Greta Gerwig's movie adaptation of Little Women is opening the book on Concord and its famous literary characters, writes Peg Fong
Walk down the streets of Concord, Massachusetts 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.
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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 another revival, thanks to the new movie from director Greta Gerwig.
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 2000 residents when Alcott lived there in the 19th century, where her neighbours were some of the most famous writers in America at the time: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, and The Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Wayside House, which remains standing today and is owned by the National Parks Service, was home to the Alcotts before Hawthorne and his family moved in. Another home, the Old Manse, was built in 1770 and is a short walk from the main square at Concord, 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 a 30-minute drive west of Boston, a commuter town to some residents and a tourist destination for Revolutionary history and literary buffs. There are no big chains or major restaurant franchises to be found in town, 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.
Each year, thousands of schoolchildren from the US, Canada and overseas come to the town to walk the surrounding wooded paths where the first day of fighting in the Revolutionary War began in 1775.
Most visitors are drawn to the town for its literary connections. The new movie, which was partially shot in the town where Alcott and other writers once lived, is expected to bring in a new generation of fans.
"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 his book Walden.
To pay homage to Thoreau in the woods where his cottage once stood, about two-and-a-half kilometres outside 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 1000 people arrive, no one else is allowed. One Sunday last August, the pond reached its capacity before 9.30am.
That many visitors in his once secluded spot might have Thoreau turning in his grave. He lies at Sleeping Hollow Cemetery in a strip known as Author's Row where Emerson, Hawthorne and Alcott are also buried. These giants of American literature, neighbours 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 favoured writing tool. "Your words have brought us together," some visitors wrote in a note. "Thank you for helping us become in our own way the four March sisters."
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Little Women premieres in New Zealand cinemas from January 2.