Students in the Literature of Concord go out on the town to explore its literary legacy firsthand.
On a late November morning, 10 students from Leigh Gilmore’s Literature of Concord course hot-footed it out of chapel and jumped into a pair of minivans waiting to shuttle the class to the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods. Inside the doors of the institute’s library, Jeffrey Cramer greeted the students. Cramer is the curator of collections there and the editor of the very edition of Walden that the class was in the midst of studying. For the next hour, he guided the group through the library’s holdings, the most comprehensive collection of Thoreau-related materials in the world: a truly Thoreauvian treasure trove.
The group laid eyes and hands on a number of artifacts, including one of three known daguerreotypes of Thoreau. One by one, students turned the framed image over in the palm of their hands to catch its iridescence in the light, just as Thoreau must have done when he commissioned the portrait in 1856. They (gently!) leafed through an original manuscript of “Sir Walter Raleigh.” Cramer pointed out pages where Thoreau practiced his signature, annotated passages, and penciled in notations to the text—all of which help “make Thoreau look very human,” Cramer says.
For Gilmore, this kind of firsthand contact is invaluable to her course. “Studying the literature of Concord in Concord enables us to walk where the writers walked, visit their homes, encounter their manuscripts, and see the relation of their ideas about place and friendship as part of a living legacy to which we belong and can contribute,” she says.
In addition to Thoreau’s writing, the course examines the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and a fourth major figure: Concord itself. The town is a source of historical information, as well as a “living lab for encountering the place that inspired, provoked, and nurtured” these writers, Gilmore says. “We can go to Walden informed by our understanding of Thoreau’s wider experience. We can encounter, as best we can, the wildness he so valued in the context of the railroad and village life he also appreciated.”
To close out the semester, the students again left the confines of the classroom and walked a few doors down Main Street to the house where Thoreau lived out his last days. Sarah and Ken Lazarus, parents of two CA children, live there now and opened their home to the class. Sarah Lazarus showed the group the room where Thoreau penned Walden, shared the requisite ghost stories, and showed the group the addition the Alcott family built when they bought the house, as well as the very room where the Transcendentalist Club gathered in the 1870s.
Finally, students took turns reading passages—what they’d like their last words to be—in the room where Thoreau uttered his. (They are believed to be, “Now comes good sailing,” followed by two lone words: “moose” and “Indian.”) The group read Emerson’s eulogy to his longtime friend, who was buried at age 44 just down the road on Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Wrapping up their studies in the very space where Thoreau died, “It was an extraordinary ending to the course,” says Gilmore. Perhaps not a textbook ending, but that’s exactly the point.