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From Concord to Coffee Shops: Why Writing Communities Seem to Have Disappeared

Written by Bella Coyne

As I sit here, writing in Muletown Coffee (our sponsor!), I wonder to myself if any of the strangers around me would be willing to let me bounce some ideas off of them. My life isn’t a movie, though, and bothering patrons wouldn’t be quirky or endearing (outside of perhaps a Nora Roberts film). Best to let them get on with their business. 

My life ALSO isn’t taking place in Massachusetts in the 1850s, and maybe that’s the problem. If I was in a country estate in Concord, instead of in a contemporary coffee shop with 5G internet, I would be able to brainstorm with Henry David Thoreau, or Margaret Fuller, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Horace Mann, or Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson or Louisa May Alcott. 

These sorts of infamous communities – the kind that produce nation-shaking novels, riot-inducing essays, and world-renowned poetry – don’t seem to be around in 2024. So why then? And why not now? 

Because in the United States, in that tumultuous decade leading up to the Civil War, the progressive New England became a hotspot for forward-thinkers like these. Massachusetts, specifically, was a national thinktank of sorts. In 1641, it was the first colony to legalize slavery; in 1790, it was the first state to abolish it entirely. Home to Plymouth Rock, Harvard University, Salem, and Boston, every square mile is packed with significance. This is one of the reasons why it was so attractive to the folks seeking to create movements. By the mid-1850s, the men who had knelt at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s feet were inviting their friends to purchase homes in Concord, Salem, and Boston. They were spending a year out by Walden Pond. They were marrying each other. Their husbands were teaching at Bowdoin and Harvard. Their wives were publishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin and becoming the first women to use the library at Harvard. 

It is in Concord, specifically, where the Transcendentalist and subsequent Romantic movements were born. The sprawling countryside and deep blue-gray Atlantic gave rise to the belief that there is something godlike in every person, and together with the divinity of nature, humanity can come to realize the truth of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Over-Soul. (It’s okay if you need to take five to digest this next bit.)

“I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine....within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”

In neighboring Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne published works including House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter, the latter of which is a staple in most high school literature curricula. And, of course, it is at Walden Pond where Thoreau performs his year-long experiment, which he expounds upon in the classic Walden; or, Life in the Woods – or, simply, Walden. 

The list of men and women who have published world-renowned classics in 1850s Massachusetts is exhaustive. A huge nugget of classic American literature was conceived and birthed in a small place, in a small window in time. America hasn’t seen anything quite like it since. Why?

Simply put, American life has spread out.   

The America we see today looks less like the patchwork quilt of old, and more like the back of a completed embroidery hoop. Suburbia has expanded, the internet has become accessible to every corner of the nation, and – especially post-2020 – many jobs can be performed remotely. Writing jobs, in particular, have experienced a serious transformation.

In cities like New York and Chicago, those that work in the heart of the city can live in the slightly-more-affordable outskirts, and commute via public transportation. In Nashville, where public transportation isn’t an option, writers must choose to live in the middle of the action, or make an hour-plus journey each way. The days of congregating in the same accessible city, street, or even house, have fallen at the hands of urban sprawl. 

Not to mention, writing was not just a job, but a lifestyle, too. Folks like Horace Mann (about whom we published a blog!), Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are best described as thought leaders, revolutionizing far more than just the world of prose. In a nation with less than 100 years of independence under her belt, and the threat of secession overhead, nearly every job was hyphenated in order to get society off the ground and keep it there. Teacher-philosopher. Politician-essayist. Poet-abolitionist. (Not to desecrate their legacies, but, you can think of them as influencers.) 

These days, the American responsibility is different. There is always revolution, always reinterpretation, but the foundation has already been built. Thinktanks don’t exist in cities as much as buildings – and in those buildings, men and women of all colors are invited to the conversation. The population has expanded, and so has opportunity. Not everyone has to do every job. We now have the freedom to choose careers out of passion, not because secession is at stake. And of course, with the internet, anyone can publish anything at any time. You don’t have to be a resident of a certain community to have credibility or prestige. 

In the past 50 years, writing as a profession has evolved beyond old Concord’s recognition. Imagine explaining to Harriet Beecher Stowe that today, a black woman can attend a university, write a novel, publish it under her name and identity, and make a living! Or to Horace Mann that the emphasis on higher education is shifting, and that through the internet, the words of a stay-at-home-mom are as accessible, and even sought-after, as those of a Harvard professor! (You’d have to explain what the internet is, and what a stay-at-home-parent is, but…you get the idea.)

As for me, I am the result of a world long-since removed from the 1850s. Though I have an education, I have been publishing my work since high school. I write from home, or my favorite table in Muletown Coffee. And although I love Massachusetts, I travel there for the Cape and the courteous drivers (ahem) – sadly, not to collaborate with Emerson. 

From writing in a home in the countryside, to writing in a smoky downtown office, to remote work and coffee shops, our cultural upheaval has left no time for writers to settle into a communal space – let alone congregate for a whole decade. What sort of effect has this creative sprawl had on American literature? Could we ever recreate a Concord-like community today? Has the internet created better opportunities for writers, or could it lessen their value? What other decades and cities in history have become philosophical hotbeds in the same way as Concord? 

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2 comentários

Ray L
Ray L
04 de jul.

The real difference in my opinion is that almost nobody reads anymore. Modern America spends it's non working time streaming movies and TV shows. Instead of living an exciting and stimulating life, people let others act out stories for them to be watched on TVs, phones, and tablets. Without the literary background folks without easy entertainment had to have, people these days are simply content to watch the world go by. That difference has had a profound effect on everything. And personally, it saddens me. I'm in no way against technology, but I believe it's been the downfall of many important things, although of course providing many good things as well. In any case, the world the author speaks of…

Respondendo a

Absolutely love this take, Ray. Thanks for taking the time to think on this, and thank you for sharing with us.

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