Mr. Emerson's Tombstone

Article excerpt

Few small American towns exude a more winning charm than Concord, Massachusetts. Much of its charm flows from the respectful but unpretentious way it has preserved its past -- an uncommon achievement in today's America. On the northern edge of town stands an evocative reminder of revolutionary Concord: a faithful reconstruction of the "rude bridge" where, in April of 1775, a rag-tag band of American citizen-soldiers repulsed the British effort to seize their supply depot, and fired "the shot heard 'round the world." And a visitor strolling the town's peaceful streets has little difficulty conjuring the Concord of antebellum times, when that tiny village generated some of the most interesting literary activity in the nation's history. In those days, Concord claimed such distinguished residents as Ralph Waldo Emerson (who wrote the "Concord Hymn" quoted above), Henry David Thoreau, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, and sometime resident Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose brooding Old Manse, Emerson's boyhood home, still stands silent watch over the hallowed eighteenth-century battlefield.

As it housed them in life, so Concord also provides their final resting place. All lie within conversational range of one another on Authors Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a rambling old burial ground that winds through picturesque hills and woods just a few hundred feet from the town center. As might be expected, Authors Ridge draws a steady stream of pilgrims seeking to connect with the lives of these eminent writers. But there is also something to be learned from the manner of their burial. For one thing, all are buried with their families, on ancestral family plots. Nothing remarkable about that, you will say. And yet it still comes as a bit of a surprise to be reminded that even writers who exalted the radical freedom of the individual, as Emerson did, were, in the end -- before and after all else -- other people's sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives. Which is to say that their self-made identities were, deeply rooted in conditions and relationships they, did not make and could not change. Sleepy Hollow is rich with such insights for students of American life.

A cemetery is always a good place for sober reflection. Infirmity and death are the great levelers, the surest reminders of our dependency, the most painful thorns in the flesh of human pride. As we cannot escape our bodies, so we cannot escape our origins. In death, some part of the truth about us generally comes out. For example, it is only after the hero's death in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby that we find the missing piece in the puzzle of who Jay Gatsby really is, by meeting his grotesque father. At Sleepy Hollow one gleans similar insights. Take the case of Thoreau. In his life, and in his writings, there was no more fiercely independent soul. But the visitor to Sleepy Hollow has to look hard even to find his name, in the middle of a list of Thoreaus engraved on the collective family tombstone, or on his tiny individual stone. The manner of Thoreau's burial reminds us that his independence was entwined with forms of dependency, something that his writings implicitly denied.

Similarly with Emerson's grave, though it seems different at first glance. Being a man of comfortable means, Emerson could afford a large freestanding marker. But rather than using a conventional tombstone he marked the spot with a giant boulder, identified as his grave by a small bronze plaque affixed to the rock. Needless to say, it is a surprising sight -- and not an entirely harmonious one. Amid the tidy lots and meticulously carved Yankee tombstones, Emerson's boulder looks a little out of place, like a grizzly bear at a junior League luncheon. The stone itself is rough and ragged, as if it had been hauled up from deep in the bowels of the earth.

No doubt, these are just the impressions Emerson would have liked us to receive. His writings consistently linked the values of untrammeled individualism and unconstrained nature, and disparaged the conformism and artificiality of settled village life. …