Last weekend, on the way home from an afternoon walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, I stopped at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to visit Authors Ridge, where Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and both Bronson and Louisa May Alcott are buried. It was late afternoon, with the sun leaning low behind towering trees that cast long, slanting shadows: a preview of oncoming darkness. A steady trickle of tourists wandered through fallen leaves and slanting sunbeams to quietly examine the various stones while I waited for the quiet crowds to disperse before paying my own respects.
I’ve visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery a few times before, but typically on foot rather than by car. When I first moved to the Boston area, I’d take the commuter rail to Concord a couple times each year, walking from the train station to Walden Pond, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, or the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge: a pedestrian pilgrimage where the journey to and from my destination took as long (and was just as interesting) as the visit itself.
If you drive to Sleepy Hollow, you’ll find dignified stone pillars pointing you toward Authors Ridge, and once you reach that eminent destination, you’ll find a small parking area where you can stop alongside one or two other cars. The folks who run Sleepy Hollow Cemetery make it easy, in other words, to make a pilgrimage to Authors Ridge: they know that’s what countless tourists come to Concord to see. It felt a bit too easy, however—a bit like cheating—to drive into the cemetery this way, as if I were checking Thoreau, Emerson, and the rest off a sightseeing bucket list: after you’ve made the requisite stop to see the stones, what’s next?
The fact that so many tourists come to Concord specifically because of its storied history—Concord being not just the birthplace of the American Revolution, but the hotbed of the American Renaissance—was apparent before I’d even arrived at the cemetery, when we’d stopped downtown for a cup of chowder. The family next to us had an inexpensive copy of Walden sitting on their table, and our waitress asked us whether we were taking a break from shopping. “Is this what it’s come to,” I thought to myself, “that Thoreau’s backyard has become a place for Sunday shopping trips and literary sightseeing, that copy of Walden probably coming from the pond’s own gift shop?” This is, of course, a particularly cranky thought: even Thoreau wasn’t so misanthropic as to reject visitors to his cabin, and if you’re going to preserve ponds, cemeteries, and wildlife sanctuaries, you have to fund them with a certain amount of souvenir-selling.
I felt a bit sad visiting Authors Ridge on Sunday, but not because Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts would mind being visited by respectful tourists: wouldn’t any author be happy to know her or his words live on? Someone had left flowers on Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne’s graves, and Henry David Thoreau’s humble tombstone—a marker no different from any of the other stones in the Thoreau family plot, marked simply with the name “Henry”—was adorned as usual with offerings from previous pilgrims: stones, coins, and a pair of plastic pens even though Thoreau would have surely preferred pencils. Down the way from both the Hawthorne and Thoreau family plots, I overheard one family conferring with a stranger, trying to determine what they might have missed. “Emerson is down that way,” the stranger remarked, gesturing beyond the scattered family, who had fanned out among the weathered stones. “Oh, no,” the mother answered, presumably speaking for the rest. “We don’t like Emerson.”
What made me sad as I stood among sleepy stones in the setting sun on a late-autumn afternoon wasn’t the fact that some tourists pick favorites but the memory of those other times I’ve visited Authors Ridge: times when I was still in graduate school, actively engaged in scholarship on Thoreau and 19th century American literature. Back then, I wanted to be like Thoreau, believing that if I pursued a PhD, completed a dissertation on Thoreau and American nature writing, and attained a tenure-track job, I could join a coterie of literary academics who do what my own professors did, inspiring undergraduates with the intensity of their literary passions. Looking back, it all seems so idealistic, this notion that if I studied, researched, and wrote about what I loved, the academy would love me back, allowing me to make a decent living writing, teaching, and inspiring.
Instead, some eight years after I finished that dissertation and completed that PhD, I’m no closer to securing full-time employment within academia. Instead of teaching Thoreau to upperclassmen, I teach college freshmen how to write academic papers: a noble enough endeavor that brings its own satisfaction, but one so undervalued by the academy, most colleges believe it merits only part-time pay. Standing before Thoreau’s humble stone, I quietly lamented how far I’ve fallen from my own erstwhile hopes: while I once aspired to be an eminent scholar, now I’m merely another passing tourist, having forgotten more about Thoreau than most folks will ever know.
Surely Thoreau himself knew more than a bit about the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams, having written a passage in his 1852 journal that rings sadly true:
The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.
I’m in my woodshed-building years, my own late afternoon sun leaning long toward the horizon as I cobble together a patchwork of part-time jobs with the materials I’d gathered to build a career. Thoreau himself worked a ragtag assortment of jobs after deciding he wasn’t cut out to be a teacher: writer, Lyceum lecturer, handyman, surveyor. Did Thoreau ever look back on his life with a sense of disappointment, wondering silently, “For this I went to college?” In his own middle-age, did Thoreau ever feel he had wasted his precious potential?
Emerson, at least, felt Thoreau underachieved during his too-brief lifetime, offering in Thoreau’s eulogy a backhanded compliment:
Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!
Thoreau had no ambition? It depends, of course, on what you consider “ambitious.” Perhaps Thoreau collects more mementos on his simple grave than Emerson does on his monumental one because Thoreau’s goals had a longer, more subtle scope, with Emerson writing for his own age and Thoreau writing for the ages. “We don’t like Emerson,” that woman remarked, and perhaps what she detected in Emerson’s prose was an urgent prudishness that so earnestly pursued self-culture, no room remained for anything other than enterprise and command. Aren’t there plenty of people doing and leading, scheming and engineering? Perhaps the wisdom gained from pounding beans is that at the end of years, “only beans” is nothing to sneer at.
Thoreau died at the age of 44, my own age come January. They say that middle age is when you realize you’ll never read Proust; for me, as a writer, middle age is when I’m coming to realize I’ll never write another Walden. Is pounding out blog posts or pouring over pile after pile of student papers worth the toil? At the end of days, do either potential or ambition matter, or only what you build with them?