An American pilgrimage to Concord
Henry David Thoreau’s small and simple grave has a shrine of notes, personal items and pencils left by admirers. (David G Allan)
Compared to the pilgrimage-rich continents of Europe and Asia, the United States is a land with few opportunities to combine travel and a deeper, spiritual quest. So the unassuming New England town of Concord, Massachusetts -- which welcomes more than one million visitors annually -- is a uniquely fulfilling destination. As the birthplace of the American Revolution and Transcendentalism, an intellectual insurgency that occurred a century later, Concord is the holy land for an assortment of secular pilgrims, including professional and lay historians, philosophers and writers.
One of those pilgrims was photographer Annie Leibovitz, who pays homage to the town in her travelling exhibition, Pilgrimage, showing at the Concord Museum until 23 September. Leibovitz shot places around the world connected to those who inspired her, including Concord for its congregation of American Transcendentalists, most famously including writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, his friend and benefactor Ralph Waldo Emerson, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and Bronson Alcott, the father of writer Louisa May Alcott. The influential spiritual movement they popularised valued Gnostic insight over experience, championed a humanistic approach to civil rights and posited that all living things are bound together by a cosmic “Oversoul”. Leibovitz captures the corporeal details of their lives with photographs, including one of Emerson’s study and the wooden cot on which Thoreau died, 150 years ago this summer.
“Concord is a deep well of stories about people and places. You could spend your life studying them,” wrote Leibovitz in the exhibit’s companion book, also titled Pilgrimage. You could certainly spend a week in the small town visiting the houses and green spaces that incubated and inspired some of the United States’ greatest intellectual minds. But you can also distil your pilgrimage into five essential stops and happily fit them into a busy weekend.
The Concord Museum is an ideal spot to begin your journey, thanks to a nicely-curated collection of historical items, including one of the church lanterns from Paul Revere’s famous ride and the world’s largest collection of Thoreau’s personal belongings. The permanent exhibition “Why Concord” explains how this once-important Native American settlement at the convergence of three rivers attracted European settlers who sought trade and industry, and later, a generation of literary and religiously liberal intellectuals who sought freedom from the mores of Boston but enjoyed having easy access to the city.
The highlight for many visitors to the museum is Emerson’s study. In 1930, every item was moved from his house across the street (28 Cambridge Turnpike; 978-369-2236) and reassembled in a recreated study, just as he had it. The museum’s collection of more than 250 Thoreau artefacts includes his copy of the translated Hindu epic, the Bhagavad-Gita, and his walking stick, notched with inch marks to measure heights and depths. The collection is further fleshed out in the book An Observant Eye, written by the museum’s curator, David F Wood.
Thoreau began his famous experiment in mindful living on, fittingly, Independence Day, 4 July 1845. Like Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha and other dharma bums before him, he sought solitude to find the simple yet revolutionary answers to the meaning of life. He was influenced by the same big ideas as his friends Emerson, Alcott and Hawthorne -- ideas such as nature being an ideal teacher, and that the divine was to be found by looking inward rather than up to a church pulpit. They all read Ancient philosophy, early Western translations of Eastern religious texts and contemporary German philosophers like Immanuel Kant, who coined the term “transcendental” in his 1781 work the Critique of Pure Reason. They also, importantly, made their philosophical goal the same as their method of learning: to live out their ideas.
For the native Concordian and New England prophet Thoreau, that meant subsisting in a tiny cabin on the edge of a pond in a bramble of nearby woods owned by Emerson. The book Walden chronicles in minute detail his two years there. It does not have much of a plot -- he builds the cabin, people wander by and stop to talk to him, he tends his garden, walks a lot and thinks even more -- yet its profundity is so electrifying that it has remained in print since 1854 and been translated into more than 50 languages.