- 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
Mrs. Alcott, whose pleasant voice and tender smile won the heart of every child, bore an almost saintly reputation in Concord, and whatever wild pranks or reckless speeches might be reported of her ever conspicuous daughters, there never was the slightest doubt of their unusual cleverness and brilliant future. The ups and downs of the Alcott family in Concord would make as lively a novel as Miss Alcott herself could have written, and whenever I hear her incidents pronounced impossible and her conversations forced and unnatural, I long to say, “My dear sir, or Madam, you do not know; you simply did not live in Concord.” This, while really detracting from Miss Alcott’s literary art, undoubtedly adds to the human interest of her books. Sometimes the Alcotts would be so poor rumor would declare the family must be scattered among relatives, then somebody would leave Mrs. Alcott a little money and friends would breathe easier. The next tidings would be that she had been persuaded to let her husband have it to put into the Fruitlands or some other scheme and it was all gone!
A pathetic anecdote was frequently repeated that when the whole family was setting out for Fruitlands, which was situated in the town of Harvard, not far from Concord, a friend met them and noticing that they were on foot and heavily laden said, “I hear you have done away with beasts of burden.” “O, no,” returned Mrs. Alcott, “they have me.” Looking back on this period I think Mr. Alcott was largely responsible for a great number of the whimsical schemes and paradoxical theories which sometimes made Concord appear ridiculous. I recall vividly the amusement produced in one of his conversations by the following occurrence. The great drawing room of the biggest house in the town was crowded. Mr. Alcott divided man into the “Knower, Thinker and Doer.” Then he paused to allow any who either approved or disapproved of his not very original classification an opportunity to speak. Instantly a worthy sister who had strayed somewhat late in life into the transcendental fold eagerly asked if that was the same Noah who came out of the ark.
Mr. Emerson’s endorsement of Mr. Alcott, which puzzled many other sensible people besides Thomas Carlyle, undoubtedly procured him many hearers but at that time he was not regarded so highly in Concord as he was out of it, and I confess I was very much pleased to hear Mr. Emerson say in later years that he deplored the uncertainty of Mr. Alcott’s inspiration in public conversation, and that the man he knew and prized could not be found in any of his writings.
In his venerable age, when he was supported and surrounded with luxury by his devoted and successful daughter, he was a picturesque and charming figure, but if he had not so early and so persistently attached himself to Mr. Emerson I am convinced he would have been regarded as a merely interesting person of marked intellectual endowments, but in whom discrimination was so entirely lacking that he never seemed able to comprehend how unpoetical many of his poems and how unphilosophical much of his philosophy.
Miss May Alcott, the youngest of the family and the Amy of Little Women , was Miss Louisa Alcott’s pet and darling for whom nothing was too good and whose beauty deserved all praise. Some such fascination as Mr. Alcott exercised over Mr. Emerson, May must have exercised over Louisa. May was tall, possessed abundant light hair, and a turned up nose, and was an artist or at least possessed ambition to be one. But the grace and vivacity of the charming Amy were largely in the eyes of her partial sister and I think many friends who loved them both often felt a heart-ache when Miss Alcott pinched that May might spend, going year after year in the most inexpensive attire that May might ruffle it with the best.
The last time I had any conversation with Miss Alcott was on the day of Mr. Emerson’s burial, April 30,1882. She had arranged a harp of yellow jonquils which against a background of green hemlock she fastened to the front of the pulpit in the church where Mr. Emerson rested. She spoke with feeling of Mr. Emerson’s kindness to her and to her family and added that she brought the jonquils because they were the ancient Greek emblem not only of death, but of immortality. I had never associated them in that manner and questioned their right to so much of sentiment and antiquity, but she was as satisfied in her belief as if she had been able to adduce the reason which to my mind was totally lacking. Every newspaper reporter described the harp of yellow jonquils given by Miss Alcott and went out of his way to mention they were the flowers of death and immortality.
Often now when I visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where lie so many of the Alcotts, I turn a little aside to look at Louisa’s grave, and in spite of my incredulity in regard to the jonquils, it gives me pleasure to see as I sometimes do a great bunch of them at her head.