Do you enjoy classic American literature? Or, do you cringe with nightmarish flashbacks to high school when you unwillingly read the literary works of early Americana?
On a Massachusetts road trip in the summer of 2021 to conduct some final research prior to the publication of my book Fortitude, I meandered through the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord and made a fascinating discovery. Seems as though Concord, Massachusetts was a hotbed for authors in the mid-1800s.
On an elevated peak in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery lies a place called “Author’s Ridge”. Why this name? Because it’s the burial site of several classic American literature authors to include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. It was intriguing to discover graves of these literary masterminds in such close proximity.
Before we proceed, let’s test your knowledge of classic American Literature. Can you name one of the works for each of these authors noted above? If you’re like me, you remember the author names, but you can’t quite recall their works. But, when you see these titles, you’ll remember reading them in your high school days.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Emerson was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century. Nicknamed the “Sage of Concord”, Emerson was a leading voice in the intellectual culture of the United States. Emerson wrote a majority of his essays first as lectures and then revised them for publication. His well-known essays include: Nature (1836), Self-Reliance (1842), Circles(1841), The Poet (1843), and Experience (1844). Emerson’s work greatly influenced the thinkers, writers and, poets that followed him. He was the mentor and friend of Henry David Thoreau.1
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Hawthorne was an American novelist and short-story writer whose work focused on history, morality, and religion. His best known titles include: Twice-Told Tales (1837 and 1842), The Scarlett Letter (1850), and The House of Seven Gables (1851). He became friends with American writer Herman Melville in 1850 who was best known for his novel Moby-Dick. Melville dedicated that book in 1851 to Hawthorne stating: “In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne”. Hawthorne died at age fifty-nine. The pallbearers at his funeral included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.2
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Thoreau was an American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher. He is best known for his 1854 book Walden; or, Life in the Woods, one of the most famous books in American literature. Walden reflects Thoreau’s simple lifestyle in the natural surroundings of Walden pond where he lived in a tiny cabin (10’ by 15’) for two years, two months and two days on the wooded property owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist who spoke passionately against the fugitive slave law in the period leading up to the Civil War. Thoreau died young at age forty-four and Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the eulogy for his funeral service.3
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
Alcott was an American novelist, short story writer, and poet. She was an abolitionist and fervent advocate for women’s rights. She is best known for her novel Little Women (1868) and its sequels Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Little Women is set in the Alcott family home in Concord, Massachusetts, and is loosely based on Alcott’s childhood experiences with her three sisters.4 Little Women was first made into a movie in 1917 as a silent film. Then in the 1933, Katharine Hepburn played a lead role in the remake of Little Women. Elizabeth Taylor starred in the 1949 version of the movie. The 1994 film entitled Little Women featured Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder. The latest version of the movie was released in 2019 starring Meryl Streep and Emma Watson.5
The fascinating fact of this story is the close proximity of the final resting place of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Alcott on Author’s Ridge. Turns out they were friends. They lived and wrote during the same period of history and in that same town of Concord, Massachusetts. Today, Author’s Ridge is a popular site for lovers of classic American literature. Explorers of the Sleep Howell Cemetery routinely leave pens and notes around the grave markers of their favorite authors.
The Wayside House
During our 2021 visit to Concord, my wife Nancy and I spent time in and around the North Bridge where the “shot heard round the world” was fired signifying the beginning of the American Revolution. During our explorations, we noted a beautiful eighteenth century home nearby Minuteman Park on the Concord River.
Upon further investigation, we discovered its name, The Wayside, and its significance to early American literature. The home was originally built in 1775 by Samuel Whitney, the muster-master for Concord’s minutemen. Louisa May Alcott and her sisters lived most of their childhood at The Wayside beginning in 1845. And believe it or not, in 1852, Nathaniel Hawthorne purchased the home. Then in 1883, children’s book author Harriet Lothrop (pen name Margaret Sidney) and her family lived at The Wayside. Finally, in 1965, The Wayside became the first literary site for the National Park Service.6 Indeed, The Wayside was a home for authors!
If you follow my blog, you know that I oftentimes write about historical topics and their intersection with my ancestors. So, what was happening in the life of my direct Spaulding ancestral line while the writers of Author’s Ridge were crafting their prose?
My third great-grandparents Addison and Nancy Spaulding were living in Lowell, Massachusetts about fourteen miles north of Concord. Addison had a horrific farming accident in 1848 resulting in the amputation of his leg. Rather than giving up on life, that accident drove him to innovation as he manufactured, and then patented, an artificial leg in 1855. Addison’s patent occurred just one year after Henry David Thoreau published his 1854 book Walden; or, Life in the Woods. You can read the compelling story of Addison Spaulding in my August 2022 post, The Overcomer and in my book Fortitude.
After perusing today’s post, perhaps you feel as I do – challenged and motivated to head to the local library and check out one of these classic American literature works. Indeed, as I draft this post, I ordered a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women for my wife Nancy to enjoy and then share with our eleven-year-old granddaughter.
If your travels ever bring you to Boston, I highly recommend you take some time to drive the short nineteen-mile journey to Concord and visit Author’s Ridge at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Don’t forget to bring a pen/pencil and note to leave on your favorite author’s grave!
- Wikipedia, Ralph Waldo Emerson, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Waldo_Emerson (accessed October 26, 2022).
- Wikipedia, Nathaniel Hawthorne, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathaniel_Hawthorne (accessed October 26, 2022).
- Wikipedia, Henry David Thoreau, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_David_Thoreau (accessed October 26, 2022).
- Wikipedia, Louisa May Alcott, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisa_May_Alcott (accessed on October 26, 2022).
- Finn, Heather (2020), What Is ‘Little Women’ Really About?,https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/entertainment/a30796677/little-women-original-remake-movie-plot-comparison/ (accessed on October 26, 2022).
- National Park Service, The Wayside: Home of Authors,https://www.nps.gov/mima/learn/historyculture/thewayside.htm (accessed October 27, 2022).
- Feature Image: “Sleepy_Hollow_Cemetery_Sign.jpeg” by victorgrigas, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sleepy_Hollow_Cemetery_Sign.jpeg, is licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0.
- “Emerson3_cropped.jpg” by Schoff, Stephen A., engraver, is in the public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emerson3_cropped.jpg (accessed October 28, 2022).
- “450px-Statue_of_Hawthorne_at_Wayside.jpg” by Midnightdreary, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_of_Hawthorne_at_Wayside.jpg, is licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0.
- “Walden_Thoreau.jpg” from Wikimedia Commons is in the public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Walden_Thoreau.jpg (accessed October 28, 2022).
- “Louisa-May-Alcott-Grave.jpeg” photo is by Dale Spaulding.
- “The_Wayside_Concord_Massachusetts.jpg” by Daderot at English Wikipedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Wayside_Concord_Massachusetts.jpg, is licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0.