University of New Hampshire Art Gallery

Durham, NH



Monadnock, The Mystical Magnet

It is the mystical, inspirational quality of Monadnock that George Ticknor recognized when he described how William Hickling Prescott worked for ten years on his History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic, published in 1838 Ticknor, Prescott's publisher, friend. and biographer, related that "There is a charming shady walk behind [Prescott's] house, looking towards the Monadnock mountain, and there many a chapter of his Histories was composed, or conned over."

The inspirational quality of Monadnock was nowhere more regarded than at Concord, where a "most intimate familiarity with Nature . . [was] the distinguishing mark" of the school of writers. For all of them except Nathaniel Hawthorne "the distant view of Monadnock . . . was a favorite spectacle." Drawn by "the distant view," they made visits to Monadnock, climbing, camping, eventually boarding at the halfway house, and to Wachusett Mountain, from which there were other views of Monadnock. From these they filled their writings with Monadnock allusions, comparisons, observations, and descriptions. This attitude was predated by the Indians who worshiped Monadnock, calling it "Mountain of the Great Spirit" On the other hand, the early white settlers resented its twenty-five square miles, which were useless for farming, though they did manage to pasture sheep there.

A very early poetic response was Emerson's posthumously published fragment, "Monadnock from Afar":

Well the planter knew how strongly
Works thy form on human thought,
I muse what secret purpose had he
To draw all fancies to this spot.

Thoreau, who had maternal roots in Keene, wrote closely observed factual descriptions of Monadnock which took on a poetic quality through his nineteenth-century prose style. In the journal entries concerning his climbs and camping trips on Monadnock he noted, often in great detail, rocks, plants, and wildlife, and- related locally learned historic lore of the mountain. From details of facts and lists of items found, he broke loose now and again to reveal the spiritual depth of his Monadnock experiences. "The value of the mountains in the horizon,--would not that be a good theme for a lecture? The text for a discourse on real values, and permanent; a sermon on the mount. They are stepping stones to heaven... by which to mount when we would commence our pilgrimage to heaven; by which we gradually take our departure from earth from the time when our youthful eyes first rested on them, from this bare actual earth, which has so little of the hue of heaven. They make it easier to die and easier to live"

William Ellery Channing, Thoreau's frequent companion, made some solitary trips to Monadnock after Thoreau's death. He, too, kept a journal, noting weather conditions and sightings of various birds
and animals. The tone of the journals is so often discontented--either with camping conditions, lack of sleep, or too many other people on the mountain--that Channing must have required the gentle haze of distance and time to write:

In this sweet solitude, the Mountain's life,
At morn and eve, at rise and hush of day
I heard the wood thrush sing in the white spruce,
The living water, the enchanted air
So mingling in the crystal clearness there
A sweet peculiar grace from both.

Monadnock's magnetism worked even on Hawthorne, who mentioned in his American Notebooks (1868) that he had seen "Monadnock . . visible, like a sapphire cloud against the sky" from the top of Hoosic Mountain in Massachusetts.

As early as 1824 the Reverend William B. O. Peabody, a man who embodied.the typical New England combination of religion, literature, and natural science, published "Monadnock" in the Rockingham Gazette. Less a description than an exaltation of the mountain, the poem cited Monadnock as an example of strength and serenity.

Theodore Parker, the hard-working Unitarian minister frequently at the center of controversy because of his original thinking, was a great lover of the country and natural things. "What a place the city is for outward action! " he wrote. "But it is no place for thought, least of all for poetic, creative thought. This summer I hope to fill up my little cistern by intercourse with nature."

In 1855, while staying at Mrs. Hannah Greenwood's, Dublin's first boarding house, he wrote to a friend that "We are spending the Dog-days at Dublin. NH, a cool mountainous town. To someone else he described it as "one of the best towns of your granite State, made so by a noble minister who has left his mark all over the town Seventy-three copies of the N.Y. Tribune are dealt out over the Bar of an old Tavern which once dealt out I suppose twenty three mugs of toddy in a day!"

During this pre-art colony period in the mid-nineteenth century, when literature dominated artistic endeavor in New England, there was a modicum of painting relating to Monadnock. Alvan Fisher, John White, Allen Scott, and Jesse Talbot each produced at least one Monadnock scene. A list of works relating to the mountain from this period includes one by Charles Jackson, which he used to illustrate the Annual Reports on the Geology of the State of New Hampshire, published in the early 1840s. These few pictures did less to popularize the area than the literary allusions to it. Painting at this date could not serve Monadnock as it did the White Mountains.


Go to next section, "Boarding Houses to Summer Homes"

Return to beginning

Read more about the University of New Hampshire Art Gallery in Resource Library Magazine

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.