By Victor Curran
Readers from all over the world come to Concord to visit the places where Alcott, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Emerson wrote books that defined American literature in the mid-1800s. How did such a concentration of talent end up in a quiet farming town of some 2,200 souls, a place with no seaport and no college?
These writers weren’t famous when they came here. Henry David Thoreau was born here, and Louisa May Alcott was eight years old when her family moved here. Nathaniel Hawthorne had published two books when he moved to Concord, but they weren’t best-sellers, and he had yet to win wealth and fame.
What they all had in common was a connection to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Waldo (nobody called him Ralph) wasn’t born in Concord, but in 1834 he came here to his grandparents’ house—the house we now call the Old Manse. At age 31, he was picking up the pieces of a broken life. His bride, Ellen Tucker, had died of consumption in the second year of their marriage, and his grief was so overwhelming that he resigned his job as minister of a church in Boston.
He stayed at the Old Manse for about a year, and the beauty of its landscape moved him to write the essay “Nature,” inspiring the Transcendentalists and launching his new career as a writer and lecturer.
A young Harvard student named David Henry Thoreau read “Nature,” and decided he wanted to meet its author. (He also decided to change his name to “Henry David.”) When he graduated in 1837, he came home to Concord, and Waldo asked him “Do you keep a journal?” Henry began a journal that kindled his writing career.
Emerson and Thoreau formed the nucleus of Concord’s literary community, and they were joined in 1840 by a progressive educator named Bronson Alcott. Alcott was a great admirer of Emerson, and moved his family to Concord so he could get to know Waldo better. His 8-year-old daughter Louisa May Alcott would later turn her Concord adolescence into her best-selling novel, Little Women.
Waldo Emerson also brought Nathaniel Hawthorne to Concord. In 1842, Nathaniel married artist Sophia Peabody, and Waldo suggested that they rent his grandparents’ house, which happened to be vacant. Nathaniel would go on to make the house famous in his book, Mosses from an Old Manse.
Hawthorne, Alcott, and Thoreau are much more popular today than Emerson is, but it was his personal charisma that brought together the Concord authors whose voices still excite readers around the world.