A guide to Concord, Massachusetts—the backdrop for Louisa May Alcott’s famous Little Women, home of the author, and setting for Greta Gerwig’s recent film adaptation.
Like so many girls and women who count Little Women as a major influence on their lives, I’ve returned to the enduring tale of sisterhood, evolving dreams, and the rigid boundaries of class and sex in Civil War-era New England since the news of Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel came out.
I’ve also returned to Concord, the leafy town a half hour drive from Boston, and the setting of both the novel and Alcott’s real life. Gerwig spent six months living in Concord while creating her film, shooting entirely on location and drinking deeply from Alcott’s text.
Quintessentially New England with its white steepled church, town green, and cemetery on a hill, Concord still echoes its Transcendentalist roots. Progressive believers in education and abolition, the Transcendentalists believed in the divinity of nature and humanity, a philosophy that permeates through the town’s history. Present-day Concord retains a fierce devotion to social justice and liberal education.
It was the most famous transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson who persuaded Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Alcott’s father, Bronson, to settle in the town. Here, Bronson’s radical views and occasional mental instability raised and impoverished his family. Alcott, as a thirty-six-year-old “spinster,” wrote Little Women in a ten-week outpouring that was less about literary inspiration than a tangible need to support her family.
Concord is less of a backdrop to Little Women than a character in itself. Visiting now, in the afterglow of Gerwig’s film, is to ask why we turn again and again to Little Women, and to explore why the story is as relevant today as it was when it was published over 150 years ago. It’s in visiting Concord that we step into the story, both that of one the greatest literary heroines of all time, Jo March, and that of her creator.
Minute Man National Historic Park and The Old Manse
Before Concord’s era as the “American Bloomsbury,” the town cemented its history as the site of the first battle of the Revolutionary War in April of 1775. In was in Minute Man National Historic Park — now over 900 acres of preserved meadows and trails — that Emerson’s grandfather would have heard “the shot heard ‘round the world” fired from the Old North Bridge, which unleashed the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
Abutting the park is The Old Manse, the home built by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandfather where both Emerson and, for a time, Hawthorne lived. Here, Emerson gathered fellow Transcendentalists and a young Louisa May Alcott visited many times in the company of her father, and often borrowed books from Emerson’s library. Her lifelong affection for Emerson—nearly 30 years her senior—may have been the inspiration for the fictional Jo March’s marriage to the much older Professor Bhaer.
As the beating heart of Concord’s significant literary scene, it was Emerson who brought fellow Transcendentalists to the town. Having inherited wealth from his wife who died just two years into their marriage, it was Emerson who financed and hosted Thoreau, loaned money to Hawthorne, and even bought a home for Bronson Alcott, his wife Abigail, and their four daughters after the collapse of Fruitlands, Bronson’s failed attempt at communal living. The family retreated to the Emerson-purchased home and called it Hillside.
Toward the end of her days Alcott would refer to the three-and-half-years the family lived here as “…the happiest of my life.” The abolitionist Alcotts aided at least one runaway enslaved man on his flight to freedom along the Underground Railroad at the house, which is now a National Historic Landmark, free and open to the public. When the Alcotts moved on, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia moved in, renaming it The Wayside, the name it bears today.
After Fruitlands failed and the Alcotts gave up Hillside, they moved down the street to Orchard House, a large home named for the 40 apple trees growing on the property. Fans of Gerwig’s film and the 1994 version of Winona Ryder fame will recognize the clapboard exterior of Orchard House. It was here at Orchard House where an adult Louisa returned after living in Boston, desperately aware of her aging parents’ dependence on her financially. And it was upstairs at a desk designed specifically for her by her father, that Louisa penned the story that would make her a household name.
Almost all of the furnishings currently adorning Orchard House were original to the Alcotts, so wandering through its rooms is as close to walking through the story as you can be. In the downstairs parlor remains a pillow by which the author gave warning of her tempestuous moods, turning it one way when she was good tempered, and another when she was not.
In 1845, a 27-year-old Henry David Thoreau eschewed conventional life and set up home in a small cabin on the edge of Walden Pond. It was here, on land owned by Emerson, that Thoreau lived for two years, meditating deeply on the meaning of work and life, and developed his philosophies in direct contention to that of a capitalist American culture.
Although Walden, Thoreau’s prolific book, is a study of his life “in the woods,” in reality he was never more than a few miles from the center of Concord and with it some of the era’s greatest literary minds. Louisa and her sisters swam and ice skated here, exploring the woods in the company of Thoreau and each other.
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
It’s no surprise that Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, located in the center of Concord was designed with the Transcendentalists’ principles of usefulness and beauty. And naturally it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who delivered the opening address when the cemetery was consecrated in 1855. The cemetery’s Authors Ridge section is the final resting place of them all: Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Emerson. Not surprisingly, both Alcott parents and two of Louisa’s sisters are buried in Sleepy Hollow as well.
When you go:
Stay in the Colonial Inn, a historic structure that predates Alcott (1716) located in the center of Concord on Monument Square. Updated for 21st century travelers, but remaining 19th century charm, the Colonial Inn is an ideal resting point and homebase.
The Inn has some of the town’s most charming places to eat or grab a drink. Toast Louisa’s success at its Tavern, once a men’s only bar. For a full meal opt for Liberty, the Inn’s upscale eatery offers fresh takes on classic American cuisine. A formal afternoon tea at Merchant’s Row is the perfect antidote to a Concord winter day. Nearby Café Huute serves the best coffee and baked goods in town.