Into The Wild(ish)

Ahoy there, Malvernians! I trust your Labor Day was not the least bit laborious. I’d hoped to spend the weekend reclining on a chaise lounge with a good book, a plate of tropical fruit, and a basket of frolicking kittens, but alas the longed for book/mango/cat trifecta was not to be. Instead, I was dragged off to the wilds of Western Massachusetts to experience an alarming cabin/woods/salamanders combo in the Berkshire Hills. (My fear of the outdoors was slightly lessened by the place’s silly name: berk is affectionate colonial slang for an idiot, and thus I was able to spend the entire weekend imagining myself in a mountainous land of fools.) The Berkshires are popular for terrible activities like hiking to waterfalls and striking unsuspecting deer with your car. Fortunately for us indoorsy types, the region’s most impressive hill offers up a little literary distraction…

Mount Greylock

I’m talking about Mount Greylock, where Henry David Thoreau got his groove back. At 3,491 feet, Greylock is the highest point in Massachusetts, and on a clear day you can see five states from the top. It’s also part of the legendary Appalachian Trail—and a bloody tough part, it seems. In Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, his account of hiking the trail, Bryson describes his Greylock climb as “steep, hot, and seemingly endless.” And, to add to the thrill of the infinite uphill slog, there are also black bears, bobcats, and coyotes cavorting among the boreal bushes.

Fortunately, you don’t have to hike up there; you can drive the seven miles to the summit on a winding, mist-shrouded road. And once you’re at the top, you can celebrate your good sense with a beer from the bar at Bascom Lodge, a rustic ’30s hotel that seems to be run by a bunch of frazzled but friendly New Zealanders.

View from Mount GreylockAs for Thoreau, he left his Toyota at home and hiked to the summit in July 1844. He spent the night up there by himself and penned a few lines:

As the light increased
I discovered around me an ocean of mist,
which by chance reached up to exactly the base of the tower,
and shut out every vestige of the earth,
while I was left floating on this fragment
of the wreck of the world,
on my carved plank in cloudland;
a situation which required,
no aid from the imagination
to render it impressive.

Thoreau quoteAccording to scholars, this night alone on the mountain transformed Thoreau. You see, at the time of his Greylock adventure, Thoreau was still in mourning for his brother John, who’d contracted tetanus from a shaving cut (!) and had died in Thoreau’s arms in 1842. The two brothers had been very close and John had always accompanied Henry on his woodsy wanderings. Following his brother’s death, Thoreau suffered a crisis of confidence and began to question his abilities as an outdoorsman. However, climbing Greylock alone proved to Thoreau that he was capable of making pointless and difficult excursions all by himself, and this gave him the courage he needed to begin his great Walden experiment the following year.

And Thoreau wasn’t the only nineteenth-century literary bloke to be inspired by the mighty monadnock. Herman Melville had a lovely view of the Berkshires from his home in nearby Pittsfield—he even built a special deck for Greylock-gazing—and the snow-covered outline of the mountain reminded him of a great white whale emerging from the sea. You know how the rest of the story goes. Nathaniel Hawthorne also climbed to the top on a number of occasions and was moved to write the story “Ethan Brand” after he stumbled upon a burning lime kiln on a midnight Greylock stroll. None of that makes any sense to me—burning lime kiln? midnight stroll?—but it sounds terribly dramatic.

And speaking of mountaintop fun, I recommend the Greylock drinking game, in which a sip of beer must be taken every time a wild-eyed man stumbles in off the trail sporting a colossal beard and sixty-seven gaudy bruises. You will all be sloshed very quickly.


Malvern Books recently spent some time in Concord, Massachusetts, and I can highly recommend it as a vacation spot for lit-nerds (and also grape aficionados).

First up, you should plant your feet firmly on the North Bridge, site of the first proper battle of the Revolutionary War, and recite the opening lines of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn”:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

From the bridge it’s a very short walk to The Old Manse, which was built by Emerson’s grandfather in 1770. As a young boy, Emerson’s father was able to observe those first few shots of the revolution from an upstairs window, which must have made for quite an exciting morning.

The Old Manse

In 1834, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) moved to the Manse, and he wrote the draft of his famous essay “Nature” there, which puts forth the foundations of transcendentalism. Emerson married the following year and bought a house nearby, which he named, oddly, Bush. He lived there for the rest of his life.

Nathaniel HawthorneIn 1842, newlyweds Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) and his wife Sophia rented the Manse for $100 a year. Since brushed chrome toasters and Le Creuset cookware had not yet been invented, their pal Thoreau planted a vegetable garden for them as a wedding gift. Nathaniel and Sophia were batty about each other, and on a tour of the Manse you’ll see the poems they wrote for each other etched into the Manse’s windowpanes with Sophia’s diamond ring. You’ll also meet Longfellow, Hawthorne’s spooky stuffed owl, which he would hide around the house to frighten his wife. Alas, after three happy years at the Manse (during which Hawthorne wrote a tribute to the house called Mosses from an Old Manse), the Hawthorne’s were evicted for not paying rent.

And speaking of Mr. Thoreau: yes, his famous pond is not far away. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) did his deliberate living at Walden from July 1845 to September 1847, on land owned by Emerson (and you thought the Austin literary world was incestuous!). Emerson agreed to let Thoreau conduct his “experiment in simplicity” and build a house on the land, in exchange for Thoreau clearing the woods. Thoreau’s one-room cabin is no longer intact (there’s a replica near the car park, and Concord Museum has the cabin’s bed, chair, and desk on display), but the foundations are still there, on the northern shore of the pond. If you’re a raging hippie you can visit the site, say a prayer to the gods of self-reliance, and add another rock tribute to this pile of rocks:


If you’re a cynic, you can sneer at the railway tracks that run behind the cabin (they were there in Thoreau’s day, too), and point out that Emerson and also Thoreau’s parents lived a mere twenty-minute walk away. (To be fair to Thoreau, he does make it clear in Walden that he was not living out in the wopwops.) After his time in the woods, Thoreau moved in with the Emersons at Bush.

Louisa May AlcottThe next two stops on your whirlwind tour should be the Concord homes of Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) and her family. When Alcott was a child, she lived briefly at Fruitlands, near Harvard, an agrarian commune founded by her somewhat hapless father, who admired his friend Emerson’s back-to-nature philosophies. Sadly, Fruitlands lasted only seven months—none of the resident transcendentalists turned out to have much of a knack for farming—and the family returned to Concord. In 1845, with the help of a loan from Emerson, they bought a home they called The Hillside; many of the incidents in Little Women are based on Alcott’s childhood there. However, Louisa May’s father was unable to support his family, and in 1852 they were forced to sell the home to Hawthorne, who renamed it The Wayside (Hawthorne had moved up in the world; The Scarlet Letter had been published in 1850, and was an immediate best seller).

The Alcotts moved to Boston for a few years, before returning to Concord in 1858 to purchase the adjacent Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in her room on a tiny half-moon desk built for her by her father.

Orchard House

The book was an instant commercial and critical success, and Louisa May Alcott was able to make good on at least two of the three promises she recorded in her diary at age fifteen: “I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t!” She died of a stroke at age fifty-five, and is buried in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, on a hillside near Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau.

If you need a rest after all this literary sightseeing, you can check in at the terribly old (1716) and supposedly haunted Colonial Inn, where Thoreau lived from 1835 to 1837 while he attended Harvard. Have a stiff drink in the wood-paneled bar, and reflect on how Concord’s mid-nineteenth-century literary scene seems a lot like today’s literary scene: it’s a tiny, tiny world where everyone knows everyone else, and for every jammy bastard who strikes it rich—you go, Louisa May!—there are a hundred impoverished scribblers who have no choice but to gift their newlywed friends a bunch of shitty vegetables.