The Old Manse is quite an understated house for its place in literary history. It was home at different times to author’s Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Stepping inside for a house tour, I had no idea that 45 minutes later I would walk out with a completely different view of the author’s whose works had intimidated me so much that I had neglected to read any of them before visiting the historic houses of the author’s of Concord, MA.
“Between two tall gateposts of rough-hewn stone (the gate itself having fallen from its hinges at some unknown epoch) we beheld the gray front of the old parsonage…”
Mosses from an Old Manse by Nathaniel Hawthorne
It’s not often we think of the author’s we’re made to read for English class as children, but standing in the kitchen of The Old Manse, the house once owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandparents, I was confronted with the author’s small childhood highchair. I realized then that this literal giant (he grew to 6ft tall) of the literary world didn’t sit down one day to pen works to ruin future English classes. There was a whole life that led to the moment the young idealistic Emerson put pen to paper while sitting in an upstairs room of this house.
What do you do while staying with your grandparents? I’ll bet it’s not writing essays, especially ones that will start an entirely new philosophical movement. That is, however, exactly what Emerson did. As a young, unhappy, widower, having lost his wife to TB at age 20, and then become disillusioned with the church in Boston where he had been serving as a junior pastor, he first took off on a tour of Europe, then moved home to live with his mother, and finally he went to live with his step-grandfather in Concord.
The tour moved into the upstairs room where Emerson chose to write. With windows looking out back over the apple orchard and Concord’s Old North Bridge, Emerson sat in a wooden chair with an attached desk, like one you might find in a classroom. It was here in 1836, where he could stare pensively out at the lazy Concord River, and reflect on what he’d learned in Europe, that he penned an essay titled Nature. This essay would go on to become the founding document of the Transcendentalist movement.
Suddenly I found myself wanting to read what it was a young, unhappy man wrote while sitting in this room listening to the apples drop in the orchard outside.
A year later, this same view of the river and its bridge in his backyard gained a monument commemorating the American Revolution Battle of Concord and he wrote the Hymn to be sung at the dedication ceremony.
“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.”
Emerson eventually married again and moved to another house closer to town. When his grandparents passed away the house was bought by the newly married writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne. He bestowed a new name on the old parsonage, The Old Manse, and claimed the room where the respected R. W. Emerson had penned Nature as his own study.
Again, my mind’s image of a lonely Gothic writer sitting down to scratch out words that would one day have me scratching my head over literary analysis was disrupted. Hawthorne had not been alone. His wife and toddler had interrupted his writing on occasion and there was proof of it. His wife had used the diamond in her ring to scratch notes on the windowpane about their child’s development.
The image in my head changed to a father writing at the white fold-out desk attached to the wall. He wrote short stories that would be enjoyed by his daughter when she grew older. These stories were eventually collected in a book, Mosses from an Old Manse.
I thought of my own dad reading to me as a child and wanted to read the stories Hawthorne wrote with his child bouncing on his wife’s lap across the room. No longer were Emerson’s or Hawthorne’s books the intimidating material of high school English class. They were the hand-written musings of family men, and I wanted to read them.
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Have you read Emerson and/or Hawthorne? Have you visited The Old Manse in Concord? Are there authors you’re too intimidated to read? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
–> Take Your Own Literary Tour of Concord with this helpful post: A Literary Tour of Concord & Walden Pond
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