CONCORD, Mass. This quiet town in the western suburbs of Boston was ground zero for the Transcendentalist Movement, a 19th century philosophical reaction to the prevailing intellectual and religious dogmas of the time, and traces of its influence can still be seen today. “Barney’s Diner serves a Ralph Waldo Emerson Burger,” says Assistant Chief of Police Sean Haniphy, “and the 7-11 has a special Louisa May Alcott Slurpee that’s big enough for two little women.”
But it’s in the traditions that are handed down from one generation of children to the next that the most curious vestiges of the movement can be found, according to historian Thad Belt of the University of New England. “The kids here still play Authors instead of Old Maid,” he notes, “and every year at the August street fair they set up the Whack-a-Catholic booth to celebrate the anti-Papist tendencies that were central to Transcendentalist thought.”
To demonstrate the point, Belt escorts this reporter to the Christopher Pearse Cranch Playground for a discreet field study of the vestigal folkways of Emerson and Thoreau among the young. “Red rover, red rover send Margaret Fuller right over!” one line of boys and girls shouts to another, and a dreamy little girl with her hair in plaits playing the role of the brilliant but ethereal conversationalist begins to amble idly across the field. “I suppose if I must, I shall go,” she says as she twiddles her fingers. She falls half-heartedly against the arms of her opponents without breaking the chain, and is captured and held hostage. “I accept the universe,” she says, and a boy playing the role of Thomas Carlyle says “You’d better.”
Fuller: “I accept my Red Rover capture as my fate!”
The Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of mankind, but that part of their world view apparently didn’t make it down to Timmy Horton who’s been dominating a game of “Transcendentalist Fruit Basket Upset” over by the teeter-totters for the better part of the morning by tripping his playmates when a transcendentalist’s name is called, touching off a race to a tree and back to determine who will be “it” next.
Amos Bronson Alcott: Pea-shooter was taken away by local authorities.
“Is Amos . . . Bronson Alcott in the Transcendentalist Fruit Basket today?” Amy Pardy asks hesitantly, preparing to make her break if she’s guessed correctly.
“Transcendentalist Fruit Basket Upset!” Horton shouts before sticking his leg out in front of Shepherd Henderson, the son of a local Unitarian minister. The race is on with Horton in the lead but others in the group have grown annoyed at his excessive self-reliance and have dropped their former independence to form a true community and gang up on him. As he rounds the tree he is met by a gang-tackling mob that recalls a top-rated NFL defense, and is pounced upon and pounded until he cries “Uncle!”
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: “I’m going to sit on you until you’re one with the universe.”
“What’s the idea?” he asks once two other boys have removed their knees from his shoulders and he gets up, and Amy Pardy explains it all to him.
“As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea that we pound the crap out of cheaters,” she says, “the sooner will you become attuned to the pure spirit of the universe.”