History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

21 October 2009

Legends of Sleepy Hollow

Thoreau's grave
In 1855, a cemetery was configured on Bedford Street in Concord, Massachusetts, to conform to the aesthetics of the popular Transcendentalism movement, of which some of the area's favorite sons, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May) were followers. Transcendentalism typically rejects the emphasis placed on organized religion in order to attain an ideal state of spirituality, instead relying on one's personal intuition to achieve a spiritual state

The landscape of Sleepy Hollow cemetery was intended to mimic a natural garden, completely devoid of the typical formality associated with such repositories for the departed where coffins lie in serried ranks beneath the soil.

one of the oaks to which Emerson referred in his speech below. He was absolutely right.

On September 29, 1855, Emerson delivered the consecration speech, stating that a cemetery could not "jealously guard a few atoms under immense marbles, selfishly and impossibly sequestering [them] from the vast circulations of nature [which] recompenses for new life [each decomposing] particle. . . . When these acorns, that are falling at our feet, are oaks overshadowing our children in a remote century, this mute green bank will be full of history: the good, the wise, and the great will have left their names and virtues on the trees... will have made the air tuneable and articulate."

The result is as much a pineatum as a place to pine and ponder, holy ground in many ways.

House of three gables: graves of Nathaniel Hawthorne's family. The author's headstone is the most modest one on the far left.

My husband and I visited Concord on Columbus Day. Other than the fact that I'd mentioned to Scott a few days earlier that "they have a lot of great authors living there, particularly dead ones," we arrived with no preconceived notions of the legendary New England town where "the shot heard round the world" was fired on April 19, 1775. After fortifying ourselves with breakfast we began to wander wherever our souls and the soles of our shoes took us.

"I wonder what 'Authors Ridge' is," I mused, noticing a sign. "Let's explore."

Ralph Waldo Emerson's grave

Authors Ridge lies on a hilltop within Sleepy Hollow cemetery. There repose the Alcotts, the Thoreaus, the Hawthornes, and the Emersons, including Ralph Waldo, who was buried there in 1882, twenty-seven years after he delivered his consecration address.

Louisa May Alcott's grave in the foreground; her father, Amos Bronson Alcott's grave looms large to its right

Perhaps it was that Transcendentalist intuition that led us (or me, with Scott in tow) to Authors Ridge. I'd mentioned all those famous dead authors just days before but hadn't known they shared a final resting place that is the American equivalent of the Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey. By the time I realized where I was headed, a discovery had become a pilgrimage.

And as I wept, rather copiously I admit, over Louisa May Alcott's tombstone and placed three small stones (a Jewish tradition) on her gravesite, adding a penny and a pine cone (the penny, because other pilgrims had already done so; the pine cone for some instinctive reason; it helped complete a sort of memorial wreath), Scott jolted me back to reality -- and the 21st century.

"Remind me again who she is."

"She wrote Little Women," I said. "Among many other things." And I began to rattle off a bit of her biography. "Haven't you read Little Women?"

"Um ... guys don't read Little Women," he replied.

Has something in your heart or soul ever led you on an unusual visit like this? Did you ever begin the journey, as I did, completely ignorant, only to make your discovery on your arrival at the destination? Have you ever wept at an author's grave? Whose was it?


Anonymous Arleigh said...

Very interesting! I didn't know there was a place where all of these authors are linked. I'd love to know where Jean Plaidy is buried and journey there someday, as her writing has really impacted my life. I don't think I would cry, though, because she had a very long, fulfilling life - publishing 211 books is amazing and she left such a great legacy with her writing.

5:47 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Lovely post. Leslie. I've never seen LM Alcott's grave, but might have wept if I had. I did visit her house in Concord, with my mom years ago, and had a wonderful time, cooing unreservedly with my fellow Jo March groupie.

I think I sniffled a little at Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir's graves in Montparnasse Cemetery years ago, but I don't think I would now.

Also loved that wonderfully windy, wordy yard of Emerson you snipped off to share.

6:23 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Arleigh, I had no idea that Plaidy wrote 211 books! I guess it will take me a while to catch up. :) Her novel "Goddess of the Green Room," which I read maybe back in the 80s, was what turned me on to the actress Dorothy Jordan. I'd never heard of her before (Plaidy or Jordan, actually). I never forgot Dorothy Jordan's amazing life, so she merited a chapter in my nonfiction debut, ROYAL AFFAIRS, thanks to Plaidy introducing her. I still know nothing about Plaidy's life.

Pam -- how I wish we'd gone to see LM Alcott's house. We didn't have a map; our visit to Concord was semi-spontaneous, more to check out the type of real estate we might be interested in sooner rather than later, so to speak. After the cemetery, we visited the national park and saw the old bridge where the British regulars and defiant colonists faced each other down on the 19th of April in '75, to paraphrase Longfellow. It was just as well, since it wouldn't have been fair of me in the couple of hours we spent in Concord to force-march Scott through the literary Marchs's creator's home after the Authors' Ridge journey.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Margaret Porter said...

How lovely to think you might re-locate to the Boston area! We've got relatives in Concord and it's a delightful place. Authors' Ridge is indeed something to experience.

Next time do visit the Alcott home, it's well worth seeing. And Walden Pond.

Seeing Jane Austen's grave in Winchester Cathedral was definitely a "moment" for me.

Pilgrimages are such a necessary part of my writing process. Whenever I visit the gravesites and birthplaces and residences of characters in my current novel, I become terribly emotional. There's just something so visceral about being in the places where they were. Or still are.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I become terribly emotional, too, Margaret. It wasn't only at LMA's grave a week or so ago. You should have seen me on the HMS Victory and other Nelson haunts during the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar. How amazing it was to see where he (and Emma) had been [she was never on board Victory though] while I was writing TOO GREAT A LADY. I have a photo of me on the spot where he fell to the deck, victim of a sharpshooter; and I took one of where he died, on the orlop deck. They wanted people to move on and not snap pix down there, but I had to have a record of it. I was crying so hard that it was hard enough to compose the shot, let alone myself.

And I am 100% positive that I would be a complete soggy wreck at Austen's grave.

I agree with you completely about pilgrimages.

Re: Concord, or New England in general (we adored southern Vermont), who knows where we'll end up after Scott retires from the public sector. I'm thinking great fall foliage and great bookstores!

9:09 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a lovely post, Leslie! I haven't been to the Sleep Hollow cemetery. In fact, I don't think I've been to any authors' graves. I do think I'd be likely to tear up, as I tear up easily, and plaees with historical resonance tend to get to me.

I have a story to go with Scott's "Guys don't read Little Women," comment. When the most recent movie came out (15-20 years ago now, I think), my parents and I went, and my mom and I kept apologizing to my dad for dragging him to it. Afterwards he said, "Why did you think I wouldn't like that? It was really good." My dad actually tended to like character-driven stuff. My mom was the James Bond fan.

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So the Alcotts, Emersons, and Thoreaus, and Hawthornes all came from Concord? Or was Authors Ridge more like Westminster Abbey, such that the rich and famous were sent there to be buried? I would have fainted dead away to have simply stumbled upon something like that! I can't say that I've ever had such a serendipitous moment.

2:18 PM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

Me, too, Christine. I would have fainted dead away to come across this place....I guess I expected the Alcotts, Emersons and the like, to be buried in a grander, more public grave--ones with large, marble statuary for the markers.

Where they all ended up seems to be so fitting and quietly dignified.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Scrappy Len said...

There's a new biography out by author Harriet Reisen called "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women". You can pre-order it on amazon.com. Check out the web site, louisamayalcott.net

American Masters is also premiering a documentary on Louisa May Alcott by the same name as the book, and also written by Reisen. Check it out on louisamayalcott.net

4:14 PM  
Blogger Margaret Porter said...

The Hawthornes came from Salem/Danvers. My husband is a something-something cousin of Nathaniel, and both are direct descendents of the Judge Hathorne who presided over the Salem Witch Trials. (Nathaniel added the "w" himself because he didn't like being connected to the Judge...although of course everyone in Salem knew...and now so does everyone who can access Wikipedia. Nice try, Cousin Nate!)

But all those litereary luminaries definitely lived and wrote in Concord and were neighbours and friends or acquaintances.

Also, typically new England town and village cemeteries are quite ordinary and the markers very simple, especially the ones dating from 17th, 18th, 19th centuries. Mausoleums and large monuments are rare and came much later. Except for the very wealthy, and I don't believe any of the Concord writers could boast massive wealth during their lifetimes.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Margaret, thanks for filling people in on the local literary history. And I think it's exceptionally fascinating that your husband is a descendant of the Hathorne/Hawthorne family.

I loved the modesty of the grave markers. Note how unusual Emerson's is; it's an irregular marble boulder.

Tracy, I thought all guys loved spy/caper films; why did your mother think it was a labor of love for your father to accompany her? I hope at least it wasn't a Pierce Brosnan or Roger Moore 007 film! Those were far more painful than dear, dear Sean Connery, or hunky Timothy Dalton (poor man, saddled with 1990s PC scripts -- for a vodka martini-guzzling, womanizing spy???), or our current Bond, who seems actually interested in showing up with a character.

Christine, I don't know how much money the 19th c. luminaries on Authors' Ridge ever made from their work in their lifetimes. I know that Louisa May Alcott was desperate to sell her work in as commercial a venue as possible because she was supporting her family.

Although somehow I doubt a guy like Thoreau was in it for the money. :) [And yes, Margaret, I am aching to see Walden Pond]

Scrappylen: Thanks for the Alcott info. I'm off to check it out!

Kathrynn: I think I was all the more moved precisely because the headstones are so modest, so unassuming, so -- well -- New England character in their character, if that makes sense.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

"Tracy, I thought all guys loved spy/caper films; why did your mother think it was a labor of love for your father to accompany her?"

I didn't explain very well. It was the movie of "Little Women" that we apologized for dragging my dad to and he liked and couldn't understand why we'd thought he wouldn't like. In general, he liked character focused movies. He enjoyed James Bond movies, but my mom and I were more into them than he was.

11:10 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Got, it, Tracy! Though ... it would certainly have been a labor of love to watch Winona Ryder play Jo March, if that's the version you're referring to. I like her contemporary films, but every time they shoved her in a corset I was the one in pain.

Did you ever see the all-star film version of "Little Women" with Katharine Hepburn as Jo and Spring Byington as Marmee? I think Joan Blondell played Amy!

4:30 AM  

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