne was the least known, least accessible of all the Concord notables. He passed whole days on the river in a rough boat he bought of Henry Thoreau and called the Pond Lily, went to the post office after dark through woods and fields instead of along the street and as if he dreaded salutation from the moon and stars, muffled himself in an old broadcloth cloak whose rusty black velvet collar completely covered the lower part of his face. Unlike Mr. Emerson he read everything. The librarian of the Concord Athenaeum said he changed his books every evening and after asking for this and for that, would say, “Never mind, just give me another volume of the Spectator .”
But Concord and Concord conditions must have made a deep impression upon his mind, for persons as well known as its minister and its doctor are immortalized upon his pages. Prom Brook Farm he drew many incidents as well as the setting of The Blithedale Romance , but the tragic though fitting ending of Zenobia was incident for incident a Concord occurrence. Not far from the “Old Manse” lived Miss Martha Hunt, the daughter of a farmer. The family, a little outside the village circle, and somewhat straitened in money matters, were of unquestioned respectability and innate refinement. This daughter, under twenty, became interested in Margaret Fuller, the Channings and Emersons, while they in turn lent her books and endeavored to brighten her somewhat monotonous life. But she became discouraged and one summer morning walked down to the Concord river and ended her misery in its sluggish bosom.
Hawthorne took the “Pond Lily” and, accompanied by Ellery Channing, assisted the other neighbors in looking for her body. After hours of search they found her just as Miles Coverdale, by which name Hawthorne was often called, and Hollingsworth, always supposed to be Ellery Channing, discovered Zenobia. I have been told, for this happened before my day, that Martha Hunt’s death cast a shadow upon the Concord philosophy which time alone dispelled. It was said, despairing of reconciling its facinating ideals with the sombre realities of life, she sought in suicide relief from struggle. In after years when a sister of Martha Hunt’s, only a baby at the time of her death, committed suicide at the same place and hour, and in almost exactly the same manner, it was acknowledged that the taint must have been in the blood and not in the Concord philosophy.
When the owners of the “Old Manse,” heirs of Mr. Emerson’s step-grandfather, Dr. Ezra Ripley, wished to occupy it themselves, Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne returned to Salem. But Mr. Hawthorne had lived there long enough to double its fame, for in the same upper chamber where Mr. Emerson had written “Nature” he wrote Mosses from an Old Manse . When he came back with his family to Concord, he bought of Mr. Alcott the house now known as “The Wayside,” half a mile below Mr. Emerson’s on the Boston road. Our family left Concord while the Hawthornes were away and I remember “The Wayside” only as the home of the Alcotts. I saw Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne at a summer fete on the Concord river after their return from Europe when praises of The Marble Faun were in everybody’s mouth. Many old acquaintances present that afternoon remarked the great change which had taken place in the personal appearance of both Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne. When they left America Mr. Hawthorne’s hair was black as night, while Mrs. Hawthorne’s was the tawny red which Titian loved. At the festivity in Concord both their heads were silver white!
Mr. Hawthorne had a great dread of living to be old. It is a Concord tale that he said to Miss Elizabeth Peabody, his sister-in-law, “A man ought never to live beyond sixty.” “But Nathaniel, how can a man help it? A man must live out his days.” For answer he looked steadily out of the window and after a long silence said under his breath, “A man’s days are in a man’s hands.” The answer was remembered when without warning he died [in 1864] at sixty.
Another Concord story is that, for many months before his death, whenever he tried a pen or made a mark idly with a pencil he wrote 1864, which he told some friend he had always written unconsciously whenever the thought of his own death passed through his mind.
Still another Concord tale is that he requested his family not to look upon his face after death, and Mrs. Hawthorne, whose will throughout their mutual life seems to have been entirely lost in his, was so afraid her yearning to see him once more would prevail that she dared not allow his body to be brought home, but desired that it might remain in the church until the funeral.
Mr. Henry Thoreau was good-naturedly laughed at in Concord when I was a child. Perhaps that is the reason, while doing full justice to his rare genius, that I find it difficult to judge him without prejudice even now. His retirement at Waiden was generally looked on as a whim, and where luxury was unknown, it was not considered of much account whether you lived on white beans or potatoes. It was commonly said, “Anybody could live on six cents a day when mother’s cupboard was close at hand and well stocked.”