An Armchair Adventurer Goes to Concord, Mass.


Via Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable


Read up on the places you want to visit. Photo credit: L. Tripoli

Read up on the places you want to visit.
Photo credit: L. Tripoli

If much of the joy of traveling is the anticipation simply about going somewhere, so, too, is reading up on the place to which you are about to go, not just to figure out which sites to visit but to understand what it would actually be like to live there. It is fitting, then, that while in a bookstore in New England, I am drawn to Sarah Payne Stuart’s work, Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God, and Real Estate in a Small Town, a memoir of her journey back to her home town, one that notably was also home to Little Women author Louisa May Alcott as well as, at various points, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, and Alcott’s father, a deep thinker but something of a lapsed businessman.

To the land of martinis and the putting on of appearances we travel in Stuart’s work, as she tries to create for her own children the ideal childhood for which we probably all long. As she, like that other famous Concordian, Louisa May Alcott, also tries to support her family with her writing, the reader learns all about being house rich and cash poor, and lots about what everyone really thought about Bronson Alcott and his wife. It turns out that the characters idealized in Little Women were not quite as perfectly made in real life, and that Louisa’s life was nowhere near as attractive as her character Jo March’s.


The reader learns a bit about where the Alcotts lived and about various failed experiments of Bronson and about how a ne’er-do-well father can inspire a daughter to become supremely industrious even at the expense of her own health. We learn about swimming in Walden Pond, about dodging volunteer duty at school, about tensions between income-earning moms and those more conventionally called homemakers.

And we are amused by the book even if we are brought down a bit by the Alcotts’ reality but we wonder what drew and kept so many creatives there in Concord, Mass., and now we know we have to go.

—Lori Tripoli


Want to learn more about Puritans, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, martinis, or New England? You might like these pieces:

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