Walk down the streets of Concord and in every corner, there is a story about the history of the United States.
One of America’s oldest cities is getting new attention with the retelling of a beloved novel that is nearly as synonymous with a New England Christmas as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is with the holiday season in London.
Locals will tell you that Little Women was not a work of creative fiction but the depiction of the life of Concord resident Louisa May Alcott.
The book, which has never been out of print since it was first published in 1868 after the end of the American Civil War, is enjoying yet another revival, which happens every generation. The new movie by director Greta Gerwig doesn’t recast the storyline but views it through the perspective of how the lives of the four March sisters still shape how young women see themselves today.
Book Lovers Make Pilgrimage to Concord
The book and the movie propelled four young women, who played sisters in a recent live production of the story, to drive seven hours through a snowstorm from Long Island, New York to Concord to see Orchard House, the home where Alcott and her siblings lived.
“We bonded because of Little Women,” says Ellie Eichenlaub, who played Beth March, the third sister, in a musical. “We aren’t sisters, but we became sisters. The book and the movie is that powerful. After being in that production together, we knew we had to come out here to see where she lived.”
Brianna Kinnier, who portrayed the protagonist Jo March in the community theatre production, notes that walking through the rooms at Orchard House, which was once Alcott’s home, and was recreated in the new movie, gave her even more respect for the author.
In 1880, Alcott became the first woman in town to vote in elections for school committee members. Her family were known reformers and abolitionists; her father, Bronson, opened experimental schools and her mother, Abigail, was a suffragist and one of the first paid social workers in Boston. Like the fictional Amy March, Alcott had an artistic sister, May, whose paintings and drawings remain on display at Orchard House.
Concord had a population of about 2,000 residents when Alcott lived there in the 19th century. Her neighbours were some of the most famous writers in America: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau (the author of Walden), and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter).
A Haven for 19th-Century Writers
Wayside House, which remains standing and is owned by the National Parks Service, was home to the Alcotts and later to Hawthorne and his family. Another home, the Old Manse, was built in 1770, and is a short walk from the main square of the Massachusetts town, past wooded fields and stately homes, some from the era of the American Revolution. Emerson wrote his essay Nature in the house, which marked the beginning of the American Transcendentalism movement of seeing the outdoors as the source of spiritual truth. Hawthorne also lived in the home and wrote in the same study.
Today, Concord is home to about 17,000 residents and retains much of its heritage. A 30-minute drive west of Boston, Concord is a commuter town for some residents and a tourist destination for Revolutionary history and literary buffs. Each year, thousands of children from across the U.S., Canada and even overseas come to the town to walk the surrounding wooded paths where the first day of fighting in the Revolutionary War began in 1775.
There are no big chains or major restaurant franchises to be found, with locals taking pride in their unique shops. The hardware store, Vanderhoof, has been running since 1904 with the fourth and fifth generations of Vanderhoofs still serving customers, and the Colonial Inn, which first opened in 1716, is charming and comfortable with a rich history and the occasional ghostly sighting. It’s been cited on lists as being one of the most haunted hotels in America.
Most visitors are drawn to the town for its literary connections. The 2019 movie, Little Women, is expected to bring in a new generation of fans. In early December, Gerwig and other cast members came to Concord for a preview screening of the movie, which was partially shot in the town.
“Emerson, after he became well-known, began gathering other writers here, Thoreau, the Alcott family and Hawthorne. Concord was really at the centre of it all,” said Matthew Ahern a guide at the Old Manse.
The vegetable garden that Thoreau gifted to Hawthorne when he lived there is long gone, as is the original home that Thoreau built so he could go and “live deliberately”, as he wrote in Walden.
To pay homage to Thoreau in the woods where his cottage once stood, about one-and-a-half miles outside of Concord, visitors leave rocks gathered from nearby, staying true to the writer’s insistence that monuments were mere trifling. Thoreau came to the woods and Walden Pond to be away from people.
These days the pond, which is actually a lake that was formed by retreating glaciers, is so popular in the spring and summer that an official Twitter account counts visitors. After the first 1,000 people arrive, no one else is allowed in a day. One Sunday last August, the pond reached its capacity before 9:30 that morning.
That many visitors in his once secluded spot might have Thoreau turning. His grave is at Sleeping Hollow Cemetery in a strip known as Author’s Row where Emerson, Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott are also buried. These giants of American literature, neighbors while alive, remain near to each other in death.
On Alcott’s grave, fans have their own custom, which the four recent visitors from Long Island followed. Instead of flowers, the readers who loved Little Women leave pencils at the cemetery, paying tribute to Alcott’s favored writing tool. “Your words have brought us together,” the visitors wrote in a note. “Thank you for helping us become in our own way the four March sisters.”
More About Visiting Concord
Getting There: Concord is approximately 20 miles west of Boston and a lovely drive year-round, even when there’s snow on the ground. Take Route 495 or Route 128/I95, via Route 2. The first spot to check in is the Visitor Center (58 Main Street, Concord). It’s also easy to get to Concord via train from Boston. Take the Red Line train to the Porter Square stop. At Porter Square, take the outbound Fitchburg commuter rail to Concord station. Additionally you may take the Fitchburg commuter rail from North Station.