Cover image from the first edition of Thoreau’s Walden

The Book Read ‘Round the World

Literary history is packed into Concord’s “Old Manse,” but the tiny abode of Walden’s author proves the highlight of our New England trip.
[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the twelfth installment in the series.]

Concord, Massachusetts, looks much like the New England towns I imagined growing up in Tennessee, complete with steepled churches, ancient graveyards, monuments to distant victories, cozy shops, and giant trees shading it all. But Abby and I had long ago discovered, during our five years in Connecticut, that New England was much more complicated and interesting than the stereotype. Since the 1840s, the region’s towns and cities have attracted generations of immigrants and migrants, who have brought their food and cultures with them. The Red Sox and Patriots provide symbols of unity, Dunkin’ Donuts places of gathering.

Concord needs the classic New England look, though, for its own sake and for the nation’s. The town is a caretaker for the American Revolution. We stayed at the Minuteman campground and saw troops of visitors heading to the site of the battle. We were there for the quieter story of the American Renaissance — the great efflorescence of American thought in the early years of the new nation.

The stories of the Revolution and the Renaissance intersected at a place now known as the “Old Manse.” There, in a house built in 1770, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandfather served as minister to the town, watching the battle of Concord and Lexington from its windows. The Reverend Emerson died serving as a chaplain in the war, and his widow married another minister, who delivered more than three thousand sermons in Concord over the next 63 years.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, adrift after the death of his young wife and his abandonment of the pulpit for which he had trained, lived in the house to help care for his elderly step-grandfather in 1834. It was there that Emerson wrote Nature, a soaring book that would help launch the Transcendentalist movement. As the only guest on my tour, accompanied by a thoughtful and knowledgeable guide, I was able to geek out as I had not at Melville’s home. My host invited me to sit in a replica of the writing chair in which Emerson had composed Nature, complete with an addition to make it more comfortable for the tall author.

Chair at the Old Manse [Image: Ed Ayers]

Three years after publishing Nature anonymously, Emerson wrote what would become his first famous words when he composed the “Concord Hymn” to commemorate the battle of Lexington and Concord. There, he described “the shot heard ‘round the world.” A month later, Emerson became notorious with his iconoclastic address at Harvard, dubbed “The American Scholar.” Recruited as substitute speaker, Emerson told the young graduates that they should ignore much of what the dignitaries seated behind him on the platform had taught them at Harvard. They should learn from life rather than from books.

After that speech and an even more outrageous speech at the Harvard Divinity School the next summer, Emerson’s home in Concord, established with his new wife, began to attract Americans seeking a more vital religion, philosophy, and life. His house was on the turnpike into town and easy to find, and Emerson’s wife, Lydian, welcomed them despite their intrusions.

One ally of Emerson did not have far to travel. Henry David Thoreau gave his own speech at Harvard as he graduated in 1837, belittling the “spirit of commerce” that filled the land. Thoreau made himself helpful at the Emerson house while his increasingly famous friend and mentor traveled the lecture circuit on the new railroads of the northeast. The Emerson children loved Thoreau, and Lydian appreciated his help. While he helped his own family at their pencil factory, the young man, in search of a purpose in the world, read widely in the religions of the East and developed an intimate knowledge of his native region’s nature.

In the meantime, the Old Manse, in disrepair and thus renting for only $100 a year, welcomed new tenants: Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne. The couple, newly wed despite having passed well beyond the usual marrying age (38 and 32, respectively), gloried in their first home together as they started a family. Thoreau dug a vegetable garden for them in the backyard and sold Hawthorne a boat to explore the Concord River that ran behind the house.

In the same room where Emerson’s green chair had sat a few feet away, a rigid chair and tiny desk faced a blank wall. That was where Nathaniel Hawthorne, eight years after Emerson composed Nature, wrote stories for a collection he called Mosses from an Old Manse. Hawthorne may have felt he needed the discipline of such an uncomfortable place, for he was determined to prove, after years of trying, that he could make a living with his writing.

Desk at The Old Manse [Image: Ed Ayers]

Though Hawthorne was friendly with Emerson, he shared little of the spirit of Transcendentalism embodied by his landlord. The stories Hawthorne composed in the room turned their back on the hopeful philosophy of those who came to commune with Emerson, dwelling instead on inherited guilt and mysterious danger.

The Hawthornes were not ideal tenants for the old house. Sophia Hawthorne inscribed her name and messages on two of the windows with her diamond ring, commemorating the day their daughter Una, ten months old, had delighted in the glistening ice chandeliers she saw through a window after a winter storm. Downstairs, Sophia found herself unable to cook on the giant open fireplace and so had Nathaniel install a modern stove. When they left three years later, the Hawthornes took the stove with them, leaving a hole above the mantle where the pipe had been.

In 1845, the year the Hawthornes departed Concord, Thoreau asked Emerson for permission to build a small house on a worn-out and cut-over piece of land at Walden Pond that Emerson had purchased on a whim. Thoreau lived there for the next two years, determined to confront life as directly as possible. He did not cut himself off from his family and friends, but he did come to know the pond and its environs with a unique intimacy.

Like thousands of other visitors, we were eager to see Walden Pond. On a beautiful September morning — the perpetual season of my imagined New England — the parking lot at the Walden Pond State Reservation was busy. We soon saw why. The pond is a glacier-created lake of striking clarity and cleanliness. Abby and I were surprised to see people swimming far out in the water, attached to red buoys for visibility and rest. We walked around the pond to the site of Thoreau’s house and found ourselves alone at Thoreau Cove. The sun penetrated the water, ripples reflecting on the smooth and sandy bottom. We removed our shoes to feel the warmth and welcome the water offered.

Walden Pond [Image: Abby Ayers]

The home site was marked by a small chain boundary to show the dimensions of the home, which had been dismantled not long after Thoreau left in 1847. Nearby, a large pile of stones commemorated the visits of people who had journeyed to this spot over generations.

Thoreau cabin site [Image: Abby Ayers]

We continued our walk around the pond to see the reconstructed home where Thoreau had lived. It was surprisingly tight and finished, though Thoreau had told us as much about his dwelling in Walden.

Thoreau cabin replica [Image: Abby Ayers]

Abby and I couldn’t help but compare Thoreau’s little house with our own. It turns out that Bertha’s living space is 187.5 square feet compared to Thoreau’s 150. He had a root cellar and a garret, however, while we’re grateful to have a bathroom with a shower, since we don’t have Walden Pond out our door.

Thoreau cabin replica (interior) [Image: Abby Ayers]

Despite our high expectations, Walden Pond offered more than we had hoped for. We considered ourselves fortunate to see such a place on such a day. An enthusiastic ranger at the visitor center explained the geology of the glacial pond to us, and answered our questions about the railroad and ice-cutting at the pond. The natural history of the site before and after Thoreau is fascinating and encouraging.

Thoreau would surely have been pleased — and surprised — to see his book of quiet adventure, barely acknowledged when it was published in 1855, radiate such an influence around the world. He would have been pleased, too, to see people glorying in the pond much as he did, the worn-out soil and cut-over woods around it now a mature forest.