December 2, 2012

Spotlight: Literature and history in Concord, Mass.

The fourth in an occasional series of dispatches from two Sacramentans on a minivan voyage around, over and through the country.

The fourth in an occasional series of dispatches from two Sacramentans on a minivan voyage around, over and through the country.

CONCORD, Mass. – The note on the grave was succinct and sincere, if a bit spelling-challenged: "Haloo. I sao your hous and the pond, it was so butafol. Love, Gwyneth."

Gwyneth's affection was directed at the grave's occupant, whose headstone identified him simply as "Henry," but whose middle and last names are known to us as "David" and "Thoreau."

We know this because he is buried in the Thoreau family plot, in an area of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery known as "Authors Ridge." Just up the hill from Thoreau, in their own family plots, repose Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Concord was clearly something of a literary hot spot back in the day.

Then again, this postcard-pretty town of about 18,000 residents, 19 miles west of Boston, is also a honeypot of American history. Just a mile away from Thoreau's grave stands North Bridge, where on a cool April morning in 1775 shots were fired and a war of revolution began.

On this warm September morning in 2012, near the last resting places of literary giants, overshadowed by old oak and hickory trees, I am connected to Concord's past. Usually in graveyards, I have a mixed sense of exhilaration and unease: the former because I'm only there temporarily; the latter because at some point it won't be temporary. But this morning, I feel mostly humble, a wannabe in the presence of greatness.

All of the writers' graves are strewn with notes from admirers, as well as other mementos such as shells, pencils, pens and coins. At Hawthorne's family plot, two of the markers bear only the last name, and none bears the name Nathaniel, leaving it to visitors to guess exactly where the famously shy and reclusive author lies. Emerson, the leading light of Concord's literary establishment, naturally has the grandest tombstone, an uncut granite boulder with a bronze plaque attached.

But the most popular of the quartet seems to be Alcott, judging from the amount of stuff around her headstone: pens, pencils, a kazoo, an American flag, a "Votes for Women" button and a playing card – the queen of spades – bearing her likeness and the title of her most famous work, "Little Women."

While the cemetery gives one a sense of the spirit of Concord's past, the particulars are best gathered at the Concord Museum, just blocks away. The splendid collection of more than 35,000 items was begun in the 1850s by a fellow named Cummings Davis. Davis, whose ancestors helped found the town, thought that preserving its past might be a good idea and encouraged others to help.

So the Emerson family sent over the contents of the writer's study from his home across the street, including his 1,500-volume library.

Thoreau's sister Sophia chipped in with the furnishings from her brother's cabin at Walden Pond, including his bed frame and writing desk. And the best of show came from Davis himself. It's a tinned iron lantern, one of the two that hung in the Old North Church belfry in Boston, the night before Paul Revere rode to Concord to warn folks British troops were on the way.

The immediate aftermath of Revere's ride is clearly explained at the nearby Minute Man National Historical Park. A short walk from the visitors center takes you to the reconstructed North Bridge over the Concord River, where a fellow wearing the garb of a colonial militiaman explains precisely and colorfully what happened on the spot 237 years ago.

This is also the place where the iconic "Minute Man" statue stands. Sculpted in 1875 by Daniel Chester French (he also did the massive Abe Lincoln figure at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., and by the by is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery), the statue's base is inscribed with lines from Emerson's poem "Concord Hymn":

"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."

It's a moving site. But it's also a hot day, and Walden Pond beckons. Once the site of a two-year experiment by Thoreau to "live deliberately" out in the woods, the pond is now a state park. It's much bigger than I imagined: nearly two miles around, 103 feet deep at its deepest spot, and equipped with a long sandy beach and clear, clean and comfortable water.

Gwyneth was right. It's a butafol spot. As I lazily backstroke under warm blue skies, I'm glad I'm not in Sleepy Hollow yet.


Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is free and open to the public. Show the kind of respect and courtesy you would in any cemetery.

Check prices, hours and special exhibits at the Concord Museum at

For information on Minute Man National Historical Site, go to

For information on Walden Pond, go to

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