Jeannine Atkins: My Day with Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott

From: Jeannine Atkins
September 14, 2012 at 11:50AM

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.


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