A few weeks ago, I touched the desk where Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women,” by accident.
It happened on one of the coolest tours I’ve ever taken, a special three-destination package of the Concord Museum, the Alcott house and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, all within walking distance of each other in what must be the smartest square mile in Massachusetts.
My travel buddy (a.k.a. Mom) tipped me off to a great exhibit (going on through the end of September) at the Concord Museum. Annie Leibovitz’s “Pilgrimage” features stunning photos of places and things important to many of the world’s greatest thinkers (Charles Darwin’s notes, Emerson’s library) and artists (Virginia Woolf’s desk, Elvis Presley’s shot-out television). I’m an amateur judge, at best, of photography, but these were breathtaking images – quiet moments and sweeping landscapes, all connected with some of the most riveting people.
The museum has this deal right now, where you can get a ticket to the exhibit as well as the two historical homes. It’s $21. And it’s worth it. After the Leibovitz exhibit, we made our way through the rest of the museum, which is bigger than it looks and a fine tribute to the history of Concord. Following that, we made our way along Lexington Road to the Alcott home, a gorgeous, brown Colonial set among lush gardens and the Concord School of Philosophy, established by Bronson Alcott.
Historical home tours are a gamble – they could be terribly short, or filled with replicas and assumptions.
Or they could be the Alcott home. Preserved for the most part the way Bronson, his wife and daughters kept it, the home is wide open to tour groups. Nothing is behind velvet ropes or glass. The tour begins with a short video told by “Louisa May Alcott” (the museum director) and a brief history of her father’s visions for educational reform, the literary importance of Concord in the 19th century and Louisa’s own headstrong feminism.
Then we were led by Beth, our tour guide, into the home’s kitchen for the start of the tour. It was as if she had been a close, personal friend of the Alcotts – she spoke about them with authority, respect and fondness. She also connected the Alcotts’ home life with Concord — Emerson would debate with Bronson when they passed each other in the street, Henry David Thoreau would take the girls on nature walks — and with “Little Women,” Louisa’s most famous novel. As we stood in Louisa’s bedroom, I accidentally backed up against a small writing desk Bronson had built for her. Our guide explained that’s where she wrote most of the story of Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy.
We weren’t able to make it over to the Emerson home in time for a tour, but the ticket package is good through the extent of the Leibovitz exhibit. The rest of our afternoon, we spent walking through the gorgeous downtown area, full of high-end boutiques, high-end homes and a high-end school (Concord Academy). Don’t forget to bring a lot of money if you plan to shop in this town.
We followed this with a quick drive across Route 2 to West Concord, a quieter but still charming town-square area. We then hopped over to neighboring Maynard for a bite to eat.
Concord is a gem. We didn’t even scratch the surface of its attractions (Walden Pond, river kayaking, etc.) but the tours were enough to remind me why I love the place. Imagine being young Louisa. Your neighbors are some of the greatest American minds and you know it. Your parents are progressive well beyond their time. The dinner-table chatter isn’t about reality TV, but about education, human rights, agriculture, nature, philosophy and politics.
Beth, our tour guide, explained the mindset among this group perfectly: “They were great friends, but they weren’t a chorus.”
Imagine being able to debate calmly, rationally, and intellectually, and being able to disagree pleasantly. Now we fight, insult, pander, choose our news from those who “agree” with us. Part of my modern-convenience-loving self was jealous of the people who lived in Concord then.