- 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
We were immensely entertained by the odd people who came from all parts of the world to see him. Not only men with beards which hung below their waists, but men who chose to go without shoes and stockings and who if they condescended to wear hats at all, insisted on keeping them on in the house as well as in the street. We felt a curious kind of personal pride as we were told how Mr. Emerson’s unfailing courtesy and personal dignity managed one of these pseudoreformers. Mr. Emerson on seeing him about to seat himself still wearing his hat offered to relieve him of it, but was met by a flat refusal. Mr. Emerson then took his own hat and saying, “Well, then, if you prefer it, we will talk in the yard,” led the way out!
He visited only one or two houses and those infrequently. He regarded Miss Elizabeth Hoar as his sister, she having been on the eve of marriage with his brother Charles Chauncey Emerson, when his health suddenly failed and death snatched him away. He always called Miss Hoar “Elizabeth the Wise,” declaring that she knew everything, and what was of so much more importance to his ignorance that her generosity equalled her wisdom.
Miss Hoar lived with her father, Mr. Samuel Hoar, and sometimes when Mrs. Emerson went away, the children stayed with her. Probably to entertain them she invited their school friends and read aloud to us Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare . Portia for many years looked like Miss Elizabeth Hoar to the eyes of my mind and even now I associate queer little flat cakes and sewing for the Negroes in Liberia with The Merchant of Venice. Judge Rockwood Hoar, Miss Elizabeth Hoar’s brother, was Mr. Emerson’s closest friend and one of the very few persons who called him by his Christian name.
Besides these houses of the Hoars, Mr. Emerson visited one other, that of a very simple old lady of the Society of Friends. She was much honored by Mr. Emerson’s calling upon her, and said, “I cannot think what you find in me worthy of notice.” Mr. Emerson said, in relating the story, “If she had said ‘Yea,’ and all the world had thundered in her ear, ‘Nay,’ she would still have said, ‘Yea,’—that is why I like to go to see her.”
He sometimes came to the private school kept by Miss Jane Whiting, which his own children attended, and heard us read. We did not do much studying at this delightful school, but we were given many exercises in dictation and read several hours daily, principally Marmion, Lady of the Lake , and Lay of the Last Minstrel . One auspicious morning Mr. Emerson told us of the aged Wordsworth whom he had seen upon both his visits to England. He described his little home nestled under Rydal Mount and by the side of Rydal Water, how they walked together on the high ridge behind the house, and the poet pointed out the trees he had planted and the walk in which he had composed thousands of his verses. He hoped when we were older we should enjoy reading this aged poet as we then enjoyed Marmion and he was not sure but he knew some of his verses we might like, young though we were. Then throwing back his head in a manner I afterwards learned to associate with any occasions where he felt great pleasure, he began:
Anyone who has heard Mr. Emerson read poetry he liked will know how these lines fell upon our impressionable ears. I formed then the opinion which I have always since held that considered as an instrument Mr. Emerson’s voice was as nearly perfect as human limitations allow. In such reading it was not so much voice as rhythmical pulsations of ordered thought. I have no record of the occurrence and cannot be definite as to the number of verses he read, but after
he stopped. No sound excepting long breath-like sighs broke the silence until one of the children piped up, “Is that all, Mr. Emerson?”
And now that they are all gone into the world of light, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Louisa and Bronson Alcott, Pratts, Hoars, Ripleys, Hazewells, and Mr. Emerson himself, what can I say but hail and farewell! For while this light and trifling resume of a child’s recollections presents only the familiar domestic side of their natures, you must not forget that there is another point of view! You must not forget that whimsical, self-centered Henry Thoreau held the hand of old John Brown when a whole nation shrieked and howled and that dreaming half-awake Bronson Alcott walked through the blinding snows of many a winter night to set the shivering bondman safe on his northward way.