Concord’s Old Manse a testament to history
CONCORD - To most Americans, the battle at the Old North Bridge, memorialized as the ”shot heard round the world” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, was one of the opening acts of the American Revolution. To the residents of the Old Manse, however, the fighting was merely the “Battle in the Backyard.’’
As the guns roared on April 19, 1775, the gray clapboard parsonage alongside the Concord River must have turned red with envy. Not satisfied at merely witnessing the ignition of the Revolutionary War, the Old Manse eventually sparked a second American revolution - a literary and intellectual movement that shaped the young country.
“This is where America gains its identity,’’ says Tom Beardsley, the Old Manse’s historic site manager. “This house represents the true birth of America when it creates a culture that’s separate from Europe.’’
Under the mansion’s gambrel roof, Nathaniel Hawthorne spent his blissful honeymoon years working on short stories, literati such as Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller debated the issues of the day, and Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “Nature,’’ the essay that launched the Transcendental movement. The Old Manse’s history features such a star-studded cast of literary giants that Henry David Thoreau is reduced to a walk-on role as a handyman and gardener.
Beardsley leads me around the idyllic rolling meadows and woodlands that served as Emerson’s muse. “Even on the busiest days, it’s a calm place,’’ he says, and that’s certainly true on this early autumn afternoon. As we walk onto the wooden dock next to the boathouse, ducks glide through the lush water lilies, and the river’s placid surface offers a perfect reflection of the Old North Bridge. The faint rhythmic dipping of oars from a kayak rounding the bend is the only sound breaking the still beauty of the Concord, which is still the “river of peace and quietness’’ that Hawthorne once described.
After visiting the re-creation of the heirloom vegetable garden planted by Thoreau as a wedding gift for the Hawthornes, we head inside the house built in 1770 by the patriot preacher Reverend William Emerson. “I wish I could give a description of our house; for it really has a character of its own,’’ Hawthorne wrote. Beardsley echoes the sentiment: “There’s an incredible atmosphere here. It’s difficult to explain, but as soon as you walk in, you sense it and you know why the Transcendentalists loved it so much.’’
Beardsley tells me that because the Emerson family owned the Old Manse for nearly two centuries until it was acquired by The Trustees of Reservations, the furniture and decor is all original, including the grandfather clock in the dining room that he calls “the heartbeat of the house.’’ William Emerson would undoubtedly be pleased that the timepiece he bought for $20 in 1767 still keeps perfect time.
The upstairs hallway is lined with some of the Old Manse’s collection of 3,000 books, which Beardsley refers to as “the hard drive of the house.’’ The nearby study features the writing desks of Emerson and Hawthorne; their layouts match their personalities. Emerson’s desk looks out the window onto the great outdoors, while the shy Hawthorne’s built-in desk is turned inward, facing a blank wall.
Hawthorne and three generations of Emersons literally left their marks on the Old Manse, scribbling signatures and penciling notes on the attic walls. Not only do the walls talk, but the windows are pretty chatty, too. Inscriptions etched by the Hawthornes into the windows panes of the dining room and upstairs study using Sophia Hawthorne’s diamond wedding ring have been preserved for all to see.
On special occasions, the attic is opened to the public, and Beardsley gives me a peek inside as he tells me about its former denizens, including William Emerson’s three slaves and the American Impressionist painter Edward Emerson Simmons. Like an archeologist flashing a torch on cave drawings, Beardsley shines a flashlight on a darkened wall to illuminate exceptional sketches of snipe, catfish, and other animals that were drawn by Simmons as an adolescent.
“The Old Manse is like an onion. You pull off one layer, and there’s another beneath it,’’ Beardsley says. “I’ve never seen a singular house like this.’’