OCTOBER 15, 2013
Never was a poor little country village infested with such a variety of queer, strangely dressed, oddly behaved mortals, most of whom took upon themselves to be important agents of the world’s destiny.
— Nathaniel Hawthorne
A TAN 2008 TOYOTA COROLLA stops near a church, and a white 2013 Ralph Waldo Emerson gets out.
His real name is Wendell Refior. He pronounces it RAY-fee-or. He is a Ralph Waldo Emerson reenactor. This man gets paid to dress like, act like, and speak like Ralph Waldo Emerson. He’s 63 years old and wears a black frock coat. The coat by itself would have us genuflect and call him Mr. Emerson, but we’re so in the mood to meet a 19th-century Transcendentalist that we’re not picky. Mr. Refior’s face is pleasantly broad, with clear blue eyes. His hair is mostly white, combed long and lank, and he sports sideburns that come close to, but fall short of, muttonchops. He also wears a black 19th century-y cravat.
You probably haven’t read Emerson since college, when you skimmed through Nature, his 1836 New Age essay that tells us to stop obsessing over material concerns, and urges us to become whole by reconnecting with the beauty of our surroundings. (That piece is also regarded as the foundation of Transcendentalism. Shaky on the subject? (1) All living things are bound together. (2) Humans are essentially good. (3) Insight is more powerful than experience as a source of knowledge.)
Of all the people with three names, like Sandra Day O’Connor, Francis Scott Key, or David Lee Roth, you could argue that Ralph Waldo Emerson was the most universally respected in his own time. He was a minister who quit the church and spent the rest of his life exhorting people — especially young people — to celebrate themselves, to not let their spirits be reined in by organized religion or the establishment, and to embrace nature as the one true spirit in the universe. He gave 58 million lectures, wrote poem after poem, essay upon essay. He traveled Europe, lectured there, and became famouser. By the middle of the 1800s he was the most celebrated man of letters in the United States.
But now, Wendell Refior must play dress-up to keep people interested.
He enters the church in a burst of sunlight, and sits down.
“I was so happy.” Wendell Refior is describing his childhood. “I played outside and picked up every frog, every turtle. My mother would have to call me in from fishing to come to supper every night.” So far it sounds like Wendell actually grew up with Emerson or Thoreau. But he was born in 1949, and spent his boyhood in Whitewater, Wisconsin, a college town 45 miles from Madison. His father was an economics professor who was imprisoned for his pacifist beliefs during World War II, although “he was so cheap that eventually he joined the war so he wouldn’t have to pay for his meals.”
Young Wendell inherited his father’s attraction to civil disobedience (but without abandoning his principles in favor of free chipped beef on toast). He, too, was drafted but did not serve (Vietnam this time) because he’d joined a commune-like group called The Spirit Movement that tried to “turn the church inside out and let it care for the world.”
He became a missionary, went to Australia, got married, came back to the States and became a computer data analyst, but he doesn’t regard doing data analysis and teaching Emerson all that contradictory. “I love the logic of computers. And what I bring to Emerson, is the ability to categorize how all the different ideas relate. I’m always analyzing and breaking things down. I have a place for everything.”
He got divorced and he remarried. His two children are in their 30s.
“I was going through a midlife crisis,” says the man in the 1840s suit. “I was in a marriage that was not sustaining to me, and I had chained myself to raising two children, and I was bursting, and I just had to get rid of the chains. I just had to be free! So I picked up a copy of Emerson’s ‘Divinity School Address.’”
Where other men might have picked up a copy of Maxim or Penthouse, Wendell grabbed a speech Emerson delivered to some Harvard grads 175 years ago, in which he outrageously told them to stop leaning on Christianity for guidance, and instead rely on their own individual morality. The speech made Emerson a cult hero among young people, and it got Wendell Refior excited. Then he found out the bicentennial of Emerson’s birth was around the corner. “This was it! I am gonna participate in this! I’m nearly 50 now, but I could spend the next 50 years of my life working on Emerson.”
He decided he would be the liaison between Ralph Waldo Emerson and The World.
Emerson is a writer with startlingly modern ideas — follow your own path, distrust organized religion, be one with nature, celebrate your inner spirit — but they are unfortunately couched in prose that’s as modern as a corset.
“People find the sentences opaque,” Wendell acknowledges. “The digressions — the extremely long sentences. But I have such immense resources of depth of understanding, that I can unlock Emerson for people! I’ve learned teaching methods that allow me to translate. I could translate the Bible in a nonreligious way. I have this kind of mind! That’s what I do. I started teaching Emerson classes for adult ed, and still do.
So then I was invited to the annual Thoreau gatherings.”
Something big was brewing, and it started with hair. “I would go to these gatherings, and I would start to think, ‘Well, my hair’s a little bit like Emerson’s. The shape of my head isn’t that much like Emerson, ’cause I’m not so thin-faced, but you know? At a certain profile, at a certain angle” — we could hear the music swelling — “You know, if I just grow these sideburns, maybe I could!”
And what was Wendell Refior’s second wife’s reaction to this?
“Well, she is an extremely generous person,” Wendell says. “But frankly, she wishes I would shave the mutton-chops and just wear paste-on sideburns instead.” But Wendell’s older brother is not a fan. “He’s convinced I don’t know who I am anymore. He’s ashamed of me for not being more of a man.”
Wendell bought himself a period-piece costume (“off the rack,” he says), studied and re-studied Emerson’s writings, and finally stood at Waltham First Parish — where Emerson gave his first sermon in 1826 — and read a piece of Emerson’s. It went well. Soon Wendell got invited to appear as Emerson at other churches. But the jumpstart came when Wendell visited a recruiting event — for Civil War reenactors. “I just sold the director that if he gave me 30 minutes, I could do the Fugitive Slave Law address.” The faux Civil War Recruitment Director agreed. “And then someone came up to me and said, ‘You know, you could probably charge $250 to do something like this!’ And that is when I really decided to do it.” He looks at us with a mixture of defiance and amusement. “Well, I commit so much work into delivering, that I should be paid, and I deserve to be paid, and I will be. And I just don’t do it if they don’t pay. I’m not giving it away free.”
By the way, Wendell does not have a high opinion of Civil War reenactors. He has problems with those who obsess over faithful period garb and accouterments: “Instead of calling it ‘historically accurate,’ I call it ‘hysterically accurate.’ I just think it’s hysterical that they would worry about the physically exact details of history, instead of the ideas.” He shakes his head at the concept of 2013 versions of Union soldiers and their perfectly vintage uniforms and knapsacks containing historically accurate hardtack. “I think of them as clowns. I do look down my nose at them; I do say ‘Get a life.’” Maybe he sensed us staring intensely at his 1840s togs, because he adds, “And I admit I’m a clown. But I’m not stupid and think that I’m actually Emerson.”
He’s not Emerson, but he derives such pleasure from teaching Emersonian thought. “The thirst for knowing the infinite,” Wendell says, holding his hands wide apart, holding our gaze with such intelligence that we would follow him anywhere. “To be able to move your soul; to transport yourself to a larger sphere than where we live when we wake up and make our coffee in the morning.”
“I don’t know of a single other Emerson.”
“Well, when they’re filming at the Concord Museum, and at the Emerson House, they’ve found “actors.” Rolling his eyes, he adds, “I’ve seen actors that have that thin face, that have the chiseled cheekbones and jaw; the narrower face. And I’ve met people who’ve told me, ‘Hey! You’d make a great Emerson.” He smiles like Clark Kent would if you told him he’d make a great Superman.
Does Wendell think of himself as a minister of Emerson’s ideas? “Oh, absolutely. I channel Emerson. I honestly worry about the spiritual life of every man, woman, and child in this world.”
We ask him what Ralph Waldo Emerson would think of Wendell Refior doing all this channeling and worrying on his behalf.
The new Emerson folds one leg over the other. “It takes genius to recognize genius. And my genius is to recognize the genius in Emerson. That’s what I give. Reenacting Emerson is one of the greatest highs I can ever experience.”
For all Wendell’s devotion to Emerson’s legacy, the most gigs he’s had in one year is 13. And just two last year — “Nothing,” he says, “like our ‘town Thoreau.’”
He Might Not Be Impressed
Richard Smith — the town Thoreau — stands inside a replica 1845 hut, across the two-lane highway from Walden Pond. He is 53 but looks 35. This, despite his get-up, which includes a checked vest, a daguerreotypeish brown jacket and pants, and a plaid blue neckerchief that screams Dead Abolitionist. He is a highly respected scholar and historian, published in several places, and he leans thoughtfully against the hearth. “I’ve had people hit on me. I always wonder if they’re hitting on Henry or hitting on Richard. You never really know.”
Unlike his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau is surfing a big wave of popularity. It’s probably because he wrote in a more modern style than Emerson; he did rebellious things like move away from his neighbors and live alone by a pond; he got himself jailed for refusing to pay taxes to the slavery-supporting government; he wrote on modern-friendly subjects like microfarming and saving forests; and last but not least he despised pretension: an eloquent, forward-thinking curmudgeon.
“I don’t know if we’d like each other,” Richard says. “I’m probably way too gregarious and Henry’s probably way too standoffish. He might think I’m just this frivolous guy. I don’t think he’d be impressed with what I do for a living.” Richard works three days a week at the Walden Pond gift shop,, and reenacts Henry Thoreau about 90 times a year, mostly at the replica 1845 hut next door to the gift shop, and by giving walking tours at Walden.
Richard grew up “obsessed” with 19th-century American history, and his supportive parents took him to battlefields and historic houses on family vacations. After college he fought in two wars: Civil War reenacting and Revolutionary War reenacting, and capped it off with schoolmaster reenacting at a place in Ohio “where it was always 1848.” When 1848 ended, he became lead singer in a punk rock band called Final Solution. (“Very liberal politically,” he’s quick to mention.) He moved to Concord 14 years ago with his girlfriend, now his ex-wife, and began doing Henry almost right away. “I use the term ‘historic interpreter’ or ‘living historian.’ But when people say ‘impersonator,’ that doesn’t bother me.”
“You can always tell, especially in tourist season, which tourists are here for which writers,” Richard says. “At Walden Pond you get all the old hippies, the ones who protested Vietnam. At the Old Manse you get the Goth chicks who are there for Hawthorne. At Orchard House, you get all the middle-aged women who thought they were Jo March when they were 14 (he laughs), and then for Emerson, you get the grey-haired academic guys who are very serious.”
Is this a town of rivals?
“Not Concord. There is a big problem in some places with Lincoln, because there are so many Lincolns. Around here it’s not that big of a deal because I’m the only Thoreau. There’s a guy in Chicago, a professor who does it like a stage play. I’ve actually met him. But I do living history, so when I’m at the pond and people meet me it’s all completely off the cuff. Whatever they want to ask me, I answer. I’m in character the whole time.
“I’ve done bus tours, but I felt really uncomfortable dressed and acting as Henry riding a bus holding a microphone. People always try to give me microphones when I’m doing Henry.” He sits down on an exact replica of the woven-cane bed that Thoreau slept on. “Henry did a bar mitzvah. Probably the only time he saw Jewish people in his life. It was a local family, the kid was having his mitzvah, and he was obsessed with Thoreau and Walden Pond. They were having the party at the Colonial Inn, and they said ‘Would you come by as Henry, and maybe read one of your essays?’ I’m like, ‘Sure, he’d be thrilled.’”
“I’ve had people ask me if I’m wearing underwear. I’ve had kids ask Henry Thoreau, if he ever brings chicks back to the pad and ‘gets busy.’ I’m like, Really? ‘Get busy?’ What are you, a 1980s rapper? I also get asked a lot if I’m gay. Thoreau may have been gay, but we don’t know that for a fact. For whatever reason, he just never had a physical relationship with anybody. That’s where Henry and I diverge, because I like girls and I like sex. I also like beer and coffee.”
The house measures 15 feet long by 10 feet wide and looks a lot like your summer camp bunk, except there’s a wood stove, a green wooden desk with quill pens and no transistor radio playing Harry Chapin. “I love it in here,” says Richard, not trying to be Henry. “There have been times when I have a fire in the stove, in the midst of snowstorms and rainstorms, and if I have my oil-lamp lit, it’s amazing.” He glances out the open door. “Ooh! Here comes people!”
A fit-looking couple bearing backpacks enter. They smile at the sight of Henry Thoreau, who does not exactly smile back, but rather acknowledges their look with directness and interest, as the real Henry probably would have. “Hello, my name is Henry Thoreau. Welcome to my house. You’re not from Concord, obviously. Are you fugitives from the law?”
The boyfriend visitor amusedly shakes his head no. At a loss to make conversation, he looks around at the room and asks, “So this is everything you’ve got?”
“Well, I am here to simplify my life, as well as to write my book. As long as you have the basic needs — shelter, clothing, food, and warmth — you really do not need much more than that. I tell Mr. Emerson that this is my bedchamber and my kitchen and my parlor, all in one. But my best room is out-of-doors. And that stretches all the way to the horizon. That is the room that I spend most of my time in.”
The girlfriend asks, “Do you get lonely?”
“I get no more lonely than Walden Pond itself.”
After a few more exchanges, the couple bids Henry goodbye. He waits until they’re out of earshot and swivels around: “Okay guys, that’s what I do. That’s my job!” He laughs. “You know, the conversation is only as good as the people who ask the questions. There are times when people come in, and basically I’m doing a monologue for like 5 minutes, and I find that really uncomfortable. I like the questions, because then I can go off on any different tangents that I want. It’s interesting that I get a lot of the same questions that Thoreau got when he was here: the loneliness, ‘What do you eat?’— I mean, those are the same questions that Henry got all the time. And I find that really curious, that the modern people still ask Henry the same questions that people asked the real Henry.”
An extremely attractive young woman wearing sunglasses walks in. Richard looks cheered. “Good day, miss. How do you like my house?”
“It’s so spacious!”
“What is your name?”
“Well, you’re right, Brittany. It is too big. I wish it were smaller. So you’re not from Concord, are you?”
“From where do you hail?”
“Originally from Cape Cod, but I’m in LA now. It’s very different.”
“Oh, you are not even from the United States —”
Brittany is thrown for a second, before understanding. “Oh, that’s right!”
She looks at the quills on Henry’s desk. “Have you started making pencils yet?” (Henry Thoreau’s father, John, manufactured pencils; Henry often helped out.)
“Well, I only help make pencils when I have to. Once you make one pencil, why do it again?”
Brittany smiles, and Richard is all peacock now: “I use my pencils when I am out in the field making notes for my journals. But my manuscripts are always in ink. In fact, I am writing a book that I am calling A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and if I find a publisher for it, it will be my first book.”
Brittany says, “I bet it’s gonna be published, ’cause it’s sitting in my car right now.”
Is Richard Smith blushing?
A few minutes later we all leave the house, walk across the highway — Thoreau careful to look both ways — and head for Walden Pond. There, we intercept one Professor Urs Peter “Upe” Flueckiger, who has come all the way from the College of Architecture at Texas Tech University.
“Would you like to join our walk, Professor Flueckiger?” Smith asks.
“Yes,” says Professor Flueckiger.
We take the park-approved route around the pond, which is along a fenced-off, raised pathway. Richard walks slightly ahead of us, and speaks as himself. “Now when Thoreau lived here, the one thing that Walden has now that Thoreau didn’t have, is trees. There were very few trees when he was living here.”
“Really?” says Professor Flueckiger, taking notes.
“So, when Henry was here, it was wide-open?” Brittany asks.
“Pretty much. You would see little stands of trees here and there; in fact, when we go over on what was Emerson’s property, it was Emerson’s woodlot that he was living on. So it was Emerson’s firewood supply. “
“Oh, cool!” says Brittany. “So he was living on Emerson’s land? That’s a nice friend.” She hustles ahead and for the next few moments engages Richard privately. Then he stops and turns around.
“So Brittany just asked me if Walden was actually written at Walden Pond, which is a great question,” he announces. “Actually, Thoreau was here to write his first book, which was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. That got published in 1849; it failed miserably. It bombed. And so, between 1849 and 1852, he didn’t pick up the manuscript of Walden at all. Because he was just so depressed about the whole publishing business. Then in 1852 he picked up Walden again, and then worked on it pretty feverishly for the next two years, and it was published in August of 1854.
“Most of Walden, even though he’s writing it as if he’s here — he really isn’t. There’s one chapter that starts ‘This is a delicious evening,’ and he writes about what he’s hearing. But he wrote that at home; he didn’t write that here. Time is very fluid in Walden. It jumps between the now, the past, and the period after Thoreau left the pond. It’s a very Transcendental book. And he did that on purpose.”
“’Cause it’s always in him,” Brittany says.
“Right,” Smith says. “Exactly. “You’re a big literature geek, is that it?”
“Yeah!” She laughs.
He swells. “Look what I do for a living.”
“I know! Are you from here?”
“I’m from Ohio, but I’ve been here for 14 years.”
Brittany pushes a strand of hair behind her ear. “Oh, I love it here. I would live here, if it wasn’t for filming. I’d move back, I mean.”
“So you’re studying film?”
“No, I’m in, like, movies and TV. I’m an actress.”
Smith stops, all vestiges of Thoreau gone. “Really? What’s your last name?”
An immediate smartphone search reveals that, among other roles, Brittany Curran was Ray Romano’s daughter on Men of a Certain Age, currently stars on ABC Family’s Twisted, and has nearly a quarter of a million Twitter followers.
We arrive at the site of Thoreau’s actual house, marked by a few granite pillars, bearing a plaque that reads “Site of Thoreau Cabin, Discovered Nov 11, 1945 by Roland Wells Robbins.” Our Professor Flueckiger, long quiet, comes alive with questions: “Has there ever been doubt of the authenticity of this site?” (No.) “How old is the replica hut by the gift shop?” (Twenty-eight years old.) “Who built it?” (The state park.) “Did they match the exact orientation of the original?” (Yes.)
At this juncture, we drop our iPad into the foot-deep snow. As we fish it out and begin wiping it off, Richard comes over. We are alone with him, and, somewhat at a loss for words, we offer that Henry Thoreau would be proud. Smith smiles, but says, “I worry about his approval. All the time. Which is weird. I feel like I understand him better than most people on earth, I really feel like we’re connected in a lot of ways, in fact, and I’ve never told this to anybody, but, when I’m about to do a gig, or I’m about to be at the pond, I always say, I hope I’m doing you justice. I say that to him all the time. Because I hope I am.”
We say goodbye to Henry and Brittany at the pond, and head over to the Colonial Inn for lunch. Often referred to as “historic” on brochures and websites, it actually is. It was built in 1716 and was once used as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the Revolution. But all the blood and stretchers have been removed, and the salad is good. As we rise to pay the check, we spot Doris Kearns Goodwin — Pulitzer Prize–winning Doris Kearns Goodwin, Concord resident — engaged in quiet conversation with a friend. We enthusiastically interrupt her to note that we’re planning to visit Orchard House tonight.
“Oh, you’ll be seeing my friend Jan Turnquist! I’ve known her for over 30 years. Is she going to perform as Louisa? The two have become so meshed in my mind that I sometimes call Jan ‘Louisa’ even when I see her out of costume on the street.”
Later, on Lexington Road
“Mothers and daughters visiting this place is like fathers and sons visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
Orchard House is where the Alcott sisters once lived, and where we’ve parked our Ford Taurus on this moonlit night. It’s across town from Walden Pond and a very short way from Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where everyone important — including most of Orchard House’s famous inhabitants — lies. It isn’t exactly an inviting-looking place. Dark brown, with clapboard sides and a gable over the boxy entrance, it looks like a Goth barn. In this house Amos Bronson Alcott, eccentric friend of Emerson and Thoreau, lived with his wife and three daughters, Anna, Louisa, and May. (Elizabeth, the fourth, the model for Beth March, one of the most beloved ailing characters in kid lit, died just before the family moved in.) Louisa, the second oldest daughter of this family, in fictionalizing her kin as the Marches, would sell more books than all of the big Concord men combined.
Orchard House’s 53-year-old caretaker — executive director, to be proper — is Jan Turnquist. She doubles as the town Louisa.
“On a horrible snowy day, you might get two people or five here. On a busy day in the tourist season, you might get 300 people. And that’s tricky to get all those people through, and to keep everything safe.”
She offers us a private tour and we gladly accept. The 300-year-old house, she explains, was already in disrepair when the Alcotts bought it in 1857. (Bronson, the patriarch, did the renovations.) Nearly everything we see once belonged to them.
Upstairs in Louisa’s bedroom we ask if Jan has ever taken a nap in Louisa’s bed.
“I never have! Did you know that the mattress in Louisa’s room is the same straw mattress she used? They had a feather bed for the winter and a straw mattress for the summer, and that’s her straw mattress. I don’t believe in ghosts, but the bugs — that’s another matter.”
Speaking of beds, how does her husband feel about sharing one with a Louisa May Alcott reenactor? Does he ever ask her to reenact a little in a flannel nightie?
A startled half-laugh. “That hasn’t occurred to us! I don’t know what’s wrong with us.”
Is her husband supportive of her gigs?
“Oh, he loves all of this. I’ll admit he doesn’t go out of his way to watch a performance.”
Jan was a big reader as a girl. “I read Little Women at a pretty young age, but honestly, Louisa May Alcott wasn’t my favorite. I loved history and biographies — didn’t matter who it was about. But when I moved to Concord, I began reading first person accounts of her life. Here I have access not only to Orchard House where 80 percent of the belongings, paintings, and papers really were from the Alcotts, and you gain something amazing from that material. But I also can go to other places, where her family papers, even friends of hers papers, are stored.
Does Louisa have a lot of male fans?
“Oh, there are definitely men who love Alcott!” After a moment she amends her thought: “Well, there are some.”
So when high season comes around, does she think that most people come here for Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne or Alcott?
The Winner is …
“Hands down, Alcott! Hands down! Because of Little Women! People are barely, barely into Emerson. He was brilliant, but he’s not widely read anymore. Mr. Thoreau is huge around the world, but you just don’t find those Thoreauvians piling into Concord all the time. I hear this a lot from local people who say, ‘Oh, when our friends come from Norway — or wherever — we’re gonna take them to Walden Pond, to the North Bridge, to Salem,’ and the foreign guests tell them, ‘What about Alcott! We wanna see Orchard House!’ And they say, ‘You know about Louisa May Alcott?’ Oh, they do. Everyone knows Little Women before they get here even more than Walden.”
In a whisper she adds, “Hawthorne is the least sought-after, by the way.”
In the blue-and-gray bedroom of May, Jan admits, “While I am in character in front of people I cannot think of anything else. It’s a great escape from motherhood, from being a wife or taking care of a house — and especially being the executive director of Orchard House with a huge visitation where we are open 7 days a week year-round and there is a lot more involved there than would meet the eye.
“I might have been the first person doing living history in Concord. Believe it or not, I’ve been portraying Louisa well over 25 years. When I moved here I was in my 20s, just starting to have my children; I had been a teacher, and Orchard House is right here — so I started guiding there, just on the weekends.
“I’m more of an historian, and I’ve done so much performing, that some people think of me as an actress. But it’s important for my livelihood to have the day job as director. There’s not as much work for women who want to do living history. It’s always been a man’s world, so the people who became famous were men. The women in history are always an afterthought, and if you do living history as a woman, you better be a very, very strong performer. A man can get away with a little more, frankly. He can even just read the famous speeches.”
Who can a woman portray, then?
She thinks. “Harriet Beecher Stowe is fairly well known, and I do portray her as well, and I’ve done Margaret Mitchell. I’ve also portrayed Clara Barton, Julia Ward Howell. My best friend in the industry portrays Madam Curie. She also portrays Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother, and Beatrix Potter, and Mother Goose.
“There’s Emily Dickinson of course. Someone did her in Amherst, but that Emily Dickinson got pregnant and moved to California.”
When we follow her back downstairs, Jan lets slip that she has a most unusual superfan: The Empress of Japan.
“I didn’t tell you she flew me to the Imperial Palace? I met with the Empress and Emperor because she loves Little Women and sent for me. She had been to Orchard House in 1987.”
“Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables are both very big in Japan, but it’s Little Women the Empress is passionate about, which has really helped to popularize it. When I visited, the press came out and took pictures of me. When the hotel staff discovered that I was Louisa Alcott, all of a sudden the service got a lot better.”
And Then There Were Two
“Many years ago, someone else suddenly was doing Louisa May Alcott all around this area. One day I’m at a conference, and someone comes up to me and says, “Oh, you portray Louis May Alcott?” and I say, “Why yes!’ and she says, ‘My sister saw you at—” and then she names a place where I had never been.’ And I say, “That wasn’t me! Are you sure it was a Louisa May Alcott?’ And she says, ‘Yes it was!’ And I said, ‘It definitely wasn’t me, I wasn’t there, but there’s another woman doing Louisa right now —’ and she says, ‘Are you sure it wasn’t you?’ and I said, ‘Yes!” and she said, “Well, because my sister said it was a horrible show.’ As my friend Marcia, who I told you plays Mother Goose, said years ago, ‘A bad performance hurts us all.’”
Does she, like Richard Smith, ever converse with her muse?
She shakes her head no. “I know that’s kind of disappointing. I have gone to Sleepy Hollow by myself, not so much to say, ‘Hi, Louisa, how are you?’ Or, ‘Am I doing a good job doing you?’ It’s more just a sense of connection. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this, to portray someone’s life. I think I would feel that about any character, because you really want to do it right and accurate. And you can’t know absolutely anything about another person, really. You have to make your best guess.
“I’ve been in every room of this house by myself, alone, sometimes even at night, or when it’s snowing. There’s something about the quiet of the snow, the way it sort of envelops you, the house, the world. It’s sort of a quiet little shell, and I don’t know, there’s something kind of magical about that, for me.”
Still, she is not a believer in the supernatural. “I’ve never had a fear thinking, ‘Oh, this place is haunted.’ I must have in my head somewhere that if you die and you are still going on, you have better things to do than come and bother me.”
We leave her in the Alcott gift shop near her office — both are part of Orchard House —so she can prepare to transmogrify from her mom jeans and 21st-century patterned blouse.
Making our way to the formal parlor with reproduction carpet, we find two available folding chairs for the evening’s performance. On the wallpapered walls hang lovely watercolors by May Alcott. There’s the Alcott piano with Alcottish sheet music; on the shelves, busts of philosophers Bronson most admired, Socrates and Plato.
When all of the two dozen seats are taken, Jan enters, portraying Alcott at the height of her fame, after the 1868 publication of her most successful book, Little Women, which was a smash success. She wears a hoopskirt, cape, and snood, pretending to be startled by the snowy-night crowd.
“You’ve come to see Father — is that it? I’m afraid he’s not here. I’m Louisa May Alcott. Could I play hostess while Father’s away? People want to know: ‘Is Little Women real?’ They know that I’m Josephine. But they don’t know I didn’t make myself half-bad enough! I hope you’re not too shocked when you realize that I’m not 16, are you?”
Better Him Than Just Anyone
When the idea struck Rob Velella that he might be the best person to breathe life into Nathaniel Hawthorne, he made straight for Sleepy Hollow and sought out his subject.
“I stood right above where he is buried and talked to him, with nobody else within hearing, and told him this is what I want to do, nobody else is doing him, and I think I could do a good job with it — what did he think?” Came the answer: No. “I swear I heard that word in the wind. And I responded without a hesitation, ‘Well Nat, I wouldn’t expect you to say anything else, but I’m doing it anyway. You should be thankful it’s me and not someone else.’”
A 33-year-old scholar with dark orbs for eyes, and dramatically swept-back hair, Rob says he didn’t tell anyone about the graveside incident for a while, not wanting to be regarded as crazy, but adds, “I am a big visitor of graves. I feel like it is inappropriate to talk about someone unless you paid your respect. I visit a lot of cemeteries all over the country, and I do talk a lot at graves. Hawthorne is one of my most frequent confidants. I find that when I am in a bad place, I often come to just complain to him, because I feel like he appreciates it in a way that others don’t. Because he had a difficult life too, and he wasn’t so happy. He wouldn’t try to fix things for people, he would just sit back and listen, and he was known as being a good listener.”
We now become the good listeners. Here in the Old Manse — built for Emerson’s grandfather, the Rev. William; onetime home of Ralph Waldo; onetime home of Henry; and most famously rented by newlyweds Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody — Rob Velella proceeds to startle us with a dramatic reading of Hawthorne’s short story The Minister’s Black Veil, an allegory about sin, one of the famous Twice-Told Tales:
Father Hooper’s breath heaved; it rattled in his throat; but, with a mighty effort, grasping forward with his hands, he caught hold of life, and held it back till he should speak. He even raised himself in bed; and there he sat, shivering with the arms of death around him, while the black veil hung down, awful at that last moment, in the gathered terrors of a lifetime. And yet the faint, sad smile, so often there, now seemed to glimmer from its obscurity, and linger on Father Hooper’s lips.
“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”
It is an astonishingly beautiful performance. We say it’s hard to believe he has never professionally acted.
“I never have, and I still don’t call myself an actor now,” he says. “I don’t think that’s what I do exactly. Even the term impersonator I don’t like. I’m a literary historian; I just do things differently than others. But honestly, I get the most work as Poe. I’ve done five characters over the years. My hope is that my work helps get rid of some of the intimidation people feel about classic writers and classic writing. Hawthorne in particular can be hard to slog through if you don’t have a guide.”
Would Rob be our guide through the Old Manse, and could he please do it as Hawthorne? “No,” says Velella, “Poe would do it, but not Nathaniel.”
“Poe answers questions in character, because he loves being the center of attention and he has the history of that. He did give presentations in public, and he did kind of ham it up quite a bit.
But hamming it wasn’t Hawthorne’s thing, and so it shall not be Velella’s. “My Hawthorne performance is focused on him giving a public reading of his writing,” Rob explains. “If somebody in the audience has a question, I take Nathaniel’s place and I answer it.”
He raises a finger.
“I’ve actually done question-and-answer as Hawthorne, but just once, in New Hampshire. They love Hawthorne in New Hampshire. It’s where he died.
“My Hawthorne has become pretty popular in the past year or so. He had been my least popular character, but word has spread. I won’t say I do him a lot. I only work maybe 20 gigs a year. He’s a difficult writer, that’s the first thing that has to be acknowledged, and my real fear is that somebody is going to walk away saying he’s kind of difficult and boring. And I never want to see that happen.”
What qualities does he share with Nathaniel Hawthorne?
“Neither one of us enjoys talking in front of a crowd. I think that’s why I relate to him more than the other characters. I don’t do this because I enjoy it. I do this because it is a profession that I have chosen. And I can do it. But if I had any other option I’d be doing that instead.”
Is he a depressive? “Oh no, I’ve just always been interested in dark things. Hawthorne and Poe write a lot about death. But just because I like to read that stuff doesn’t mean I’m depressed. Definitely not. Another thing I share with Hawthorne is that I hate being the center of attention, but I do well if I have to. But at a party I’m more often the wallflower.”
Well, was Hawthorne clinically depressed?
“No, he was just a very quiet, introspective kind of guy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You know? I wouldn’t mind meeting Hawthorne, but I’d probably say, ‘Hi, I’m a huge fan,’ and he would just sort of say, ‘Okay.’ And that would be our conversation.”
“I grew up in Waltham, which is a couple of towns over from here. And then I moved to Pennsylvania. And then when I came back to this area to visit my family, I became a tourist — I was visiting these sorts of places like the Old Manse, and the Wayside, Louisa May Alcott’s House. Of course, I hadn’t really done that when it was a 10-minute drive, but when I was living 600 miles away it was all I wanted to do.. That kickstarted my interest in this sort of public history. And around here, living history, you see these kinds of people all the time. It’s kind of normal.”
“My family never took me to Disneyland. When we went traveling we went to places that had historical value, so we went to museums, we went to historic sites, and that was I think the beginning of my interest in this sort of thing. My family is actually very supportive. They come to a lot of my performances and readings.”
Rob Also Does Wadsworth
“When I do Longfellow it is almost always going to be the seniors, the well-past-retirement-age kind of crowd that comes out. Hawthorne tends to be somewhere in the middle, a kind of middle-aged crowd, mostly people who are curious because they know they are supposed to appreciate Hawthorne, but don’t really know why. But then when I do Poe, yeah, I get the Goths — it’s a much younger crowd. More often than not it’s guys wearing dark mascara, and things like that, and it’s cool. Poe wrote more comedy works than horror works so I always try to highlight some of that. I like to complicate peoples’ assumptions about these guys. Because it is so easy to just simplify.
“I think certain people make certain assumptions about who I am as a person based on the character that I play. Poe is a great example. So I must be a Goth, too, but I’m really not. I’m just a normal guy. And I happen to think Poe is a pretty normal guy too. Hawthorne is very interesting, because Hawthorne was known and is still known for being a very handsome man. I don’t know if I pull it off.”
But he has such great eyes.
Rob smiles. “One of the best-selling items in the gift shop is a T-shirt that says Hawthorne is a Hottie, with a picture of Hawthorne right in the middle. And it sells out all the time. And it’s sort of like, well these are big shoes to fill. I don’t know, I have had a couple of instances where women get a little clingy with me. And it’s adorable. But I don’t know what they expect beyond that.”
Is he in a relationship? “Yes.” He smiles. “Works in a completely different field. She’s come to a lot of my shows and the crowds that I get impress her. I have a fan club. There’s a following. No matter what I do, somebody from my fan club shows up. I’ve gotten a lot of gifts. It’s usually bookmarks or sometimes it’s a whole book, or it’s a picture from the last show they came to with me, and it’s really sweet. My girlfriend is quite supportive but she isn’t in love with the mustache.
“Hawthorne did a wedding in Boston, right above Cheers. I read Hawthorne’s Wakefield, which is about a man who, for no reason at all, abandons his wife for the better part of a century, and comes back out of nowhere unannounced. And a story called The Birthmark, in which a man dislikes the birthmark on a wife’s face and tries to remove it and ends up killing her. They loved it.”
Why do it?
“Any of us who do this sort of thing, we’re serious about what we do, we put a lot of research and a lot of work into every aspect — we’re not just playing around. This is for us a very important part of our lives, and — I think that I can speak on the behalf of everyone — we think we are doing a service to these people that we represent. To us it’s not just a goofy, oddball thing. To us it’s a real thing that we think is very important.”
We walk outside into the slushy chill. Rob’s eyes pan the property. “This all goes down to the river, and when the river froze, Hawthorne used to go skating. It’s another great example that this guy really did have a personality. He wasn’t just a fusty book writer.”
Of the four main literary stars of Concord, we ask, who of the other three was Hawthorne closest to?
“Without a doubt, Thoreau. In fact I’ve said to Richard that maybe we should team up one of these days and really show off this relationship these two men shared. I guess it mirrors the present, because I’m also closest to Richard out of the people who do living history in this town. I’ve worked with Wendell a couple of times, and he’s great. I think Wendell looks just like Emerson. But there’s a big age difference between us.”
What about Jan Turnquist?
“Oh, she’s a legend in this field — but I’ve never actually met Jan!”
Thoreau and Hawthorne get a booth at Helen’s Restaurant, which is crowded at lunch, and it is now lunch. They are in full period costume, because it’s group photo time. Instead of taking the pictures at a predictable venue like Author’s Ridge at Sleepy Hollow,we chose a diner because indoor light is easier to manage than the sharp March sun, and also because there’s nothing to eat at a cemetery.
So Henry gets an iced tea, and Nathaniel gets a vanilla milkshake, and they catch up on this and that, like you would imagine they might in 1844, when they were friendly, familiar, respectful acquaintances, if not close friends (their reenactors share much the same kind of relationship).
A minute later Louisa comes in, gracefully managing her hoop skirt down the narrow aisle. Immediately half the restaurant looks over.
Whereupon Rob Velella, who usually restricts his Hawthorne to performed public readings, rises with a shy smile and extended hand. “How do you do, Miss Alcott?”
“Mr. Hawthorne!” She takes his hand affectionately then scoots in next to Thoreau, kissing him on the cheek.
“How’ve you been?”
Thoreau: “I’m great!”
The last time Richard and Jan have socialized in costume was 2004, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, when they were hired to mingle with delegates. But if you’re a stickler for things like historical accuracy, it was problematic.
“Louisa is always around 1870, and I’m always around 1845, so we couldn’t mingle together, because I’m dead,” Henry explains to Nathaniel. “The delegates would say ‘Have you seen Louisa?’ and I’d say, “Oh, she’s a very little girl.”
“And they’d see me without Henry and ask ‘Have you seen Mr. Thoreau?’ and I’d say ‘Oh, how I miss him since he passed away,’” says Louisa.
“And the drunker the delegates got, the harder it became,” Thoreau adds. “I mean, they just didn’t really understand what we were doing there.”
Emerson arrives and doffs his hat. “I couldn’t get parking. Has everyone ordered? I want their barbeque pulled pork.”
A young mother comes over with her two children. With one arm around both of them, she kneels down and patiently points at the people in the booth, as one would identify animals in a diorama. “That’s Louisa May Alcott … these two I can’t place … and that’s, um, Henry Thoreau?”
“I am Henry David Thoreau.” He smiles. The kids are blank-faced. “And this is Mr. Hawthorne, and this is Mr. Emerson,” Henry adds, as if that will snap the kids out of their catatonia.
“Oh, right!” says Mom. Having shown her children some authors, she withdraws. The whole performance-vibe dissipates.
Rob consoles Wendell. “I think you look dead-on as Emerson. I’ve always thought that.”
“Why thank you.”
“And you’re the cute one,” Jan says to Rob, whose dark eyes brighten. “But you know, gentlemen,” she adds, “you all look absolutely perfect.”
We take some photos, and a short time later everyone moves out to the sidewalk in front of the restaurant for a last group shot. Thirty seconds later, done. Having brought these four scholars and historians together for the contrivance of taking their pictures in each others’ company, requesting that they wear period costumes; having watched them chat good-naturedly while much of Helen’s Restaurant gawked — suddenly it’s over.
Jan Turnquist grasps one hand from each of us. “Do come back in the summer and we’ll take a walk in the woods.”
She hugs Richard Smith. “It’s been so long, Henry.”
“Yeah, and we’re living in the same town.”
Then she says goodbye to Wendell, and starts to walk away when she spots Rob Velella in repose next to a chalked sign reading “Stop Inside For Our Homemade Frozen Yogurt.”
“Oh, Mr. Hawthorne, my manners! I forgot to say what a delight it was to meet you.”
And Rob Velella says unhesitatingly, “We’ll meet again.”
All photographs by Eric Pomerance