The Concord School of Philosophy opened its first session in the summer of 1879. The dust of late July lay velvet soft and velvet deep on all the highways; or, stirred by the passing wheel, rose in slow clouds, not unemblematic of the transcendental haze which filled the mental atmosphere thereabout.
Of those who had made Concord one of the homes of the soul, Hawthorne and Thoreau had been dead many years—I saw their graves in Sleepy Hollow;—and Margaret Fuller had perished long ago by shipwreck on Fire Island Beach. But Alcott was still alive and garrulous; and Ellery Channing—Thoreau's biographer—was alive. Above all, the sage of Concord, "the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit," still walked his ancient haunts; his mind in many ways yet unimpaired, though sadly troubled by aphasia, or the failure of verbal memory. It was an instance of pathetic irony that in his lecture on "Memory," delivered in the Town Hall, he was prompted constantly by his daughter.
It seemed an inappropriate manner of arrival—the Fitchburg Railroad. One should have dropped down upon the sacred spot by parachute; or, at worst, have come on foot, with staff and scrip, along the Lexington pike, reversing the fleeing steps of the British regulars on that April day, when the embattled farmers made their famous stand. But I remembered that Thoreau, whose Walden solitude was disturbed by gangs of Irish laborers laying the tracks of this same Fitchburg Railroad, consoled himself with the reflection that hospitable nature made the intruder a part of herself. The embankment runs along one end of the pond, and the hermit only said:
Afterwards I witnessed, and participated in, a more radical profanation of these crystal waters, when two hundred of the dirtiest children in Boston, South-enders, were brought down by train on a fresh-air-fund picnic and washed in the lake just in front of the spot where Thoreau's cabin stood, after having been duly swung in the swings, teetered on the see-saws, and fed with a sandwich, a slice of cake, a pint of peanuts, and a lemonade apiece, by a committee of charitable ladies—one of whom was Miss Louisa Alcott, certainly a high authority on "Little Women" and "Little Men."
Miss Alcott I had encountered on the evening of my first day in Concord, when I rang the door bell of the Alcott residence and asked if the seer was within. I fancied that there was a trace of acerbity in the manner of the tall lady who answered my ring, and told me abruptly that Mr. Alcott was not at home, and that I would probably find him at Mr. Sanborn's farther up the street. Perspiring philosophers with dusters and grip-sacks had been arriving all day and applying at the Alcott house for addresses of boarding houses and for instructions of all kinds; and Miss Louisa's patience may well have been tried. She did not take much stock in the School anyway. Her father was supremely happy. One of the dreams of his life was realized, and endless talk and soul-communion were in prospect. But his daughter's view of philosophy was tinged with irony, as was not unnatural in a high-spirited woman who had borne the burden of the family's support, and had even worked out in domestic service, while her unworldly parent was transcendentalizing about the country, holding conversation classes in western towns, from which after prolonged absences he sometimes brought home a dollar, and sometimes only himself. "Philosophy can bake no bread, but it can give us God, freedom, and immortality" read the motto—from Novalis—on the cover of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, published at Concord in those years, under the editorship of Mr. William T. Harris; but bread must be baked, for even philosophers must eat, and an occasional impatience of the merely ideal may be forgiven in the overworked practician.
On Mr. Frank Sanborn's wide, shady verandah, I found Mr. Alcott, a most quaint and venerable figure, large in frame and countenance, with beautiful, flowing white hair. He moved slowly, and spoke deliberately in a rich voice. His face had a look of mild and innocent solemnity, and he reminded me altogether of a large benignant sheep or other ruminating animal. He was benevolently interested when I introduced myself as the first fruits of the stranger and added that I was from Connecticut. He himself was a native of the little hill town of Wolcott, not many miles from New Haven, and in youth had travelled through the South as a Yankee peddler. "Connecticut gave him birth," says Thoreau; "he peddled first her wares, afterwards, he declares, his brains."
Mr. Sanborn was the secretary of the School, and with him I enrolled myself as a pupil and paid the very modest fee which admitted me to its symposia. Mr. Sanborn is well known through his contributions to Concord history and biography. He was for years one of the literary staff of The Springfield Republican, active in many reform movements, and an efficient member of the American Social Science Association. Almost from his house John Brown started on his Harper's Ferry raid, and people in Concord still dwell upon the exciting incident of Mr. Sanborn's arrest in 1860 as an accessory before the fact. The United States deputy marshal with his myrmidons drove out from Boston in a hack. They lured the unsuspecting abolitionist outside his door, on some pretext or other, clapped the handcuffs on him, and tried to get him into the hack. But their victim, planting his long legs one on each side of the carriage door, resisted sturdily, and his neighbors assaulted the officers with hue and cry. The town rose upon them. Judge Hoar hastily issued a habeas corpus returnable before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and the baffled minions of the slave power went back to Boston.
The School assembled in the Orchard House, formerly the residence of Mr. Alcott, on the Lexington road. Next door was the Wayside, Hawthorne's home for a number of years, a cottage overshadowed by the steep hillside that rose behind it, thick with hemlocks and larches. On the ridge of this hill was Hawthorne's "out door study," a foot path worn by his own feet, as he paced back and forth among the trees and thought out the plots of his romances. In 1879 the Wayside was tenanted by George Lathrop, who had married Hawthorne's daughter, Rose. He had already published his "Study of Hawthorne" and a volume of poems, "Rose and Rooftree." His novel, "An Echo of Passion," was yet to come, a book which unites something of modern realism with a delicately symbolic art akin to Hawthorne's own.
A bust of Plato presided over the exercises of the School, and "Plato-Skimpole"—as Mr. Alcott was once nicknamed—made the opening address. I remember how impressively he quoted Milton's lines:
Our pièce de résistance was the course of lectures in which Mr. Harris expounded Hegel. But there were many other lecturers. Mrs. Edna Cheney talked to us about art; though all that I recall of her conversation is the fact that she pronounced always olways, and I wondered if that was the regular Boston pronunciation. Dr. Jones, the self-taught Platonist of Jacksonville, Illinois, interpreted Plato. Quite a throng of his disciples, mostly women, had followed him from Illinois and swelled the numbers of the Summer School. Once Professor Benjamin Peirce, the great Harvard mathematician, came over from Cambridge, and read us one of his Lowell Institute lectures, on the Ideality of Mathematics. He had a most distinguished presence and an eye, as was said, of black fire. The Harvard undergraduates of my time used to call him Benny Peirce; and on the fly leaves of their mathematical text books they would write, "Who steals my Peirce steals trash." Colonel T. W. Higginson read a single lecture on American literature, from which I carried away for future use a delightful story about an excellent Boston merchant who, being asked at a Goethe birthday dinner to make a few remarks, said that he "guessed that Go-ethe was the N. P. Willis of Germany."
Colonel Higginson's lecture was to me a green oasis in the arid desert of metaphysics, but it was regarded by earnest truth-seekers in the class as quite irrelevant to the purposes of the course. The lecturer himself confided to me at the close of the session a suspicion that his audience cared more for philosophy than for literature. Once or twice Mr. Emerson visited the School, taking no part in its proceedings, but sitting patiently through the hour, and wearing what a newspaper reporter described as his "wise smile." After the lecture for the session was ended, the subject was thrown open to discussion and there was an opportunity to ask questions. Most of us were shy to speak out in that presence, feeling ourselves in a state of pupilage. Usually there would be a silence of several minutes, as at a Quaker meeting waiting for the spirit to move; and then Mr. Alcott would announce in his solemn, musical tones "I have a thought"; and after a weighty pause, proceed to some Orphic utterance. Alcott, indeed, was what might be called the leader on the floor; and he was ably seconded by Miss Elizabeth Peabody, the sister of Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife. Miss Peabody was well known as the introducer of the German kindergarten, and for her life-long zeal in behalf of all kinds of philanthropies and reforms. Henry James was accused of having caricatured her in his novel "The Bostonians," in the figure of the dear, visionary, vaguely benevolent old lady who is perpetually engaged in promoting "causes," attending conventions, carrying on correspondence, forming committees, drawing up resolutions, and the like; and who has so many "causes" on hand at once that she gets them all mixed up and cannot remember which of her friends are spiritualists and which of them are concerned in woman's rights movements, temperance agitations, and universal peace associations. Mr. James denied that he meant Miss Peabody, whom he had never met or known. If so, he certainly divined the type. In her later years, Miss Peabody was nicknamed "the grandmother of Boston."
I have to acknowledge, to my shame, that I was often a truant to the discussions of the School, which met three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon. The weather was hot and the air in the Orchard House was drowsy. There were many outside attractions, and more and more I was tempted to leave the philosophers to reason high—
while I wandered off through the woods for a bath in Walden, some one and a half miles away, through whose transparent waters the pebbles on the bottom could be plainly seen at a depth of thirty feet. Sometimes I went farther afield to White Pond, described by Thoreau, or Baker Farm, sung by Ellery Channing. A pleasant young fellow at Miss Emma Barrett's boarding house, who had no philosophy, but was a great hand at picnics and boating and black-berrying parties, paddled me up the Assabeth, or North Branch, in his canoe, and drove me over to Longfellow's Wayside Inn at Sudbury. And so it happens that, when I look back at my fortnight at Concord, what I think of is not so much the murmurous auditorium of the Orchard House, as the row of colossal sycamores along the village sidewalk that led us thither, whose smooth, mottled trunks in the moonlight resembled a range of Egyptian temple columns. Or I haunt again at twilight the grounds of the Old Manse, where Hawthorne wrote his "Mosses," and the grassy lane beside it leading down to the site of the rude bridge and the first battlefield of the Revolution. Here were the headstones of the two British soldiers, buried where they fell; here the Concord monument erected in 1836:
In the field across the river was the spirited statue of the minuteman, designed by young Daniel Chester French, a Concord boy who has since distinguished himself as a sculptor in wider fields and more imposing works.
The social life of Concord, judging from such glimpses as could be had of it, was peculiar. It was the life of a village community, marked by the friendly simplicity of country neighbors, but marked also by unusual intellectual distinction and an addiction to "the things of the mind." The town was not at all provincial, or what the Germans call kleinstädtisch:—cosmopolitan, rather, as lying on the highway of thought. It gave one a thrill, for example, to meet Mr. Emerson coming from the Post Office with his mail, like any ordinary citizen. The petty constraint, the narrow standards of conduct which are sometimes the bane of village life were almost unknown. Transcendental freedom of speculation, all manner of heterodoxies, and the individual queernesses of those whom the world calls "cranks," had produced a general tolerance. Thus it was said, that the only reason why services were held in the Unitarian Church on Sunday was because Judge Hoar didn't quite like to play whist on that day. Many of the Concord houses have gardens bordering upon the river; and I was interested to notice that the boats moored at the bank had painted on their sterns plant names or bird names taken from the Concord poems—such as "The Rhodora," "The Veery," "The Linnæa," and "The Wood Thrush." Many a summer hour I spent with Edward Hoar in his skiff, rowing, or sailing, or floating up and down on this soft Concord stream—Musketaquit, or "grass-ground river"—moving through miles of meadow, fringed with willows and button bushes, with a current so languid, said Hawthorne, that the eye cannot detect which way it flows. Sometimes we sailed as far as Fair Haven Bay, whose "dark and sober billows," "when the wind blows freshly on a raw March day," Thoreau thought as fine as anything on Lake Huron or the northwest coast. Nor were we, I hope, altogether unperceiving of that other river which Emerson detected flowing underneath the Concord—
Edward Hoar had been Thoreau's companion in one of his visits to the Maine woods. He knew the flora and fauna of Concord as well as his friend the poet-naturalist. He had a large experience of the world, had run a ranch in New Mexico and an orange plantation in Sicily. He was not so well known to the public as his brothers, Rockwood Hoar, Attorney General in Grant's Cabinet, and the late Senator George Frisbie Hoar, of Worcester; but I am persuaded that he was just as good company; and, then, neither of these distinguished gentlemen would have wasted whole afternoons in eating the lotus along the quiet reaches of the Musketaquit with a stripling philosopher.
The appetite for discussion not being fully satisfied by the stated meetings of the School in the Orchard House, the hospitable Concord folks opened their houses for informal symposia in the evenings. I was privileged to make one of a company that gathered in Emerson's library. The subject for the evening was Shakespeare, and Emerson read, by request, that mysterious little poem "The Phœnix and the Turtle," attributed to Shakespeare on rather doubtful evidence, but included for some reason in Emerson's volume of favorite selections, "Parnassus." He began by saying that he would not himself have chosen this particular piece, but as it had been chosen for him he would read it. And this he did, with that clean-cut, refined enunciation and subtle distribution of emphasis which made the charm of his delivery as a lyceum lecturer. When he came to the couplet,
I thought that I detected an idealistic implication in the lines which accounted for their presence in "Parnassus."
That shy recluse, Ellery Channing, most eccentric of the transcendentalists, was not to be found at the School or the evening symposia. He had married a sister of Margaret Fuller, but for years he had lived alone and done for himself, and his oddities had increased upon him with the years. I had read and liked many of his poems—those poems so savagely cut up by Poe, when first published in 1843—and my expressed interest in these foundlings of the Muse gave me the opportunity to meet the author of "A Poet's Hope" at one hospitable table where he was accustomed to sup on a stated evening every week.
The Concord Summer School of Philosophy went on for ten successive years, but I never managed to attend another session. A friend from New Haven, who was there for a few days in 1880, brought back the news that a certain young lady who was just beginning the study of Hegel the year before, had now got up to the second intention, and hoped in time to attain the sixth. I never got far enough in Mr. Harris's lectures to discover what Hegelian intentions were; but my friend spoke of them as if they were something like degrees in Masonry. In 1905 I visited Concord for the first and only time in twenty-six years. There is a good deal of philosophy in Wordsworth's Yarrow poems—
and I have heard it suggested that he might well have added to his trilogy, a fourth member, "Yarrow Unrevisited." There is a loss, though Concord bears the strain better than most places, I think. As we go on in life the world gets full of ghosts, and at the capital of transcendentalism I was peculiarly conscious of the haunting of these spiritual presences. Since I had been there before, Emerson and Alcott and Ellery Channing and my courteous host and companion, Edward Hoar, and my kind old landlady Miss Barrett—who had also been Emerson's landlady and indeed everybody's landlady in Concord, and whom her youngest boarders addressed affectionately as Emma—all these and many more had joined the sleepers in Sleepy Hollow. The town itself has suffered comparatively few changes. True there is a trolley line through the main street—oddly called "The Milldam," and in Walden wood I met an automobile not far from the cairn, or stone pile, which marks the site of Thoreau's cabin. But the woods themselves were intact and the limpid waters of the pond had not been tapped to furnish power for any electric light company. The Old Manse looked much the same, and so did the Wayside and the Orchard House. Not a tree was missing from the mystic ring of tall pines in front of Emerson's house at the fork of the Cambridge and Lexington roads. On the central square the ancient tavern was gone where I had lodged on the night of my arrival and where my host, a practical philosopher—everyone in Concord had his philosophy,—took a gloomy view of the local potentialities of the hotel business. He said there was nothing doing—some milk and asparagus were raised for the Boston market, but the inhabitants were mostly literary people. "I suppose," he added, "we've got the smartest literary man in the country living right here." "You mean Mr. Emerson," I suggested. "Yes, sir, and a gentleman too."
"And Alcott?" I ventured.
"Oh, Alcott! The best thing he ever did was his daughters."
This inn was gone, but the still more ancient one across the square remains, the tavern where Major Pitcairn dined on the day of the Lexington fight, and from whose windows or door steps he is alleged by the history books to have cried to a group of embattled farmers, "Disperse, ye Yankee rebels."
Concord is well preserved. Still there are subtle indications of the flight of time. For one thing, the literary pilgrimage business has increased, partly no doubt because trolleys, automobiles, and bicycles have made the town more accessible; but also because our literature is a generation older than it was in 1879. The study of American authors has been systematically introduced into the public schools. The men who made Concord famous are dead, but their habitat has become increasingly classic ground as they themselves have receded into a dignified, historic past. At any rate, the trail of the excursionist—the "cheap tripper," as he is called in England,—is over it all. Basket parties had evidently eaten many a luncheon on the first battle-field of the Revolution, and notices were posted about, asking the public not to deface the trees, and instructing them where to put their paper wrappers and fragmenta regalia. I could imagine Boston schoolma'ams pointing out to their classes, the minuteman, the monument, and other objects of interest, and calling for names and dates. The shores of Walden were trampled and worn in spots. There were springboards there for diving, and traces of the picnicker were everywhere. Trespassers were warned away from the grounds of the Old Manse and similar historic spots, by signs of "Private Property."
Concord has grown more self-conscious under the pressure of all this publicity and resort. Tablets and inscriptions have been put up at points of interest. As I was reading one of these on the square, I was approached by a man who handed me a business card with photographs of the monument, the Wayside, the four-hundred-year-old oak, with information to the effect that Mr. —— would furnish guides and livery teams about the town and to places as far distant as Walden Pond and Sudbury Inn. Thus poetry becomes an asset, and transcendentalism is exploited after the poet and the philosopher are dead. It took Emerson eleven years to sell five hundred copies of "Nature," and Thoreau's books came back upon his hands as unsalable and were piled up in the attic like cord-wood. I was impressed anew with the tameness of the Concord landscape. There is nothing salient about it: it is the average mean of New England nature. Berkshire is incomparably more beautiful. And yet those flat meadows and low hills and slow streams are dear to the imagination, since genius has looked upon them and made them its own. "The eye," said Emerson, "is the first circle: the horizon the second."
And the Concord books—how do they bear the test of revisitation? To me, at least, they have—even some of the second-rate papers in the "Dial" have—now nearly fifty years since I read them first, that freshness which is the mark of immortality.
I think I do not mistake, and confer upon them the youth which was then mine. No, the morning light had touched their foreheads: the youthfulness was in them.
Lately I saw a newspaper item about one of the thirty thousand literary pilgrims who are said to visit Concord annually. Calling upon Mr. Sanborn, he asked him which of the Concord authors he thought would last longest. The answer, somewhat to his surprise, was "Thoreau." I do not know whether this report is authentic; but supposing it true, it is not inexplicable. I will confess that, of recent years, I find myself reading Thoreau more and Emerson less. "Walden" seems to me more of a book than Emerson ever wrote. Emerson's was incomparably the larger nature, the more liberal and gracious soul. His, too, was the seminal mind; though Lowell was unfair to the disciple, when he described him as a pistillate blossom fertilized by the Emersonian pollen. For Thoreau had an originality of his own—a flavor as individual as the tang of the bog cranberry, or the wild apples which he loved. One secure advantage he possesses in the concreteness of his subject-matter. The master, with his abstract habit of mind and his view of the merely phenomenal character of the objects of sense, took up a somewhat incurious attitude towards details, not thinking it worth while to "examine too microscopically the universal tablet." The disciple, though he professed that the other world was all his art, had a sharp eye for this. Emerson was Nature's lover, but Thoreau was her scholar. Emerson's method was intuition, while Thoreau's was observation. He worked harder than Emerson and knew more,—that is, within certain defined limits. Thus he read the Greek poets in the original. Emerson, in whom there was a spice of indolence—due, say his biographers, to feeble health in early life, and the need of going slow,—read them in translations and excused himself on the ground that he liked to be beholden to the great English language.
Compare Hawthorne's description, in the "Mosses," of a day spent on the Assabeth with Ellery Channing, with any chapter in Thoreau's "Week." Moonlight and high noon! The great romancer gives a dreamy, poetic version of the river landscape, musically phrased, pictorially composed, dissolved in atmosphere—a lovely piece of literary art, with the soft blur of a mezzotint engraving, say, from the designs by Turner in Rogers's "Italy." Thoreau, equally imaginative in his way, writes like a botanist, naturalist, surveyor, and local antiquary; and in a pungent, practical, business-like style—a style, as was said of Dante, in which words are things. Yet which of these was the true transcendentalist?
Matthew Arnold's discourse on Emerson was received with strong dissent in Boston, where it was delivered, and in Concord, where it was read with indignation. The critic seemed to be taking away, one after another, our venerated master's claims as a poet, a man of letters, and a philosopher. What! Gray a great poet, and Emerson not! Addison a great writer, and Emerson not! Surely there are heights and depths in Emerson, an inspiring power, an originality and force of thought which are neither in Gray nor in Addison. And how can these denials be consistent with the sentence near the end of the discourse, pronouncing Emerson's essays the most important work done in English prose during the nineteenth century—more important than Carlyle's? A truly enormous concession this; how to reconcile it with those preceding blasphemies?
Let not the lightning strike me if I say that I think Arnold was right—as he usually was right in a question of taste or critical discernment. For Emerson was essentially a prophet and theosophist, and not a man of letters, or creative artist. He could not have written a song or a story or a play. Arnold complains of his want of concreteness. The essay was his chosen medium, well-nigh the least concrete, the least literary of forms. And it was not even the personal essay, like Elia's, that he practised, but an abstract variety, a lyceum lecture, a moralizing discourse or sermon. For the clerical virus was strong in Emerson, and it was not for nothing that he was descended from eight generations of preachers. His concern was primarily with religion and ethics, not with the tragedy and comedy of personal lives, this motley face of things, das bunte Menschenleben. Anecdotes and testimonies abound to illustrate this. See him on his travels in Europe, least picturesque of tourists, hastening with almost comic precipitation past galleries, cathedrals, ancient ruins, Swiss alps, Como lakes, Rhine castles, Venetian lagoons, costumed peasants, "the great sinful streets of Naples"—and of Paris,—and all manner and description of local color and historic associations; hastening to meet and talk with "a few minds"—Landor, Wordsworth, Carlyle. Here he was in line, indeed, with his great friend, impatiently waving aside the art patter, with which Sterling filled his letters from Italy. "Among the windy gospels," complains Carlyle, "addressed to our poor Century there are few louder than this of Art.... It is a subject on which earnest men ... had better ... 'perambulate their picture-gallery with little or no speech.'" "Emerson has never in his life," affirms Mr. John Jay Chapman, "felt the normal appeal of any painting, or any sculpture, or any architecture, or any music. These things, of which he does not know the meaning in real life, he yet uses, and uses constantly, as symbols to convey ethical truths. The result is that his books are full of blind places, like the notes which will not strike on a sick piano." The biographers tell us that he had no ear for music and could not distinguish one tune from another; did not care for pictures nor for garden flowers; could see nothing in Dante's poetry nor in Shelley's, nor in Hawthorne's romances, nor in the novels of Dickens and Jane Austen. Edgar Poe was to him "the jingle man." Poe, of course, had no "message."
I read, a number of years ago, some impressions of Concord by Roger Riordan, the poet and art critic. I cannot now put my hand, for purposes of quotation, upon the title of the periodical in which these appeared; but I remember that the writer was greatly amused, as well as somewhat provoked, by his inability to get any of the philosophers with whom he sought interviews to take an æsthetic view of any poem, or painting, or other art product. They would talk of its "message" or its "ethical content"; but as to questions of technique or beauty, they gently put them one side as unworthy to engage the attention of earnest souls.
At the symposium which I have mentioned in Emerson's library, was present a young philosopher who had had the advantage of reading—perhaps in proof sheets—a book about Shakespeare by Mr. Denton J. Snider. He was questioned by some of the guests as to the character of the work, but modestly declined to essay a description of it in the presence of such eminent persons; venturing only to say that it "gave the ethical view of Shakespeare," information which was received by the company with silent but manifest approval.
Yet, after all, what does it matter whether Emerson was singly any one of those things which Matthew Arnold says he was not—great poet, great writer, great philosophical thinker? These are matters of classification and definition. We know well enough the rare combination of qualities which made him our Emerson. Let us leave it there. Even as a formal verse-writer, when he does emerge from his cloud of encumbrances, it is in some supernal phrase such as only the great poets have the secret of: