“It has been an amazing privilege to work with these two strong collections,” said Fruitlands Museum curator Shana Dumont Garr, in talking about the new exhibit in the art gallery called “Literary Spirit of Fruitlands Museum and the Old Manse.” The exhibition, with an opening reception Sunday, April 23, from 3 to 5 p.m., focuses on the period of time from the 1770s to 1888 and on the shared cultural connections between the writers at the Old Manse in Concord and Bronson Alcott and his family, who lived for a short time at Fruitlands farmhouse.
The exhibition is part of the Trustees of Reservations statewide engagement theme, “The Language of Nature,” which highlights Trustees’ cultural sites that have been and continue to be a source of inspiration for writers. Fruitlands became part of the Trustees last year; the Old Manse has been a Trustees site since 1939. In addition to archival material and furniture and objects from the Old Manse and Fruitlands collections, the exhibition features two contemporary artists whose works connect the historical period to the present time.
Two vignettes show books and pictures that inspired writers. At left is a replica of the writer's study at the Old Manse in Concord. At right are objects from the Fruitlands collection that inspired Louisa May Alcott. (Courtesy photos)
There are many focal points in the exhibit because there are a number of different themes. “It’s an ambitious show,” said Garr, who worked with Rebecca Migdal, an independent curator. Garr went on to say that the collections “couldn’t help but stir ideas from me” and that they will from visitors as well. The broadest theme is the literary spirit that existed in 19th-century Concord and how that spirit is manifest today. Another is a sense of place, of the inside and outside spaces that inspired writers, from William Emerson (grandfather of Ralph Waldo) penning sermons at the Old Manse in the 1770s to young Louisa May Alcott writing in her journal at Fruitlands in 1843. Because nature was so much a part of the philosophy and daily living of writers like Thoreau, Emerson, and the Alcotts, the lands at the Old Manse and Fruitlands are very much a part of this exhibition. As Garr said, “Celebrated authors walked, wrote, and inspired one another at these sites, and the context of the land and its history plays into their writings.”
In the center of the room are four cases housing books and letters from the archives, each case focused on one of four themes: religion, landscape, friendship, and utopia. “Working with these primary sources was magical,” said Garr. In the “religion” case are Bronson Alcott’s 1836 “Conversations with Children on the Gospels” and books inscribed with such historical names as Reverend Ezra Ripley, who succeeded Emerson at the Old Manse, and John Thoreau, brother to Henry David. The “landscape” case shows a copy of Thoreau’s “Walden,” published in 1827, and his plot survey of the Alcott family’s Orchard House in Concord.
The “friendship” case attests to the exchange of books and ideas among the intellectuals living in Concord in the mid-19th century. Letters from Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Hawthorne speak of mutual friends and borrowed or gifted books. An 1843 copy of the Dial magazine, a transcendental pamphlet edited for a while by Fuller, contains descriptions of Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands experiment. An 1831 prison journal of Joseph Palmer, a transcendentalist imprisoned because he refused to shave off his long beard, is at the center of the case on utopia. The writing is tiny but amazingly legible.
At the north and south ends of the room are vignettes that give a sense of place and show what may have inspired the writers who lived with these objects and furniture. At the south end is the writer’s study at the Old Manse. A large standing desk dominates the space, and on the wall are portraits that inspired generations there. A small bookcase attests to the love of reading. The opposite end of the gallery invites the viewer to imagine Louisa May Alcott, seated on her sofa, next to a copy of the Dial, and surrounded by some of the pictures she lived with, including a pencil sketch of the Old Manse by her sister May. It is interesting to compare this drawing with an oil painting of the same subject hung at the other end of the room.
Garr wanted to “frame history” with the works of two contemporary artists whose literary spirits expand the relevancy of the exhibit. On the west wall is the work of Jonathan Gitelson, with the centerpiece being an interactive bookshelf from his “Marginalia” series. Gitelson spent many hours collecting used books in which former readers had left evidence of their experience with the writing—underlinings, starred passages, notes in margins. Visitors are encouraged to take books from the shelf to see the evidence of the active reading of another person.
Farther down is a large collage of stars and asterisks, in all colors, sizes, and variations. These are Gitelson’s further evidence of readers’ engagements with the books they read. Garr said she sees these as “aha” moments, little epiphanies as readers interacted with a book. Large framed pages show different colored highlighting, but the words are gone, leaving only the evidence of the reader’s experience with the written words.
On the opposite wall are the photographs of Lisa McCarty, of Duke University, most of which are impressionistic except for the photo of old books hanging opposite the actual shelves of Gitelson. Her series “Transcendental Concord” shows the importance of place and objects as inspiration for writing and reading. Photos accompany framed text from the transcendental writers, her work proving Bronson Alcott’s words that “whatever the facts, they receive interpretation according to the spirit and intelligence of the believer.”
Visitors are invited to find their own “place” to do some writing. These places are four wall-mounted rachet desks, replicas of a desk used by Nathaniel Hawthorne at the Old Manse. The desks are painted in the same color as the original and were made by Mike Rouleau, steward manager of the Trustees’ properties Fruitlands, Farandnear in Shirley, and three sites in greater Concord. Each desk has a writing prompt connected to one of the four themes captured in the archival materials from the 19th century. Visitors are also welcome to visit the small lending library enclosed in a case built by Rouleau and attached to the outside wall to the right of the door. Anyone may take a book and and also leave one for someone else to take.
A second exhibit, “The Literary Soil” by Greg Lookerse, the 2017 artist-in residence at Fruitlands and the Old Manse, is housed in the smaller gallery and will remain until Aug. 20, when it will be replaced by works of Lookerse done on site. “Literary Spirit” stays until the end of the season in early November.