The Old Manse, Concord, Massachusetts
‘The biggest little place in America,’ was, for the novelist Henry James, Concord, Massachusetts. Sounding like a slogan for the town’s tourism board today, not to mention like a quaint expression of American pastoral kitsch, James’s phrase is meant to reference the difference between Concord’s modest size and its prominent place in history. In contrast to a current population of about 17,000, Concord was the physical site of one of the first skirmishes of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 as well as the metaphorical cradle of American Transcendentalism some 60 years later. The former, of course, was primarily a military engagement that set some of the Enlightenment’s most cherished political theories in motion—to say nothing of the displacement and enslavement of Native Americans and black Africans that also ensued, a circumstance that is still preserved in the predominantly white population of Concord. The latter was above all cultural and literary, having grown out of the indirect reception of Kantian ideas among New England’s Unitarian clergy and having counterintuitively expressed a rural, religious individualism that Kant would not have identified with at all. The unintended effects of the Enlightenment, it seems fair enough to say, were written into Concord in multiple historical registers and are still perceptible there today.
Yet, Concord’s twin claims to fame might be better understood as overdetermined than merely coincidental. This past summer I tested that hypothesis when I visited the place in Concord where its two most celebrated moments in history collide: the Old Manse, the family home of Concord’s still most famous former resident, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Standing just outside of town and set back from the road down a short dirt drive, the muted, rather austere house has a single peaked dormer centered above the front door, an unexpected, indeed unusual, detail that just distinguishes the structure from the other grand homes on Monument Street. At first glance, however, the architecture of the Old Manse is less noticeable than its perceptibly rural surroundings, which include picturesque trees and fields that stretch around the home for a few hundred yards, sloping down to the banks of the Concord River behind. It was near there that, on 19 April, 1775, the famed ‘shot heard round the world’ was fired, setting off the war for which the then patriarch of the Old Manse had advocated from his pulpit. Indeed, William Emerson Sr., the grandfather of Ralph Waldo, not only occupied the Old Manse at the time—in fact the house had been built for him—but he and his children, including Ralph Waldo’s father, William, Jr., witnessed the very battle that would ultimately change the course of American history.
Little wonder then that when Ralph Waldo returned to his family home in late 1834, he was tempted to ready and fire off a shot of his own, this one predominantly intellectual, if still undoubtedly political. That shot was the essay Nature of 1836, itself the very spark that inspired American Transcendentalism and, because of its highly pictorial prose and well-known relation to empiricist philosophy, one of my principal objects of study here at the Bilderfahrzeuge Project. The book’s most famous metaphor—the ‘transparent eyeball’, which was transformed into a drawing by Emerson’s admirer Christopher Pearse Cranch—even serves as the representative picture for my project on this website and can be found on tote bags for sale in the Old Manse’s gift shop. Such souvenirs aside, in relation to Nature’s composition what is all the more remarkable is that the text was supposedly written in the first floor, north-west facing bedroom of the Old Manse, the same bedroom, according to family legend, from which Emerson’s father had, as a young child, witnessed the Battle of Concord some 60 years earlier. Even the chair in which Emerson sat has somehow been preserved and you can—as I did—sit in a replica of it in that very bedroom in that very house on that very site in ‘the biggest little place in America’.
It seems appropriate, therefore, to dub the Old Manse not the home to two American revolutions—as it is, unsurprisingly, called by its tour guides—but rather as the home of two aggressive assertions of American autonomy, the first physical and military, the second cultural and literary. The potential causal relation between the former and the latter, of course, is just a hypothesis and one that, as I said, is best experienced for oneself. Should there be a causal relation, however, Emerson’s proverbial shot might be better understood not as the beginning of a second revolution but rather as a continuation of the first. Such a thesis would help explain why long-dead British cultural figures like Locke and Hume were Emerson’s literary nemeses even though Locke had died already in 1704 and Hume in 1776. The books of these great British empiricists literally made up Emerson’s education: Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, as Merle Curti long ago noted, functioned as a text book at Emerson’s alma mater, Harvard College, the institution out of which so much of American Transcendentalism arose. And one of Emerson’s earliest college essays was obsessed with what Emerson called ‘the terror … attached to the name of Hume.’ As a student, Emerson’s classmate, George Ripley, even used a commercially produced commonplace book based on Locke’s design, an object whose very existence testifies to just how inescapable British empiricism was in 19th century New England. To fully displace that British intellectual tradition, a new form of thinking and writing needed to be codified and perhaps that is the easiest way to understand what American Transcendentalism was trying to be. Revolutions, it seems fitting to conclude, are more complicated than military might; sometimes they stay in the family and take longer than one generation.