It's a crisp fall morning in Boston's Beacon Hill, and the Secret Service agents outside what is inevitably described as Sen. John F. Kerry's "elegant brick townhouse" are busy turning away the groupies and the just plain curious. "Is he home?" a German tourist plaintively asks of no one in particular, as another woman sneaks a snapshot by the presdiential candidate's front steps.
Me, I just walk on past. Kerry's house -- eh. The residence I'm looking for is far more intriguing.
Finally I spot it, at the opposite corner of Louisburg Square -- an equally stylish townhouse with a black painted door, floor-to-ceiling windows and a graceful wrought iron railing. I drop my guidebook and stare, for this is the house where Louisa May Alcott -- the author of "Little Women," one of the most popular and enduring novels of a family ever written -- died on March 6, 1888, at the age of 55.
And that's not all there is to see in this genteel, leafy enclave of cobblestone streets and brick sidewalks. Just around the corner are several of the rooming houses where Alcott and her sisters, Anna, Elizabeth and May, lived as children and young women.
You can't tour these houses -- they're all privately owned -- but the fact that they still exist, looking much as they did 150 years ago, is thrill enough. And in tracking them down, you find yourself walking the same narrow streets as Alcott and her sisters -- the real-life Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy of "Little Women." Trailing your hand on the same railings. Wandering past the same storefronts. Stepping off the same curbs, rounding the same corners.
It's enough to make you forget presidential politics entirely.
Fans of "Little Women" have always flocked to Orchard House, the lovingly restored home 16 miles northwest of Boston in Concord, Mass., where the Alcotts lived the longest. (Actually, not Beth. But more about that later.) The chance to see the room where Louisa wrote "Little Women," to inspect the books on her shelves, to peer out her window at a view that hasn't changed much in more than a century -- for Alcott fans, Orchard House is worth the trip in itself.
But what even die-hard followers might not know is that a surprising number of other Alcott homes remain in the Boston area. Three are in Concord and several are in the heart of Boston, in Beacon Hill. Visiting them is extraordinarily moving, not only putting Alcott's novels into context, but also providing a fascinating window into American daily life during the Civil War era.
Adding immeasurably to the enjoyment of the trip is that you can get to all the Alcott sites on foot and by public transportation, forcing you to slow down and approach things at a more civilized, 19th-century pace. From the Concord train station, it's a pleasant half-hour walk to Orchard House, down quiet streets lined with lilac bushes, low stone walls and Colonial-era houses.
A lovelier introduction to Alcott's world couldn't be imagined. You can visit the houses, make the pilgrimage to the author's grave, have lunch in town and be back at the depot in time to catch the train back to Boston -- where you can then head for Beacon Hill and see more Alcott abodes.
Seeing a favorite author's haunts is always enlightening, but it's especially so in the case of the complex, conflicted Alcott. You've got to love a writer who once referred to her own successful children's stories as "moral pap for the young." Even her mainstream stuff had an edge.
Yes, she had a sentimental streak, and she functioned within the constraints of her time, but she was no prig -- and she was nothing if not pragmatic. As the daughter of a well-meaning but idealistic philosopher who wasn't overly concerned with bringing home a paycheck, she had to be. To help support herself and her family -- her dotty father, long-suffering mother, sisters, nephews and niece -- she churned out lurid tales of passion and intrigue long before she became famous for more respectable fare. She was both dutiful daughter and rebellious schemer, respected novelist and closet pulp fiction writer.
"Little Women," published when Alcott was 36, was an immediate critical and popular success, but the best-selling author felt trapped in a role she didn't entirely relish. Soon she was dodging autograph seekers in Concord, periodically fleeing to Boston to escape her fans.
You can get a tantalizing glimpse of Alcott's roots in Concord at the rambling frame house on Lexington Road called the Wayside. (That's what author Nathaniel Hawthorne renamed it after he bought it from the Alcotts, who'd called it Hillside. Hawthorne was just one of the literary heavy hitters who hung out with the family. Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and other leading lights also were part of the gang.)
The family moved to Hillside in 1845 when Louisa was 12, staying for three years. It was here that much of the action of "Little Women" took place and where the sisters developed their unique talents -- Anna the actor, Louisa the writer (she produced her first published book, "Flower Fables," here), Elizabeth the pianist and May the artist. This is where the girls acted out the allegory "Pilgrim's Progress," climbing the 17th-century staircase and venturing out onto the pitched rooftop that represented the Celestial City.
Well, they were the children of a moralizing transcendentalist.
Just down the street is Orchard House, where the family moved in 1858. And that's where their lives are most vividly evoked today.
It's almost too much to take in. The homey little kitchen with the scrubbed wooden table. The dining room that doubled as a stage for family theatricals. A very wacky breadboard bearing an etching of Raphael, burned into the wood by a young artist with a hot poker. Amy's watercolors. Beth's piano. Jo's well-thumbed books. Even if it's your first visit to Orchard House, you feel as if you've been here before.
Of course, you have.
The chocolate-brown frame house stands surrounded by greenery, looking much like it must have when the Alcotts moved in. Louisa was 26. Elizabeth had just died of complications from scarlet fever, and the little shrine that the grieving family set up in the dining room -- her melodeon, a portrait by May, two candles -- still remains.
Upstairs in the parents' room, a chart labeled "Order of Indoor Duties for Children" is posted:
5 a.m. -- Rise, bath, dress.
9 a.m. -- Studies
2 p.m. -- Sewing
4 p.m. -- Errands
Yet these were the same parents who allowed May, the budding artist, to burn etchings on breadboards and draw on the walls. Pretty much every surface in her bedroom is covered with drawings and sketches -- madonnas, goddesses, angels. The kid wasn't bad.
Bronson Alcott also built the distinctive half-circle desk in Louisa's room, overlooking Lexington Road, so that his daughter would have a private place to write. She penned "Little Women" there in 1868; a page of the manuscript is on display, in her distinctive backward-slanting handwriting. Wooden shelves are lined with her books -- lots of Dickens, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Goethe. Those vivid calla lilies on the wall? They were painted by May so that Louisa could see them from her bed when she was sick with typhoid pneumonia. She became ill while serving as a nurse in the Civil War, and the treatment was worse than the disease, leaving her a semi-invalid for the rest of her life.
In 1877, Louisa took her parents and Anna (by this time, widowed with two boys) to live in a spacious house on Main Street, formerly Thoreau's home. The Thoreau-Alcott House is a private residence now, but you can admire the lines of the elegant yellow mansion from the street and marvel at how far the family had come.
Then, if you walk through Concord's leafy streets, past the kids playing street hockey, past the small-town insurance agents and law offices, you'll come to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a picturesque burial ground straight out of Central Casting. Up winding paths carpeted with pine needles is Author's Ridge, where the graves of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and the Alcotts are set amid ash trees, pines and oaks.
The Alcott sisters' simple headstones are here, next to their parents'. "L.M.A.," Louisa's inscription reads. Visitors have left piles of stones, twigs and leaves in her honor, and someone's planted lilies of the valley in front of the little stones. They seem a fitting tribute.
K.C. Summers will be online to discuss this article Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.