Polly Leonard is Selvedge’s founder and editor. Here, Polly shares her thoughts on Massachusetts, an area she has traveled to regularly in 2019, and recommends some literary sites to visit.
One of the compensations for having my son so far away at Amherst college is that the rest of the family get to spend lots of time exploring Massachusetts. This year alone we visited Tanglewood, a music venue in the town of Lenox in the Berkshire Mountains that has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937, as well as Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst itself, three times. In October we had the privilege of visiting Concord.
Concord has a remarkably rich literary history centred in the 19th century around Ralph Waldo Emerson who moved there in 1835 and quickly became its most prominent citizen. A successful lecturer and philosopher, Emerson was at the centre of a group of like-minded Transcendentalists living in Concord. Among them was the author Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter) and the philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott (Little Women). A native Concordian, Henry David Thoreau, who famously lived in a cabin at Walden Pond, (Walden) was another notable member of Emerson's circle. This substantial collection of literary talent in one small town led Henry James to dub Concord "the biggest little place in America.” Today, The Wayside (Nathaniel Hawthorne) and the Orchard House (Louisa May Allcott) are both museums. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts are all buried on Authors' Ridge in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
Coincidentally, there has been both a recently released Apple TV Drama series Dickinson and a new adaptation of Little Women. The TV series is a masterpiece of post-modern energy that has amongst other hilarious scenes, a Christmas lunch hosted by the Dickinson’s at which Louisa May Allcott appears as a challenging and riotously funny guest. This series breaks the 4th wall and has a similar pace to the critically acclaimed Gentleman Jack that we enjoyed earlier in the year.
Sadly, I cannot say the same for the much-anticipated Greta Gerwig retelling of the Little Women, with a star-studded cast and partly shot in Concord the film disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were too high, maybe the story has been re-told too often or maybe this version just did not add enough to the narrative.
In fact, I think the true story of Louisa May Allcott’s life is more fascinating- how she, not her father worked at a military hospital during the Civil War and how her artist sister Abigail May Allcott (Amy) an accomplished artist, whom Louisa supported during her studies in Paris, reportedly gave lessons to the accomplished sculptor Daniel Chester French in his youth. Upon May’s death during childbirth in 1879 Louisa brought up her daughter Louisa May "Lulu" until her death in 1888. Fact is often as appealing as fiction and I await a biopic about the life of Louise May Alcott.
I have enjoyed your blog on Massachusetts, we also travel regularly to New England and visited Marshfield School of weaving, which has the most amazing collection of 18th and 19th century barn looms, each one unique. We debated how they might have been cobbled together from recycled parts etc. Also a collection of wheels from the American Museum of Textiles in Lowell which sadly closed a few years ago. Kate Smith the current director has done an enormous amount of research and is a mine of fascinating historical information. During our visit, we also met expert resist indigo dyer Graham Keegan who was researching new resist techniques. If you have not visited it is well worth it.