THE BETHUEL-ALIEN HOUSE (Ralph Waldo Emerson House)

— By Jane MacIntyre (excerpt)



Ralph Waldo Emerson lived on Woodward Street in 1833-34, in an old farmhouse across from the Woodward homestead just beyond Allen Avenue. The house was small, low and painted yellow; lilacs grew at the door, elm trees sheltered it. It was a very ancient dwelling, called the Bethuel-Allen house after old-time occupants; the Riley family was the last living there. The house was struck by lightning and set afire about 1894. What remained was torn down soon after.

When Emerson came here he was thirty years old. He had lost his wife and gone abroad to travel. He returned from Europe, Liverpool to New York, by sailing packet; one month, five days en route. He landed in New York on October 9, 1833, and went by stage to Boston, thence to Woodward Street — "a half mile from Newton Upper Falls" — to the quiet farmhouse where his mother was living for a time. His biographers say that it was "probably the farm of their relative, Mrs. Ladd," and offer us no further description. Madame Emerson was then sixty-six years old.

Emerson obviously was serene and happy here in this tranquil spot, indulging his love of nature to the fullest degree. From King's Handbook of Newton — 1889 appears this quote from a letter which Emerson wrote to a friend: "Why do you not come out here to see the pines and the hermit ? ... It is calm as eternity, and will give you lively ideas of the same. These sleepy hollows, full of savins and cinquefoil, seem to utter a quiet satire at the ways and politics of men. I think the robin and the finch the only philosophers. Tis deep Sunday in this woodcock's nest of ours from one end of the week to the other; times and seasons get lost here; sun and stars make all the difference of night and day."

Emerson took long solitary walks here, alert for flowers, which he knew by their Latin names. Birds, insects — all creatures, even to the crickets, enchanted him. He spent much time at the Woodward homestead across the way; he loved both the place and the family.

Occasionally he made excursions to accept invitations to preach. From here he journeyed for that purpose to New Bedford, Waltham, Plymouth and Bangor. While at Plymouth he met Miss Lydia Jackson, a bit older than he; intellectually a delight to him. He married her the next year when he then lived in Concord. He asked her to change her name to Lidian and she complied. And so doubtless Emerson was dreaming of this lady while in Waban.

Also, at this period in his life, he learned of the property he was to inherit from his first wife's estate. It gave him an income of $12OO a year; far more in those days than it would be now. In Waban he learned of the death in Porto Rico of his beloved brother, Edward. Ralph Waldo Emerson and his mother left this spot in October, 1834, to go to live at the Manse at Concord.


[I've read also that Henry David Thoreau also spent some time in Waban, but I haven't yet found out where. He may have stayed in Emerson's house for awhile — people used to camp in each others' houses for long periods of time in the 1830's.  —J.M.]


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