Concord River from North Bridge

Warm November Sundays are especially sweet when you know the dark days of winter aren’t far behind.

Thoreau's last journal entry, followed by a blank page. He died six months later.

Yesterday I went to the Concord Museum to see This Ever New Self, an exhibition of Henry David Thoreau’s journals that closes this weekend. It was inspiring to be in the same room as so many notebooks Thoreau had touched, along with a ragtag assortment of objects: for example, his desk, flute, and walking stick; the only two photographs taken of him; two pages from his herbarium; and the wooden chest in which his notebooks were stored.

Journal with Thoreau family pencils

Most moving, though, was the final entry in his last notebook: half a page of Thoreau’s indecipherable scrawl, then an empty page. Thoreau, the placard explains, wrote his last journal entry in November, 1861 and died six months later. The empty page that follows the final entry in Thoreau’s voluminous journals–nearly ten thousand pages written over the course of his adult life–is as stark and final as slammed door.

Journal with drawing of hawk feather

Journal-keeping is an indefinite endeavor, a kind of composition that defies the constraints of beginning, middle, and end. A story follows an arc, and a novel is definitively done when published, but a journal (and a journal-keeper) starts anew with each page. A journal is a compendium of loose ends, dropped narrative threads, aborted ideas, and discarded dead-ends. That is what makes Thoreau’s final journal entry so shocking. This is a story that was cut off prematurely in mid-thought. It’s the ultimate cliffhanger: the words To Be Continued abruptly replaced with The End.

Click here for more photos of Thoreau’s journals at the Concord Museum. Enjoy!

Hampshire House / aka "Cheers"

It’s a long-standing joke among Boston-area residents that we never visit the usual tourist sites except when family or friends come to visit. For a couple years in grad school, for instance, I lived in Beacon Hill, but I never set foot in the Hampshire House, the bar whose façade appeared in exterior shots of the TV show “Cheers.” As a resident, I walked by the Hampshire House countless times, but going inside was something only tourists did. It became a perverse point of pride that I could live a few blocks away from a celebrated spot without rubbernecking or gawking: there’s nothing to see here, folks, so move along.

Daniel Webster

This past week, we’ve had family visiting from out of state, so I’ve set aside some of this long-standing residential snobbery. Although none of our visitors wanted to see “Cheers,” we did pass the familiar exterior of the Hampshire House on a tourist trolley we took around town, and J and I finally had reason to visit various landmarks we’ve often passed without fully exploring.

Trolley fan

Before this week, for instance, I’d often passed by the Old North Church in Boston’s North End, but I’d never set foot inside…and although I spent several hungry years in grad school working a retail job at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, I’d never before this week set foot in Faneuil Hall’s impressive Great Hall.

Great Hall

Before this week, I’d often walked along Boston Harbor, but I’d never taken a “Spirit of Boston” lunch cruise, nor had I ever tossed tea aboard one of the harbor’s replica Tea Party ships.

Action shot

And for all the times I’ve been to Concord to visit Walden Pond and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, I’d never seen the inside of the Old Manse, where Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Nature and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Mosses from an Old Manse at a desk built by Henry David Thoreau…

Side door

…nor had I ever toured the Orchard House, where both Bronson and Louisa May Alcott lived and where Louisa May wrote Little Women.

Front facade

The greater Boston area offers an embarrassment of riches if you’re interested in history, literature, or the arts: where else, for instance, can you stroll from a house where both Emerson and Hawthorne lived (and where Thoreau dug the garden as a wedding gift to Hawthorne and his bride, Sophia Peabody) to cross the bridge where the Revolutionary “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired?

Empty bridge

As we toured Boston and Concord with our relatives this past week, J and I marveled at how much has happened in the general vicinity we call home. At times, it seems like everyone in colonial and 19th century New England knew and was influenced by one another. On the morning after Paul Revere’s famous ride, for instance, Rev. William Emerson, Senior (Ralph Waldo’s grandfather) stood in his farm fields watching the battle at the North Bridge while his young son watched the fight from the window of the Old Manse…

Rear window

…and when an unknown Concord boy named Daniel Chester French expressed a desire to become a sculptor, he received encouragement from May Alcott–Bronson Alcott’s daughter, and sister to Louisa May–and grew up to sculpt not only the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, but also the Minute Man who stands at the foot of the Old North Bridge in Concord.

Daniel Chester French's Minute Man

“People want to know what’s in the water here,” our guide at the Orchard House remarked, given how many significant historical and literary events happened in the region.

History lessons

It does seem like something magical must have happened in colonial Boston and 19th century Concord to inspire so many great historic and literary deeds…and yet modern-day Bostonians’ reluctance to check out these sites points to the way history still happens here. For as thrilling as it is to stand in the room where Emerson and Hawthorne wrote or to admire flowers in a garden Thoreau planted, at the end of the day we each have our own proverbial row to hoe. If something great happened in that house, then, why can’t something equally impressive happen in this house, today?

The title from today’s post is borrowed from a chapter of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, where she suggests that writers should scour their surroundings for noteworthy details, just as tourists voraciously see the sights. It’s a title I used for a post several years ago when J and I toured the USS Constitution, which we re-visited with family this week: what goes around comes around.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

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.

Thoreau family plot

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.

Authors Ridge

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?

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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.

Alcott family plot

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.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson's grave

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.

Mary Moody Emerson

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.

Afternoon light

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?

Louisa May Alcott's grave

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!

Overlooking Cat Pond

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.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

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?