- 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
The manuscript entitled “Concord, Massachusetts, Its Men and Its Women, “from which the following article has been drawn, found its way to the archives of the Free Public Library in Concord, Massachusetts, some years ago, where its existence was called to my attention by Mrs. Marcia Moss, the curator of collections. No author’s name was attached—just the postscript “Andover, Massachusetts, November 10, ’91“—but it was obvious from its contents that it had been written by a woman who had been a child in Concord during the 1840’s.
The only additional clue was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s identification of the writer as “Doctor’s little girl “However, Mrs. Hawthorne’s doctor at the time her daughter Una was born was Josiah Bartlett, whose daughters were the wrong age to have written this manuscript. Who then did write it? The story of how the author was identified is too long and complicated to tell here, but she eventually proved to be Annie Sawyer Downs, whose father, Benjamin Sawyer, was a homeopathic physician in Concord whom Mrs. Hawthorne occasionally consulted.
Annie Sawyer Downs was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, about 1836 and moved to Concord with her family in the early 18Ws, where she lived for about ten years. In 1852 the Sawyers moved to Haverhitt, Massachusetts, and Annie was educated at the nearby Bradford Female Academy (now Bradford College). She later married S. M. Downs, a music instructor at Abbott Academy, and settled down in Andover. She had a lifelong interest in botany, wrote “flower poems” for religious journals, and also published historical sketches, children’s stories, and a verse history of Andover. She died on December 9, 1901, in Andover, survived only by her husband.
The manuscript is a rough draft, for it contains many repetitions, revisions, and corrections (which here have been edited out, along with some general history of the town), but it apparently served as the basis for a lecture she gave at the dedication of the public library in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in February of 1892.
Most of the names in these sketches are well known or amply identified by Mrs. Downs, but a few need a word or two of explanation. Samuel Hoar was Concord’s leading citizen, and his son Rockwood later became attorney general in President U. S. Grant’s cabinet The “Mr. Channing” several times mentioned is not the famous Unitarian divine, but his nephew and namesake William Ellery Channing, a minor poet who later became Thoreau‘s biographer. Fruitlands was an ill-fated Utopian experiment conducted briefly in Harvard, Massachusetts, by Bronson Alcott and a few of his friends.
Although Mrs. Downs’s recollections are in general accurate, it should be remembered she was writing half a century after most of the events she recalled, and thus there are occasional discrepancies between what she remembered and what actually happened. For example, although Concord lore is filled with tales of the ill-fated summerhouse Akott and Thoreau built for Emerson, Mrs. Downs’s delightful version is apocryphal, for the summerhouse stood in Emerson’s yard for a number of years after its construction—though Emerson’s mother’s calling it “the Ruin” the day it was completed lends credence to at least the atmosphere of Mrs. Downs’s tale.
And as Thoreau himself once said, it matters little whether such tales are true or not, for at least they give the reputation.—W.H.
It is as true of a state as of a college, of a town as of an individual, that the end depends upon the beginning. And not the end only, but each successive step of intermediate history.
Therefore to those acquainted with the circumstances, it does not appear surprising that so many remarkable persons were attracted to Concord, Massachusetts, between 1830 and 1880. The name of the town is itself significant of the character and aim of its founders. What appears to have been the most important factor in the fashioning of Concord character was the presence in the settlement from a very early period of an unusual number of books. The fact that there were so many books is probably due to the liberal education and easy circumstances of the founders, and the wide and constant use of the books themselves, to the sheltered situation of the town, and that it never offered any inducements to trade or manufacturers. Mr. Hawthorne used to say Concord character was like the Concord river,—so slow that even Henry Thoreau never was quite certain it had any current!
However that may be, it is undoubtedly true that there never has been in Concord any sympathy with the hurry, distraction, and never-ending whirl characterizing adjacent towns and cities. On the contrary, circumstances have always favored plain living, honest speech, and a singular quality of condition which may have existed in Utopia, but I know not where else.
And what more could be desired to render a beautiful village fit residence for poets, orators, and genius generally than a library … proximity to Boston and Harvard College, an appreciative constituency, a history of two hundred years, and numerous woods, fields, and thickets wherein to roam at will? Only one thing more, that this paradise should be inexpensive, even cheap, which was exactly what it was when in 1835 Ralph Waldo Emerson made his home in the “Old Manse,” which has been for more than a hundred years the harbor where the whole Emerson family have put in when they needed repairs in mind, body, or estate.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aunt, Miss Mary Emerson, was the youngest child of the Rev. William Emerson who lived in the house at the time of the battle of the 19th of April , and it gives me an impression of great age as I remember that I … once heard her tell how being a child in arms (she was, in fact, two years old) her mother held her up to the window that she might see the red coats.
She was a lady of very marked peculiarities and we all shivered as we heard an eyewitness tell of an encounter she held with Mrs. Thoreau, the mother of Henry Thoreau. Miss Emerson was past eighty and Mrs. Thoreau beyond seventy when the latter called upon the former wearing immensely long bonnet ribbons of a very brilliant yellow. During the entire visit Miss Emerson kept her little bright eyes tightly closed. As Mrs. Thoreau rose to leave Miss Emerson said, “Perhaps you have noticed, Mrs. Thoreau, that I have been sitting with my eyes shut! I have done so because I did not wish to see the ribbons you are wearing, so unsuitable for a child of God and a person of your years.” Gossip declared that Mr. Emerson once answered a member of his family who asked why he always wanted everybody else to go to church when he never went himself, “For the same reason that Aunt Mary always wants everybody else to be a Calvinist!”
But when I first remember the Old Manse, Mr. Hawthorne, not Mr. Emerson, was living in it. The latter had bought upon his second marriage with Lidian Jackson of Plymouth what was known as the old Coolidge estate at the other end of the town on the Lexington and Boston road. In this house he lived for almost half a century and in it he calmly and peacefully died in 1882. This long residence of Mr. Emerson in Concord would of itself have made the place famous, and his name and renown undoubtedly decided many who, if he had not been living there, would have selected Boston or Cambridge. Hawthorne’s reason for coming to the Old Manse was very much what Emerson’s had been. He was just married, had nothing to live on, and desired a cheap rent as well as congenial society for his wife, himself being not only indifferent but intolerant of society. Margaret Fuller, the Channings, George William Curtis, the Thoreaus, Hazewells, Hoars, and Alcotts were names I oftenest heard when a child. Another family exercised perhaps even more direct influence upon our own household as living in our quarter of the town we saw them oftener. This was the family of Mr. Minot Pratt, who had been among the most enthusiastic and persevering of the Brook Farm community, and who when forced to acquiesce in its abandonment, continued to practice through a long life the self-denial and ascetic simplicity there demanded.
Mr. Pratt’s daughter, Miss Caroline Pratt, who died young, was so far as I ever heard the first if not the only baby living at Brook Farm. Indeed it used to be whispered in Concord that Mrs. Pratt produced the actual breaking up of the community by declaring that whatever else they had in common they should not have the Pratt baby!
The whole family are intimately associated with literature, not only through this early connection with Brook Farm, but from the fact that the eldest son, Mr. John Pratt, married Miss Anna Alcott, the Margaret of Little Women , and was thus the father of Miss Louisa Alcott’s Little Men. Mr. Minot Pratt was as good, perhaps even a better botanist than Mr. Henry Thoreau, but, lacking the latter’s literary ability, had fewer opportunities to make evident his wide and accurate knowledge. He lived with his family upon one of the most beautiful and most valuable farms in Concord, but the household ways were almost painfully plain and the whimsical theories of Mr. Alcott, Mr. Channing, and Mr. Thoreau were sure sooner or later to be carried out at the Pratts. At the Emersons if we were invited to a meal, and it happened to be a time when meat, butter, eggs and milk were forbidden luxuries, we might be served with rusks boiled in water, but there was always a maid to wait upon us. At the Pratts we all sat at a great table in the kitchen with the hired men in their shirtsleeves and waited on ourselves or went without just as we pleased!
Mr. Pratt, whose appearance was noticeable even in Concord, as no matter what the season, he always wore a straw hat and seldom even an inside coat, was the delight of every child who knew him, and what child did not? “Mr. Pratt, Mr. Pratt, has that field mouse built his nest in your mowing field this year?” “Mr. Pratt, we have to find out before tomorrow afternoon how many goldenrods grow in Concord, please tell us right off.” Or “Mr. Pratt, did the white owl really say, ‘How der do’ to you?” are specimens of the questions hurled at him in every street....
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Not far from the last home of the Alcotts in Concord lived Hon. Charles Creighton Hazewell and his family. If Hawthorne by reason of his genius preserved his individuality of thought and expression untouched by Mr. Emerson, the Hazewells on account of strong natural bias in a totally different direction and large intellectual acquirements along their special lines never fell into Concord ways or reflected Concord thought. Mr. Hazewell, who will be remembered as for many years the Editor of the Boston Traveller , was a man of very remarkable gifts, and although always absorbed in literary work and seldom at home during the day, a very important factor in such society as then prevailed in Concord.
I have had many genuine likings in my time, but I do not think I ever approved any household as I did that of the Hazewells. I never saw before nor since any other house where the food was not more or less a burden and where the washing and ironing did not frequently appear to be the paramount objects of human existence. But no matter what the time of week or day, Mrs. Hazewell was in the library, rocking her baby to be sure, but ready to talk to you about Mary Queen of Scots as if she had been one of her women in waiting and to make you feel as if she had danced a minuet with Francis I only the evening before. As for Mr. Hazewell, all Concord stood aghast at his wonderful memory! Hon. Henry Wilson once asked him during the Civil War in regard to the date of an historical occurrence which he thought took place upon the same day of the week and month as one of our most important victories. Mr. Hazewell showed him his error, but went on to tell of so many decisive events which did occur on the day in question that Mr. Wilson expressed surprise. Mr. Hazewell explained that not only were historical events thus present with him, but he thought he could remember definitely every day of his own life since he was conscious of remembering anything. In telling the story Mr. Wilson said he replied, “Why, Mr. Hazewell, it must be like the judgment day!” and that he could not put out of his mind Mr. Hazewell’s expression as he answered, “My dear sir, it is the judgment day!” Mr. Hazewell had the odd habit of hiding bank notes between the covers of his books and it added a keen pleasure to their use that we were always hoping to find a five, ten, or as I once did, a twenty-dollar bill! Many methods of research and acquisition now in vogue, but then so novel as to be startling, Mr. Hazewell practiced habitually, especially those relating to the mastery of foreign literatures. Entirely self-educated and from early manhood supporting by the work of his pen not only his own family, but several dependent relatives, he read easily Greek, Latin, and most of the modern languages, and late in life mastered Russian because he could not satisfy himself of the actual state of public feeling through translations! Long before the natural manner of acquiring language was discussed, Mr. Hazewell would say, you cannot read St. Simon because you do not understand French? Take the Memoirs in one hand and the dictionary in the other and do the best you can. The local newspaper said, “Poetry and philosophy have everything their own way at the Emerson end of the town, but history, common sense, and newspapers rule in Hazewell Street.”
Hawthorne, Channing, Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Minot Pratt, Hazewell, and Thoreau are all names which bear for me a conjuror’s spell, but I have as yet mentioned only incidentally the one for whose sake far more than for all the attractions of Concord they gathered themselves together. I have not yet said what was Mr. Emerson’s influence on the childhood and youth of Concord.
We knew that he was a great writer, that he corresponded with Carlyle, that Mrs. Tennyson had sent him beautiful crayon portraits of herself and husband, that he entertained poets, philosophers, and nobles, that Daniel Webster visited him every summer, that he had books by the hundreds, as well as many very rare and ancient things from the Tiber and the Nile. I cannot say just how much our knowledge of these facts influenced our opinion, but I do not think very much, for his personality, unlike that of Thoreau or Hawthorne, possessed even for the youngest a unique charm. He was perfectly simple, but if he smiled, you appeared to feel the sunshine, and if he said, “Good morning,” you thought of it as a blessing. He walked several hours daily arranging his thoughts as he walked, and his habits being well known, we frequently stood in little groups on the chance of a passing word. We sometimes sought him in Sleepy Hollow, not then a cemetery, simply a green amphitheatre where poets sauntered, children frolicked, and wild birds warbled. I have often seen him [alone] and once or twice accompanied by his wife and mother seated on the high ridge upon whose west side is now his honored grave. It was perhaps from this ridge that he wrote Margaret Fuller, when she was in Italy, “Here sit mother and I under the pine trees as still almost as we shall lie some day beneath them.”
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.
And you must try to imagine, too, what it was for sensitive intelligent children to hear that courtly, gentle and charming Mr. Emerson had stood unmoved amid the hisses and insults of Harvard College and said of their idol Daniel Webster after his 7th of March speech, “Every drop of his blood has eyes that look downward. He knows the heroes of 1776 but cannot see the heroes of 1851 when he meets them in the street. It is not a question of ability, expediency, or even legality. It is a question of sides. How come Daniel Webster on that side?”
And even more powerful in the formation of character than these heroic examples was the daily environment, the common atmosphere. Concord was perhaps the only town in New England at that time when the house you lived in, the clothes you wore, the servants you did or did not keep were matters of absolutely no importance. It was not possible to take conventional matters seriously; it was inconceivable that you should subjugate your life to such trifles as fashion and ceremony when those whom you were taught to respect walked before you in such straight and narrow paths. Realizing this, is it any wonder that the memory of those days is tenderly cherished and that some who were once children on the green banks of the Concord say often one to another, “Honor to the town which was simple to hardship, where the intellect was awake and read the laws of the universe, where the soul worshipped truth and love, and where honor and courtesy flowed in every action.”
Andover, Mass., November 10, ’91.