- 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
Doubtless this gossip did him injustice and I have no longer any doubt of his sincerity. But he was not agreeable. Henry would rather say, “No,” than “Yes,” said Mr. Emerson, and there was more than a little truth in the blunt remark of a rough farmer, “If he would rather visit with woodchucks than with me and my wife, I haint nothing to say except that it is a little hard on the woodchucks.”
We heard to satiety how he persisted in writing and printing books for which there was then no sale and refused to make lead pencils which he did better than anybody else, and of which there never seemed to be half enough to supply our necessities. The whole town rang with the story of his refusal to pay his taxes and how Mr. Sam Staples, the sheriff, begged to pay them for him and save his going to jail! But go to jail he would; once there he staid all night, rooming I believe with a burglar. The next morning Mr. Emerson hurried up bright and early, paid the taxes, and threw open his prison doors! Mr. Emerson seemed much impressed when Mr. Thoreau, in answer to his question, “Henry, why are you here?” replied “Waldo, why are you not here?” but popular sympathy was with the irate sheriff who declared in season and out of season that “he’d a let him stay until he got enough of it!”
All the books relate the story of the summerhouse Mr. Alcott and Mr. Thoreau built for the Emerson children on their father’s lawn. The Concord version used to be that in one of the constantly recurring periods when the Alcotts had nothing to live upon, Mr. Emerson for the sake of giving the head of the family a little business, proposed a rustic arbor. Mr. Alcott believing that it fettered his genius to have a plan, that he must work according to the light vouchsafed, began laying up twig after twig and bough after bough in a puttering uncertain way which exasperated Mr. Thoreau (then living with Mr. Emerson) beyond endurance.
When Mr. Alcott went home to dinner, Mr. Thoreau would pull down what he had erected and put up as much as he could by line and rule. Then Mr. Alcott pulled Mr. Thoreau’s work down and so it went on, until Mr. Emerson, always a peace-maker, proposed each should build a summerhouse in his own manner. How much was accomplished I do not know but the story ends as such a story should. One morning both the summerhouses had disappeared, and the hired man being questioned said the women folks had ordered him to bring in all that rubbish and head the brick oven with it!
Mr. Thoreau’s services as a land surveyor were in constant demand, and whenever we met him as we roamed the woods and fields, he was very cordial and never failed to direct us to the ripest blueberries and to the trees which bore the best chestnuts. His familiarity with animals was an ever present wonder to us. He pulled the woodchuck out of his hole by the tail, the hunted fox came to him for protection, and we once saw two wild striped squirrels run into his open waistcoat, and he had only to put his hand in the water to bring out the much coveted trout.
But no entreaties ever induced him to show us where his rare floral friends made their homes. He had no secrets, however, from Mr. Minot Pratt, and only a couple years before his death I had an amusing interview with him. Mr. Pratt had promised to take me to the only place in Concord where the climbing fern could be found. I had given my word of honor that I would not tell, and in due season we were on the ground. In the midst of our enjoyment we heard a snapping of twigs, a brisk step, in the bordering thicket, and in a second Mr. Thoreau’s spare figure and amazed face confronted us. Mr. Pratt answered for my trustworthiness, and so won over Mr. Thoreau by representing what a deed of charity it was to enlighten my ignorance that he climbed with us into our clumsy vehicle and by circuitous ways took us to the haunt of a much rarer plant which he said nobody else in Concord had ever found. I was sincerely grateful and not backward in telling him so. But noticing an odd twinkle in Mr. Pratt’s eye, I asked him later what it meant. He told me he had known of the plant years before Mr. Thoreau found it, and that the spot was not half a mile from where Mr. Thoreau discovered us. He had doubled and redoubled upon his track to puzzle and prevent my ever finding the place again.
Of Miss Louisa Alcott I had no knowledge as a child excepting as I remember her and Ellen Emerson bringing to school in manuscript a book of fairy stories Miss Alcott had written for her. I knew slightly the sister whom all the world afterwards knew and loved as “Beth” in Little Women , but Miss May Alcott, the Amy of the same story, was a frequent companion.