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Concord -- a hotbed of history and literature

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Concord -- a hotbed of history and literature
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Concord, Mass., 15 miles to the east of Boston, is a hotbed of American history and literature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson lived there, as did Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.

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The Revolutionary War, at least if you believe the people of Concord, started at Old North Bridge when the "shot heard round the world" went off -- although nobody knows who first pulled the trigger.

Eight miles to the east, the people of Lexington, Mass., tell a different story. Eight members of the Lexington militia were killed earlier in the morning of April 19, 1775, as the British passed through on their way to Concord from Boston on a mission to destroy an ammunition dump.

So within eight miles, you have two different towns that claim to be home to the start of the American Revolution.

As the British Regulars marched from Boston to Concord, Paul Revere and others sounded the alarm throughout the night. Thousands of farmers grabbed their guns and gathered along the road to await the return trip of the Regulars.

As the British marched back to Boston, they were ambushed over and over. They lost 250 men. And the war was on.

Those are the dry facts. Visiting Concord, however, adds nuance to the arid facts in the textbook.

For example, I wasn't aware that the Old North Bridge was in the back yard of Ralph Waldo Emerson's grandfather, Rev. William Emerson. Old Emerson watched the battle from an upstairs window.

Any wonder, then, that young Ralph Waldo would write a poem which introduced the phrase "shot heard round the world" to describe the shots at Concord?

On the strength of Emerson's memorable phrase, millions have come to believe that the Revolution started at Concord, in the Emerson back yard, when in fact the truth is more complex.

So much American history is packed into such a small space in Concord. Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote, is a few hundred yards from Old North Bridge.

A few yards farther is The Wayside, sometimes the home of the Alcotts, sometimes the home of Nathanial Hawthorne -- after he lived in the original Emerson home for a time.

A little over a mile away is Walden Pond, looking very much like any northern Minnesota lake, where Thoreau lived in his little cabin for two years.

Thoreau was far from lonely. During his time at Walden, he did carpentry for the Emersons and others in Concord, and was never short of hot meals and chocolate chip cookies.

A stone's throw away is the big home where Ralph Waldo Emerson lived out his life. Well-preserved by the Emerson descendants, the writer's books still sit on the shelves of the study.

So, what was the value of seeing all these old buildings and battle sites? After all, it has been about 20 years since I waded through Hawthorne. I have never read Alcott.

Emerson's essays are famous, but largely unread -- mainly because they are a little thick.

We are told that Thoreau and Emerson are important because they founded Transcendentalism. Yet, I have never figured out exactly what the word means. Nobody else seems to know either.

Emerson made his money giving lectures. Lectures were the rock concerts of the 1800s. So, Emerson was the Elvis of his time.

Thoreau is a favorite of American literature classes because he was an idealistic hippie sort. He appeals to change-the-world college students, but as people grow older, they often find Thoreau's writings preachy and self-righteous.

What is accomplished when one visits the homes of these famous people, sees the trees they planted, the lakes they swam in, the gardens they tilled, the scenes of which they wrote?

As one of the professors who led our tour was fond of saying, "history is complicated."

Visiting the sites, hearing each of the guides act as a lawyer for the significance of each site, each historical figure, makes one realize the complications.

If you are content with the easy, dry definitions in the textbooks, don't visit historical sites.

But if you like to weigh competing versions of the same event, if you enjoy historical give and take -- the debate over what happened and why and whether it mattered -- visit historical sites.

You'll come away confused, but curious -- the state of mind which, more than any other, leads to real learning.

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