Concord

American History Places Transcendentalism

Concord, a small country town about 15 miles northwest of Boston, was where the colonial American militia stockpiled their guns and ammunition in the months preceding the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. The British attempted a surprise attack on the weapon stores in Concord on the night of April 18, 1775.

The colonials had already anticipated this, and on the first sign of British movement Paul Revere, Samuel Prescott and William Dawes rode ahead of the British armies to spread the word. American defenders gathered in Concord and Lexington, and the result was a rout of the British forces and a major victory for the cause of American independence.

Two generations later, a literary and philosophical revolution began in the same town. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and other progressive thinkers began holding meetings to discuss anti-slavery activism, spirituality, education and the idea of a uniquely American sense of art. They founded a literary journal called "The Dial" to help spread the word, and New England Transcendentalism was born.

Later additions to Concord's Transcendental crowd included Emerson's eccentric younger friend Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott's talented daughter Louisa May Alcott, whose novel "Little Women" describes life in a 19th century suburb of Boston.

Concord's reputation as a crucible of unexpected innovations was further extended in 1849 when horticulturist (and friend of the Transcendentalists) Ephraim Bull discovered an ideally robust and delicious new grape, which became world renowned as the Concord grape. This was the first grape to be successfully bottled and mass produced as grape juice by the Welch family of New Jersey, twenty years later.

Most of Concord's historical sites are well-preserved, though they have taken on the dull sheen of school trip fodder. The North Bridge battle site, the Old Manse where the Emerson family lived and the Orchard House where the Alcott children were raised are all within walking distance from the center of town.

Before I first visited Concord, I was warned by several people that a visit to the birthplace of the greatest book to emerge from Concord would be a disappointing sight. I had to drive around a bit before I located Walden Pond, and once there I found a quiet sandy beach on a wooded lake, and a few Hispanic-looking families (I guess the white bathers go to Cape Cod) hanging around in bathing suits. There was a replica of Thoreau's cabin near the roadside parking lot, and a marker at the spot where his actual cabin stood, deeper into the woods.

I wonder why so many people find the pilgrimage to Walden Pond disappointing? Perhaps they expect some kind of grand epiphany, like doves floating overhead reciting the works of Shakespeare. Walden Pond today is exactly what it should be -- a humble place waiting for somebody to come along and love it.

If you are on a literary pilgrimage to Concord, you may also want to visit Jack Kerouac's Lowell, a few miles to the north.

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