Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 14, 2012

My Day with Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott

This week I went to the Concord Museum to see some of the photographs Annie Liebovitz took for her new book, Pilgrimage, which is a record of some of her inspirations, a looking back and inward, perhaps more reflective than the portraits of rock stars or other extravagantly dressed people she’s put on the pages of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, or Vogue. As I turned from the stairs, my attention was caught by a photograph of a dress that Marian Anderson wore in concert. The photograph is as long as a dress, a slash of red silk through terracotta, gold, bronze, and cream fabric that stretches across four pages in the big book of these photographs, with some text, such as the short story of how Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial after the DAR excluded her from a concert hall.

Some photographs were taken at Louisa May Alcott’s home, across the street, including a trio of dolls on a toy sofa and gods and goddesses May Alcott drew on her bedroom walls. Places shown are often from a famous person’s childhood, death, or archives, such as stacks of trunks that belonged to Martha Graham.  Some are from midlife: we see both Elvis Presley’s childhood home, and a TV with a screen he shattered with his gun; we see the door that made Georgia O’Keefe choose her New Mexico home and tray of homemade pastels. Annie Oakley’s boots and a cardboard heart with a bullet hole are given their own alcove.

Most of the people and places represented in the show are from the United States, though I liked ones representing artist Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf. The River Ouse, the site of the writer’s suicide, was so blue, both eerily calm and menacing. Lines of waves’ shadows seemed echoed in the photograph of the top of her bare, ink-stained wooden desk. Throughout the gallery, I had a sense of how getting closer to an object can turn around a view of history, and a pilgrimage of moving forward by stepping into the past. I loved the book, and I’m happy I made it to the show, which is there until September 27, for what I believe is the only New England display of this work.

I also looked around the museum, and was particularly taken by the room devoted to Thoreau, maybe especially after looking at Annie Lebovitz’s photograph of the Chinese cane bed he slept on in the cabin at Walden Pond. Here it is, along with displays including his flute, pencils from the family factory, a pair of snowshoes, and keys from the Concord jail. Below are his waking stick, a spyglass, a bird guide, and a tap for birch trees.

Thoreau seemed to accompany through my day, for when I did some research in the Concord Library,  a copy of his journal was open to the day’s date, though in 1853.  And the nonfiction room bears his name, lots of pictures, and these owls.

Finally I was in the mood for another visit to Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, and I turned out to be the only person on the tour. The beautiful young woman wearing loops of pearls couldn’t have more gracious, smart, and kind, offering me details, but stepping back from all the old stories to let me just look to my heart’s content, enjoying a more intimate spirit than I’ve felt when the rooms are filled, though I’ve never been on an Orchard House tour, starting with the one I took with cousins when I was about ten, that  I haven’t enjoyed. The docents clearly are learned and adore the family, but also show a sense of humor and imagination that I think Louisa would have enjoyed, not being one to take herself too seriously. It was the end of the day, and I could hear staff laughing from a back room. There’s a sense of this still being a home, and not only historic: I noticed a big plaster bust of Emerson on the floor of a closet where a few old dresses hung. When I asked, the docent told me that work was being done on the school next door, and the busts of philosophers had been stored here and there.


  1. You cannot go to Orchard House too often. I can’t believe you were the only one there. Was it a weekday? I’ve only been there on weekends. The last time we were in Concord, we got a private tour of Emerson’s house. And it was a weekend!

    • Gail, now there’s a good bumper sticker: you cannot go to Orchard House too often. It was the last tour on a Tuesday. Maybe it was random, but maybe the weekday family groups organize themselves for a bit earlier in the day? Yeah, I’m an Emerson fan, but he might need to be featured in a movie or something to pull in the tourists.

  2. Just tweeted this – what a wonderful day you had! It’s always magical visiting Concord. 🙂

    • Thanks, Susan, yes a wonderful day, with kindness from both ghosts and the living.

      • Which ghost did you feel the most? Sounds like it was Thoreau. I always feel May’s spirit so strongly at Orchard House.

        • It was funny bumping into Thoreau’s ghost, though I didn’t even get to Walden Pond or the river, but I was moved by that journal near the library door, and Annie L. let me feel something about that cane bed. But of course I was most happy to peer at painting after painting by May gracing the walls at Orchard House, that bring in a beauty her life once brought there.

          And I meant to thank you for your blog about the Pilgrimage show, that made me know I’d better get to the Concord Museum. I’m so glad I had a free day to grab this week! I loved the book, but seeing the photographs close and large was a thrill.

  3. Every library needs an owl or two. 🙂

  4. So good to hear your appreciation of Annie Liebovitz’s book Pilgrimage. I was stunned by it, as much by its photographs (especially the one of Emily Dickinson’s white dress) as by its structure, the pictures not necessarily accompanying the text but appearing farther down the line. The effect was one of an intelligent meandering and a glorious interconnectedness.

    • It’s just the sort of meandering back and forth in time that we love. I’m enjoying that in the book I’m reading about Florence Hosmer’s painting, by your friend Helen.

      It was good to see your beautiful face, hear your beautiful laugh yesterday!

      • Ditto. And I’ll tell Helen.

  5. Jeannine, I am so glad (of course!) that Sarah sent me to your blog to read your lovely appreciation of “My Dear Girl: The Art of Florence Hosmer.” I am beyond thrilled that you have come under Miss Hosmer’s spell. Her home here in Sudbury will be open on this coming Sunday in the mid-afternoon. You might love to saunter around in it.
    My best,

    • Helen! How nice of our nice Sarah to send you over, and how nice of you to come. I’ve spent the past two nights with My Dear Girl, and really should say more when I’m finished, but when Sarah mentioned the spells in Pilgrimage, it came instantly to mind. I do like her art, and so many of the questions you pose about the one painting, the one poem, the one moment, and the honoring of Hosmer’s resolution. I can see how seeing those paintings, picking up those letters, stepping into that house caught you in its spell. I am avoiding other spells than those you spun at this time, but maybe in spring I could come peer around?

      Oh, and I remembered our conversation at the Boston’s Author Club, and was excited to come across your book at Toadstool Books in Peterborough!

      • It will be lovely to help you peer around and see you again. What a great bookstore Toadstool is…and what a pleasure to read you blog.

  6. This takes me back to Concord in spirit, Jeannine, if not in person. Thank you for sharing the day and for bringing back fond memories.

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