12 October 2016


I love the Transcendentalists.  They may not have achieved everything they wanted to while they were living, but their ideals really were ahead of their time and I am grateful for them.  Even in high school I knew that they understood things that I needed to understand.  Their writing is often wordy and intense, but the payoff is nearly always worth it.

The center of Transcendentalist fervor is Concord, Massachusetts.  (Embarrassing personal disclosure: I only TODAY put together that the Concord of Louisa May Alcott and the Concord of Lexington and Concord fame are the same place.  For all my brainpower and love of trivia and history, sometimes stupid things still fly way above my head and come crashing down with a thud that sounds a lot like a "duh".)  In Concord, the Transcendentalists attempted to form communities where people lived simply and with unity.  Nearly one hundred years before suffrage they pushed for the vote.  More than one hundred and fifty years before schools would integrate in the south, Bronson Alcott was founding schools where not only boys and girls learned alongside each other, but children of all races were taught.  They were educated in art and music - they had recess.  Their ideas were so radical that they never came into fashion, but their writing lives on, and thank heaven for that.

It is fitting that on a day when we paid homage to these great thinkers that we began with no water.  The apartment below ours is being completely remodeled and they turned the water off this morning.  We realized this before we got the chance to eat breakfast, but it definitely helped us get out of the house faster than we have done in the last few days.  The construction workers downstairs are really friendly, though - asking us what we've been up to on our visit and recommending good restaurants.

Our first stop for the day (after picking up our rental car) was Orchard House.  Orchard House is the best known home of the Alcott family, though they moved at least twenty times prior to settling here.  Bronson Alcott, the patriarch, was quite the idealist.  He was constantly seen as a radical for his ideas about education (he promoted children asking questions in class!), women, slavery, and other things that are now way less radical and way more normal (like the vegan diet).  His wife, Abby May, was born to a relatively well-to-do family that looked down on her marriage to Bronson, but she said that her soul was lonely until she met him, so apparently she didn't see it as a step down in her life.  The two had four children - all daughters: Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May.  Best known of these is, of course, Louisa - author of Little Women (as well as thirty other novels).

It's hard to separate the real life Alcotts from the fictional March family.  Louisa was encouraged to write from her life, and much of the book is the very definition of art imitating life. Like Jo, Louisa felt out of place in the world.  She loved to run.  She loved to write.  She was a thinker and a voracious reader tutored at the feet of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who loaned her books and thought nothing of the fact that she was a girl who had no business reading Faust when she should be focusing her attention on needlepoint.  The Transcendentalists may not have been able to change the entire city, but the principles were alive and well in the Alcott house - quite literally.  May, the youngest Alcott, became Amy in the book - like her fictional counterpart, May was a great artist, who drew over any surface in the house she could find (with or without permission).  She was an amazing artist, lucky enough to study in Europe several times (twice with the help of Louisa's financial support after the success of her writing).  The house is full of her work - nearly every piece on the walls came from her.  Framed or unframed (she had a tendency to draw directly on the walls), she was encouraged by her parents.  May would go on to tutor Daniel Chester French, the sculptor best known for his design of the Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial in DC.  She even named her daughter Louisa in honor of her sister.

There is something so special about the Alcotts.  Their family unity and love is palpable in their home, in their writings, in their legacy.  There are signs everywhere of a family that cared for each other.  May painted flowers on the walls of Louisa's room when she came home ill after working in a Civil War hospital.  Bronson build Louisa a custom desk on which she wrote her books and through which he demonstrated his support of his unconventional daughter.  Anna was married in the parlor.  Elizabeth never lived in the house (she died as a result of scarlet fever before the family moved in), but there is a portrait of her above a piano in her honor.  One of the most special - dare I say sacred - experiences of my life was portraying Beth in the Little Women Musical several years ago.  There is an extremely special spirit about this family, and being allowed to step into their fictional shoes every night was an incredible experience.  I am so grateful for this story, and for this family, for the beauty they have given to the world.  I feel a great kinship to these amazing people.

After a stop at the Concord Museum, we went over to Walden Pond.  Walden was a beloved spot of all the Transcendentalists - Louisa features it in Little Women as the pond where Amy nearly drowns - but it is probably best known because of the writings of Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau (pronounced less like "Thur-oh" and more like "Thor-oh" with emphasis on the first syllable - at least according to Thoreau himself and the local experts) once "went to the woods because (he) wanted to live deliberately".  He moved to Walden, built himself a modest home (that no longer stands, though the location is set off), and lived as simply as he could.  It's hard to imagine a more beautiful place to do so.  Walden itself is a peaceful, quiet location surrounded by trees.  Even with lots of visitors, it was peaceful and quiet.  I picked up a bunch of acorns to bring back home with me - one of the "houses" in my classes at school was named for Emerson - the symbols are an oak leaf and acorn in honor of the Transcendentalist belief that everyone has potential.

Our final stop was the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the burying ground of the local authors of significance, including Nathaniel Hawthorne (I hate The Scarlet Letter. . . ), the Alcott family, Emerson and his family, and Thoreau's family.  It's not uncommon to see tributes on the headstones of people of significance.  Earlier this week we saw coins left on the monument to Robert Newman (who helped warn that "the British (were) coming!") Rocks are often left as a tribute as well.  Fittingly, there are pens left by the headstones of Thoreau and Alcott.  (I'm sure there would be for Hawthorne and Emerson as well, if they weren't roped off.) My heart is full.

There are so many people in history that I can't wait to see and to thank for the work they've done in the world or for me personally.  Lucy Maud Montgomery.  C.S. Lewis.  John Adams, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln - every single transcendentalist.  They reach my soul.  They give me hope in myself and my potential to do good beyond what I can see.  They may not have found wild success as a community in their lifetime, but they've made their mark.  Today I'm glad to have wandered through their footsteps.

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