While in Massacusetts, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit Concord (of Thoreau’s Walden fame) and Salem, the epicentre of the late C17th witch trials, immortalised in Arthur Miller’s wonderful, yet tragic play, The Crucible. But of course, once you start digging for literary dirt in this neck of the woods, there is really no end to what you might find.
I thought I’d whip through my proposed itinerary in a day. But of course, in accordance with the theory that nothing ever goes quite to plan, my first stop, Robert Frost’s Farm in Derry, NH turned into a wonderfully relaxed 2-3 hour visitation, which included great conversations with the guides (who clearly love their jobs), a short film (in which Frost & his eldest daughter Lesley were featured reading from his extensive collection of poetry), a tour of the house and a ramble through the grounds (immortalised in such poems as ‘Hyla Brook’ and ‘Mending Wall’).The house had fallen so badly into disrepair after Frost and his family left the area that when he returned upon his wife’s death with a view to burying her on the property, he was so disappointed in the state he found it in that he chose to bury her in Bennington, Vermont, instead, where they had lived for a decade in the 20s. (He is buried in Vermont too.) When the house was purchased by the State of New Hampshire in 1965, thereby guaranteeing its future preservation, Lesley (who was 9 when they moved away), assisted in the restoration process by way of her journals (the writing of which was a daily practice engendered by Frost in all of his children) and her memories of the family’s time on the farm.
Many pieces on display were original to the house, but where originals were unobtainable for whatever reason, Lesley’s memory and journalistic attention to detail helped fill the gaps, even down to the funky kitchen wallpaper:
The grounds were just beautiful. It is easy to see why he was so inspired to record his observations in verse: The guide who took us through the house had a great sense of humour which served to highlight Frost’s own funloving side. It was here, and during the film (hearing him speak his own verse for the first time), that I was struck by the lightheartedness with which so much of his poetry is imbued. She told several funny stories but the one that stood out for me was his use of the telephone, which he’d had installed in order to phone ahead to see whether he’d be required to turn up to teach at the local school in times of snow. It was a party line, with 12 families sharing the same wire, and Frost, having spent a good bit of his life to that point away from New England, was fascinated by the way people in New Hampshire spoke. Wishing to learn the local parlance, he would listen in on his neighbours’ conversations, informing his kids that his eavesdropping was research.
I departed Frost Farm for Kerouac country. Jack Kerouac is the author of Dharma Bums, Big Sur, The Subterraneans and Lonesome Traveller to name a few, though his most famous work is probably On the Road. I drove south to Lowell, Massachusetts, the town of his youth, and setting for the fictional Galloway in The Town and the City, his first semi-autobiographical novel. While the town yielded little in terms of direct references to Kerouac (the information centre was sadly out of self-guided walking tour maps), there is a National Historic Park guide to Kerouac’s Lowell available online and a Kerouac Commemorative at Eastern Canal Park.
Although I could find little trace of Kerouac in the town itself, a longer visit may have borne more fruit. This is (one of) the downside(s) to metered parking… Nevertheless, it is a cool little town, one whose mill-industry history is ever present, a factor that has been crucial in helping it attain National Historical Park status.
The grave yielded better results, though being just one of four cemeteries in the area, it took me a couple of attempts before I found the right one.
The grave site was littered with all manner of references to Kerouac’s life, work & influence: pens, handwritten notes, alcohol minis, cigarette butts & lighters, dried flowers, even a baseball. It was a fitting assemblage for one of the Beat Generations best loved poets.
By the time I departed Lowell for Concord, the sun was already well past the meridian, so I only had time for one more stop before pitching my tent in the Boston Minuteman Campground (and finally getting it dry). That stop was Orchard House, home of the Alcott family, and setting for Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
Bronson Alcott built his daughter a desk, and Louisa wrote the novel over a 70 day period (a kind of longhand version of NaNoWriMo), basing events on her own family’s experiences growing up in the Orchard House. She became, for a time, the wealthiest living female author in the United States as a result of Little Women and the book has been continually in print since it’s original publication. So write your stories ladies! Louisa May Alcott was a feminist, and was well ahead of her time in many ways. Although the nation wouldn’t give women the vote in federal elections until the 1920s, Massachusetts passed a state law in 1879, allowing women (who owned property and who sat on their school council) to vote in local town meetings (on issues relating to women and children). So Louisa, being well-versed in the politics of the time, promptly enrolled to vote, and in 1880, at the first available opportunity, she became the first woman in Concord to have her opinion counted in matters of government.
The Alcotts were not the only forward thinking individuals in Concord. Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of several novels including The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables) lived next door, at a property called The Wayside. Ralph Waldo Emerson (author of such essays as ‘Self Reliance’ and ‘Nature’) and Henry David Thoreau (author of Walden and On Civil Disobedience among others) were also near neighbours and frequent visitors to the Alcotts’ home. It was in Concord, fertile ground for this meeting of minds, that the Transcendentalist movement had its beginnings.
Unfortunately their respective places of residence were not open for inspection at the time of my visit. Well, Thoreau’s cabin by Walden Pond (which he built with his own hands and where he lived self-sufficiently & in relative solitude for a period of approximately two years) is no longer in existence at all, though the site where the cabin once stood is marked.
All four authors’ graves (and those of their families) are gathered close together on Authors Ridge, a dedicated area of Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery:
A replica of the cabin can be found at the Concord Museum, along with a substantial collection of Thoreau’s belongings, and a complete reconstruction of Emerson’s study (all original to his former place of residence).