Blogs Concord Roots Blog Literary Concord in the 1800s
THOREAU_EMERSONConcord's agricultural interests continued on with their 200-year deforestation process until in 1850 the forest only covered about 10% of the land, compared to 90% when the native Algonquians lived here, leaving only the forest around Second Division Brook and Walden Woods.  The town's giant sponge, its forest, is largely gone, so water levels rise taking in surrounding industrial pollutants even sewage.  Many swamps are drained for pasture, but with extensive erosion and sedimentation, farmland ditches must be dug out regularly. Farm size decreases and land is used intensively.  With the nearly extinct wilderness and further encroachments of modern society as a backdrop, Concord's home-brewed brand of naturalist writers began to explore the purity of nature and man's role in the natural order of things.

In the mid-1800's, Irish immigrants, and later, Canadian, Scandinavian, and Italian arrivals, enriched Concord Village. Church and town separate as the town diversifies is Puritan roots. Public and private schools are built, and for a time during the cival war, Harvard College is moved to Concord. Coeducation and adult education both begin before mid-century, and an age of enlightenment begins.  Influential authors, educators, and editors locate to Concord, and local authors become renowned and Concord becomes known the literary capital of America. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne are the best know of many thinkers and writers in Concord. Visitors from far-off places come to discuss major issues of the day. The group of thinkers lead by Ralph Waldo Emerson develop the fundaments of what they would call "transcendentalism," and the Concord School of Philosophy is built and becomes a further magnet for America's greatest thinkers of the day. Thoreau documents the town's natural history and geography, and briefly lives in a Walden Pond woodlot surrounded by intensive modern agriculture. Culture expands in academies, libraries, and lyceums. Voluntary associations proliferate. Women begin to play major roles in town and government. Abolitionism is active and the underground railroad runs through Concord. Monuments in Monument Square and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery suggest the impact of the Civil War on Concord.

In 1850, 70% of the taxpayers are landless. A north-south Framingham-to-Lowell railroad and two other railroads create a rail junction which imports goods and farm products, and as coal becomes available, more efficient Rumford fireplaces and Franklin stoves decrease the amount of tree removal for fuel.  As local wood and farm products diminish in importance, land-use trends reverse. Pastures shrink, and woods expand onto stony sites to cover 40% of Concord by century's end. Red maple and gray birch colonize old pastures, although chestnuts become railroad ties.  Crops diversify and production rises, taking advantage of new markets accessible by train. Concord grapes are bred by Ephraim Bull and shipped all over the East Coast.

The Centennial of the Revolution enhances the town's identity as a historic site. Memorials sprout around town. Tourists flock in. Village beautification accelerates, and the Ornamental Tree Society plants street trees.

However, by the middle of the 19th C. Concord exceeds its carrying capacity. It becomes so densely populated, so dependent on imports, and with such an overused resource base, that its residents can no longer live sustainably on its 25-square-mile land. Concord goes from a relatively self-sufficient community supporting an economy mainly on its own resources, to a town highly dependent on outside resources.

It is in these times of great change that local Concord writers begin to reflect and imagine in new ways.  The hustle and bustle of progress causes some to romanticise a simpler time and a simpler way of life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857Ralph Waldo Emerson, nicknamed "the Concord Sage," is thought of by many as America's first literary father.  He has inspired every generation of poet, writer, thinker and philosopher since he began writing his dozens of essays.  Emerson is best known for leading the Transcendentalist movement and was seen as a champion of individualism and a critic of the pressures of our growing and changing landscape.  A great orator, Emerson delivered more than 1500 public lectures, and inspired writers all over the US.

Just a year after moving to Concord from Boston, Emerson formulated the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his 1836 essay entitled "Nature" followed up by a speech entitled "The American Scholar" a year later, which Sir Oliver Wendell Holmes in England called "America's Intellectual Declaration of Independence".  As a speaker, Emerson encouraged out-of-the-box thinking, and a separation from traditional ideas, thought, writing styles, and not just freedom of religion but freedom "from" religion.  As a famous graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, Emerson was invited in 1838 to make a graduation address, and in it, he called Jesus a great man but NOT a God, decrying early church leaders for turning him into a demigod.  For this, he was publicly denounced as an athiest and accused of corrupting young minds, which only increased people's interest in his lectures and writings.

Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

Henry_David_ThoreauIn 1837, Emerson met and became lifetime best friends with 20-year-old Henry David Thoreau, who lived his entire 44 years in Concord.  At their first meeting, he encouraged Thoreau to keep a journal, which became a lifelong obsession.

Thoreau is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay, Civil Disobedience, an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state.  Walden was written while living in a shack on Walden pond in Concord, which was loaned to him by Emerson.  Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the actions and teachings of Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Much more prolific than his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau's writings comprise more than 20 volumes.  Among his lasting contributions were his writings on natural history where he pioneered modern thinking on ecology and environmentalism.  Quickly becomming America's favorite naturalist, Thoreau made all of his greatest observations in his own back yard, and his poetic writings about the changing ecology of Concord and his insights at Walden Pond changed the way that many people of his day began to think about conservation and preservation.   Thoreau romanticized the wilderness, which was rooted in the word "wild" and was therefore a scary and dangerous place -- with the stroke of his pen, he tamed the wild beast, and inspired the generations that followed him to want to save it.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 - 1864)

Nathaniel Hawthorne is most famously known as the authors of "The Scarlet Letter" and "The House of the Seven Gables."   In the era of enlightment that 1800s Concord represented, Hawthorne must have seemed to be the dark protagonist in the story.  His family members in Salem were infamous for their prosecutory involvement in the Salem Witch Trials, and when Hawthorne became a magistrate and judge himself, he was known for his particularly harsh sentences.

Hawthorne went to college with poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow where he became fast friends with future president Franklin Pierce.  Much of his writing center around life in New England, many featuring moral allegories with a Puritan inspiration. His fiction works are considered part of the Romantic movement and, more specifically, dark romanticism. His themes often center on the inherent evil and sin of humanity, and his works often have moral messages and deep psychological complexity.  To someone like Hawthorne, the openmindedness and rejection of religious dogma that sprung up from Concord's home-grown Transendentalism must have felt evil, and so Hawthorne because one of the movement's most outspoken critics, often longing for the rigid morality of his birthplace, Salem, to the open-mindedness of his adopted Concord.

Louisa May Alcott (1832 - 1888)

Louisa May Alcott is best known for her book, "Little Women" which is required reading in most educational programs in the United States.  This semi-biographical story, told in several volumes, was about her life growing up with her three sisters in a large home in downtown Concord.  As sawmills and progress were buzzing all around them, this story remisisced about the simpler life from the days of Alcott's childhood.  Her later continuiation of the tale, An Old Fashioned Girl, cemented Alcott as the keeper of the secrets of innocence and joy in the lives of children everywhere.

Alcott's father was a pioneering educator and one of the formational members of the Transendentalist movement with Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Emerson, Thoreau, Hawrthorne, and Fuller all taught at Alcott's father's experimental school and were family friends and important influences on Alcott.

As an adult, Luisa May Alcott was an abolutionist and was known to harbor fugitive slaves.   She was also a suffragette and the first woman to register to vote in Concord.  She inspired many with the belief that in the new days of intellectual freedom nurtured and developed in Corcord, an Old Fashioned Girl can grow up and be and stand for anything she desires.