Tuesday, September 29, 2009

5: Salem: Hawthorne, houses and histories

Before he moved to Concord to join Emerson’s enclave Nathaniel Hawthorne called Salem, Massachusetts home. It’s not hard to discover this fact on a visit to Salem—seemingly half the city is named after him. (The other half of the city, as a friend pointed out, is named after Nathaniel Bowditch, the founder of modern sea navigation, who deserves as much praise—in my opinion—for teaching himself calculus.)

This visit encompassed multiple histories for. There’s the Hawthorne history, obviously, and there’s the broader Salem history (which we sampled on a visit to the Peabody Essex Museum).  There’s also personal history: I used to live in Salem years ago, and my companion for the day was a friend from even more years ago.

Chuck and I started our tour with lunch at In a Pig’s Eye.  Despite being right in the path of the historical walking trail, the pub feels like a neighborhood hangout rather than a tourist destination. I used to live right around the corner, so it used to be my neighborhood hangout. The waitress teased most everyone in a friendly way and let us know her favorites among the specials. There’s nothing wild and crazy—sandwiches, seafood and a smattering of Mexican dishes—but it’s all good. In a break from my usual foodie behavior, I didn’t really concentrate on what I was eating; Chuck and I hadn’t seen each other for perhaps ten years, so there was a lot of catching up to do, and we all know it’s rude to talk with your mouth full.

But there was a lot of history in front of us too, so off we went to The House of the Seven Gables. This First-Period mansion is best known to most people as the setting (and title) of one of Hawthorne’s most famous novels. It was also known to me as a place I drove by every day on my way to work as I navigated the maze of one-way streets in this part of town. It is a beautiful house, and the well-tended gardens overlooking the harbor show it off at its best. It looks a much happier place than the house depicted in Hawthorne’s book.

This is actually a departure from the pattern of my other visits so far. Hawthorne never lived in the seven-gabled house. It was owned by his cousin, Susannah Ingersoll, and he often visited her, but during the span of time she owned it, the house had only three gables. The house, which dates to 1668, was built—and unbuilt—in sections by three generations of the Turner family and later by the Ingersoll family.

The growth of the mansion reflected the fortunes of whichever John Turner owned it at the time. The first Turner built the house (two rooms on two stories with an attic) in 1668, added a kitchen lean-to a few years later, then added another two-story wing in 1680. This wing, with a parlor on the ground floor and bedchamber above was grander than the original portion with high ceilings and a gabled garret. The second-generation John Turner added a large kitchen ell and rebuilt the main chimney (including the secret stairway) and remodeled to the Georgian style. The third John Turner failed to sustain the family tradition—and the family fortune—and was forced to sell the house. By the time Hawthorne knew the house, remodeling had removed several of the gables, but his cousin told him the story of the house’s history and showed him evidence of the physical changes that had taken place.

Touring the house today, visitors can see evidence of the house’s evolution. We saw original floorboards and horsehair plaster in the attic—after we made our way up the narrow, zigzag staircase hidden behind a wood closet next to the main chimney.

Restoration to its former grandeur began in the early 1900s when Caroline Emmerton, a philanthropist and historical preservationist, purchased the house. She had dual aims: to preserve the home and educate visitors about its significance and to use the proceeds from the visits to help fund The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association, an organization she founded to aid recent immigrants to the city.

The campus where the mansion sits has expanded over time much the same way the house did. Several other historic buildings have been moved to the property, including the house where Hawthorne was born. Hawthorne lived in this house for a short four years, up until the time his father, a sea captain, died of yellow fever far off in Surinam. His mother had to move her young family in with her parents, the Mannings.

The Mannings house—dubbed “Castle Dismal” by Hawthorne—was located at 12 Herbert Street according to materials at The House of Seven Gables. So we decided to go find it after we finished our house tour, but first, a different kind of history …

Across the street from The House of Seven Gables sits another important landmark: Ye Olde Pepper Companie, the oldest candy company in the United States. Among the chocolates and truffles and fudge you expect to see at any good candy store, you’ll also find some really old-fashioned candies. Gibraltars, in smooth melt-in-your-mouth lemon or peppermint flavors, were the first candies made and sold by Mrs. Spencer back in 1806. My favorites, black jacks, are so hard that they seem like they may actually have been made in 1806, but that just means the irregular sticks made with black strap molasses last a long time. I wonder if Hawthorne liked these.

The walk up Herbert Street revealed a bit of a mystery. There is no number 12. Oh, there’s a building between numbers 10 and 14, but the number hanging on it is 10½. It is the correct house, looks just like the picture I have. So why was the number changed, and when? As luck would have it, the mail carrier was coming up the street just as we were, so we asked him about it. Yes, he agreed, it was the house where Hawthorne lived, but it had been number 10½ for as long as he could remember.

Hawthorne lived in Salem as a child, again after he graduated from Bowdoin College and again after his three “rent-free” years at The Old Manse in Concord. His return at that time was to take a job as Surveyor in the Salem Custom House (another historic attraction just a short walk down Derby Street from The House of the Seven Gables). This position, gained thanks to the influence of his college buddy Franklin Pierce and other Democratic friends, helped him get on firmer financial ground, but it didn’t last. Since the post was a political appointment, he lost it when the Whigs gained control. His mother died in 1849, and in 1850 he left Salem for good—though it would remain a place he visited frequently in his writing. (For more on Hawthorne’s life, see this online exhibit.)

We went to visit a house of different kind at the Peabody Essex Museum. The museum houses a huge collection related to Salem’s maritime trade, and many of their exhibits tie in to the Asian connection. A highlight of a museum visit is a walk through Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese house. The house, originally located in southeastern China in the Huizhou region, was dismantled, its parts painstakingly labeled and transported to Salem, where it was reassembled here in the museum. An audio tour explains the house’s two hundred years of history—the generations of family, the shifting fortunes, the affects of societal changes. The same elements that characterize the history of The House of the Seven Gables or any other house with a long history. The particulars of the stories may be different, but the major themes are the same.

Something extra: Check with your local library to see if it has museum passes available for patrons. My library is terrific that way. For this visit to Salem I borrowed a pass for The House of the Seven Gables that allowed two admissions for the price of one and a pass for the Peabody Essex Museum good for two adult admissions.

Friday, September 25, 2009

4: Littleton and Franconia: Frost in the north woods

This trip more than any of the others so far demonstrates the benefits of staying open to the unanticipated. The main literary attractions are always set (in this case, Robert Frost’s home in Franconia), but the rest of the itinerary is flexible. I had found an interesting restaurant I wanted to try, but when I called a few days ahead to check the hours, I discovered that it was going to be closed the day of my field trip. Bummer. But I also received an email from my friend Maureen with an important question: Did I know that Eleanor Hodgman Porter (author of Pollyanna) was from Littleton, New Hampshire?)

Boy, was I glad to hear that!

(That’s a Pollyanna reference for those of you who are unfamiliar with the story. The book, originally published in 1913, is still in print, so you can find it if you’re curious. It was also adapted as a classic Disney film starring Hayley Mills—and the adorable Kevin Corcoran.)

Littleton was a wonderful surprise. Maureen and I had been through the town at the beginning of the summer when we had made an expedition to northern New Hampshire (another story perhaps for another time), but then it had been just a passing view out the window.

First off, lunch. After the drive from Massachusetts munching was definitely in order. We chose Miller’s Café & Bakery. You know the food has to be good when the folks who work there are looking in the display case and eagerly discussing what they’re going to have for lunch. The worst thing about a good sandwich (and more) shop is having to make that all-important decision. We finally opted for a Grilled Provence Panini (chicken) and an Athena Wrap (lamb), and the day was perfect for eating them outside on the deck overlooking the river.

We actually made two stops at Miller’s, because after we walked around town, we came back for our dessert: strawberry rhubarb pie. The pie, like the sandwiches, was as good as it looked. (I’d go to this place a few times a week if it weren’t two and a half hours away.)

Our walk took us first to the local bookstore (of course) and then up Main Street to the library. Right out in front of the building, arms thrown wide, is a statue of Pollyanna in honor of Eleanor Hodgman Porter and her most famous creation. The character even inspired a new word: A “Pollyanna” is an excessively optimistic person. And the word even turned up in one of Robert Frost’s poems, “New Hampshire”—

“It’s Pollyanna now or death.”

(It’s a very long poem, so I’m only quoting the one line. Besides the line is just plain fun to see or say out of context. Get over it.)

On our way back down Main Street we just had to investigate a sign we had seen earlier—the awning outside a store called Chutters declared that it had, according to Guinness World Records, the world’s longest candy counter. Now I ask you, who could resist that? We poked our noses into many of the many, many jars that lined the wall and were so overwhelmed by the scent of sugar that neither of us actually looked to see what the record-setting measurement was—112 feet if you really care (I checked later). To me, statistics don’t matter when candy is involved.

One other thing had attracted our attention as we came into town, and we decided we just had to check it out before we left. There was a small, plain sign pointing down a side road that said “Horse Cemetery.” These are the sorts of things that just call out for a side trip. So, tangent it was.

Robert Frost would have understood. Following that sign certainly took us down a road less traveled. And we discovered a small fenced cemetery with three grave markers and a small plaque that explained them. In 1889 a man named Eli Wallace bought his wife a matched pair of Morgans, Maud and Molly, and the childless couple were devoted to the horses. Twenty years later, when the horses had to be put down, the Wallaces had them buried with their feedboxes, blankets and all their tack. After Mrs. Wallace died the following year, a friend gave Eli another horse, Maggie, who was later buried along with the others.

Robert Frost lived in Franconia, only a few miles from Littleton, from 1915 to 1920. I wonder if he ever saw the Wallaces out for a ride with Maud and Molly.

The sign in front of Frost’s house says, “The Frost Place Museum and Poetry Center.” I like that. We have plenty of building centers and automotive centers and nuts-and-bolts centers of all sorts—it’s nice to see a poetry center, and I’d like to see more of them. The house, owned by the town of Franconia, is both a museum and a residence; each year the organization awards a fellowship to a poet that includes living in the house for the summer months. In addition the center hosts several writers’ conferences and workshops, so creative energy works on in the same rooms, fields and woods where Frost worked during his time here.

The Frost Place is casual for a museum (compared to most I’ve visited on this adventure). The small barn out back houses the visitor center and a space for poetry readings. The docent there didn’t offer to take our admission fees and simply directed us to the screen door on the front porch if we wanted to view the house. The screen door had a homey squeak to it, and just inside was a basket to receive our money if we chose to make a donation. Gotta a love a place that still stands by the honor system.

We stepped into the living room and saw Frost’s leather Morris chair with lap desk. An old cast-iron stove stood next to it, and several display cases lined the walls. Upstairs were several more display cases in the hall and in one bedroom. The effect was minimalist rather than lacking, since the museum is but one element of the Frost Place. The items gave a sense of Frost’s presence rather than a recreation of his life here.

Providing a contrast of indoor/outdoor and natural/manmade was the nature trail that wound from the back of the house out into the woods. No video touch screens or push-button audio tour, but rather wooden plaques hung on trees showcasing some of Frost’s poems. Summer flowers lingered in the tangled grass even as the first red leaves of autumn fell to the ground. The path, sometimes wooden planks or stepping-stones or just mossy ground under the trees, invited us and several other groups of visitors to meander along it. Identification markers labeled the plants along the route for a combination literature/botany lesson.

Frost bought the Franconia property when he returned to the States after several years in England. He was forty years old but really only recently established as a poet. His first two books had been published in England, and he received positive notice there. American editions came out the same year he moved to Franconia.

I think he had a notion of the sort of place a New England poet should live, and he went looking for it. His poetic account of it in “New Hampshire” says:

The farm I made my home on in the mountains
I had to take by force rather than buy.
I caught the owner outdoors by himself
Raking up after winter, and I said,
“I’m going to put you off this farm: I want it.”
“Where are you going to put me? In the road?”
“I’m going to put you on the farm next to it.”
“Why won’t the farm next to it do for you?”
“I like this better.” It really was better.

He had liked Franconia when he summered here in the past, partly to escape the torments of hay fever that plagued him farther south, and he probably had a romantic notion of living among the mountains—Mount Lafayette dominates the view from the front porch. But year-round living is different from enjoying the summer months here; Frost and his family left this house after just a few years, because the winters were too cold and long (and because he had an offer to teach at Amherst College).

Frost, like more than a few of his New England literary predecessors, moved pretty frequently. This, of course, presents me with the opportunity to visit several of his residences—and there will be more Frost to come.

Heading south, we decided to stop in Franconia Notch State Park and visit The Basin. This beautiful pothole carved from granite by a waterfall on the Pemigewasset River is a short, easy walk from the parking lot—just a chance to stretch our legs before the drive home. And whom should we meet at the edge of The Basin but that footloose Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. A marker at the railing informs visitors that Thoreau was also a visitor here—among his myriad New England wanderings—and gazed on the sight that we were viewing. The afternoon shadows were beginning to stretch across the path so we didn’t linger long.

After all, we had miles to go …

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

3: Concord, first foray: Oh, those crazy Transcendentalists

Concord, Massachusetts, is bursting at the seams with history from the Minute Men to Little Women with bunches of other stuff in between. There’s even too much to tackle in one day for my limited purposes, so Concord will be a double-header. Here’s visit one.

In addition to its Revolutionary and literary history, Concord is family history for me—my mom grew up here. So who better to take along on this field trip?

Our first stop was The Wayside, now part of Minute Man National Historical Park. The Wayside was home for a time to the Alcott family, then Nathaniel Hawthorne and later Margaret Sidney (pen name for Harriet Lothrop). Lothrop and her husband Daniel Lothrop were early visionaries regarding historic houses and purchased The Wayside because of its illustrious residents with the intent to preserve it. They were literary names in their own right: Daniel Lothrop was a publisher and one of his authors was Margaret Sidney, creator of The Five Little Peppers. Their daughter Margaret opened the home to tourists in the 1920s (even while she still lived in part of it). When my mom was a teenager, she worked as a tour guide for Miss Lothrop, so this was familiar territory for her. (It also made her a bit of a celebrity with our ranger guide Charlie.)  

Unfortunately, The Wayside is in less than perfect shape these days. A broken sprinkler pipe caused significant water damage around the house. Parts are closed to tours—including the room with the secret hiding place built by the Alcotts to shelter two runaway slaves in the winter of 1846.

Bronson Alcott made other renovations to the house, enlarging it by adding a section on to each side (partly so his four daughters wouldn’t all have to share one room). The sections were the two halves of an unused building that had been sitting on the property across the street—owned Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bronson, possessor of big ideas, also moved (or had someone else move) a barn from Emerson’s property. I’m guessing that Emerson—a good friend, a patron of his fellow writers or an enabler, depending how you look at it—gave Alcott a really good deal on the buildings. Even so, the Alcott family only lived here for a few years. Tight economic straits forced them to move back to Boston, and they sold the house to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1852.

This was the only house Hawthorne ever owned (more about him as a tenant later). Ironically, less than a year after he moved in Hawthorne was appointed US consul to Liverpool, England. On his return to Concord almost seven years later, Hawthorne enlarged the house some more, including a “sky parlor” constructed atop the house as a private writing space. The additions didn’t turn out the way he had envisioned and he called the house “the absurdest anomaly you ever saw.”  He never really had the opportunity to enjoy much time in his own home; his health began to fail, and he died (probably of intestinal cancer) in 1864.

For the brief time Hawthorne did live at The Wayside, his next-door neighbors were none other than the Alcotts, who had returned to Concord and purchased Orchard House, where Bronson ran his School of Philosophy and Louisa May later made a name for herself when she wrote Little Women.

A large group of students from Japan was touring the house when we arrived. When our guide, Louise, came to the shelf filled with copies of Little Women in many different languages, she said that the students had pointed excitedly to the Japanese edition as the one they read as children.

I was both amused and exasperated by our guides at The Wayside and Orchard House—both kept trying to lay claim for their respective house as being the place where the Little Women lived their lives. Let’s remember that the March family wasn’t real. Jo didn’t write in any garret, Beth didn’t play her music in any parlor. Sure, Louisa May Alcott drew on her own family’s experiences, but if—for example—she was playing Pilgrim’s Progress on the stairs of Orchard House at the age of 26 (that’s how old she was when the family moved in), then Bronson’s educational efforts with his daughters resulted in some serious developmental delays. (They don’t call it fiction for nothing.)

When I was a kid, I thought Louisa May had it great—she got to learn from all those fascinating Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, her own father) and she was a writer. Oh for my lost innocence. Those crazy Transcendentalists weren’t all self-reliant, nature-loving, intellectual individualists; they had their warts. (If you don’t believe me, read Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury.) I used to think it would be cool to time-travel back and hang out with Louisa May and rest of them, but no-o-o—it would be too much like hanging out with some of the more dysfunctional members of my own family. Yes, Concord is tied to my family history, but this part of it is just in my head. (Skip ahead if you want to bypass the this-is-the-kind-of-weird-stuff-that-goes-on-in-my-head riff.)

Bronson Alcott. He used to say stuff like “Providence will provide” and never notice that it was his wife and daughters who were doing all the hard work to put food on the table. (Racking it up to Providence likely meant he never had to say “thank you,” and he could somehow take credit.) There’s a bench in front of Orchard House that he used to sit on with a basket of apples by his side to offer to travelers going by on the road. A hint to how this turns out: When Hawthorne lived next door, he’d look out the window whenever he wanted to walk to town, and if he saw Bronson on the bench, he’d go out the back door and over the hill rather than pass Bronson on the road. Unsuspecting travelers would accept the offer of an apple and a place to sit and rest a moment and find themselves the audience of an unsolicited lecture from The Philosopher. This reminds me too much of my father (who was also a fan Providential provisions), a Civil War buff who would launch into accounts of what his latest research had uncovered whether anyone cared to hear it or not. BLAH BLAH BLAH.

So when I look at that bench, I see a traveler with a pained expression on his face nibbling an apple as Bronson Alcott holds forth. BLAH BLAH BLAH. I can’t help it. He just drones on and on.

As good a time as any to break for lunch.

We stopped in at Main Streets Market & Café for some killer sandwiches with whoopie pies for dessert. We sat by the window looking out at the street, and my mom pointed out landmarks (or landmarks that were missing) from her childhood. After lunch we took a detour from the literary points of interest to drive by the house where she grew up. The current owners were out in the yard, and they invited us inside for a tour. How cool is that?

But back to the Transcendentalist tribe.

We headed for The Old Manse, Emerson lived here with his step-grandfather for a short time in the 1830s (after he had left the ministry and before he had established himself as a writer) before buying his own house. Looking out over the fields from one of the house’s windows, he wrote his essay “Nature” and developed his views of the world.

“The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their land-deeds give them no title.”

Several years later Emerson urged newlywed Nathaniel Hawthorne to move to Concord and arranged for him to rent The Old Manse. Hawthorne and his wife Sofia lived here for three years—and were less than ideal tenants. While he lived here, Hawthorne wrote most of the stories that were collected in his book Mosses from an Old Manse. His preface, “The Old Manse,” describes the house and its surrounds and his impressions of them—he doesn’t seem too impressed by much of it and rather oppressed by some of it.

“The boughs over my head seemed shadowy with solemn thoughts, as well as with rustling leaves. I took shame to myself for having been so long a writer of idle stories, and ventured to hope that wisdom would descend upon me with the falling leaves of the avenue …”

Of his study he writes, “When I first saw the room, its walls were blackened with the smoke of unnumbered years, and made still blacker by the grim prints of Puritan ministers that hung around. … They had all vanished now. A cheerful coat of paint, and golden-tinted paper-hangings, lighted up the small apartment; while the shadow of a willow-tree, that swept against the overhanging eaves, attempered the cheery western sunshine.”

The redecorating—in gaudier colors than the owners might have liked, not to mention he stuffed those glowering portraits in the attic—was one thing, but some of the unwise words that Hawthorne (and his wife) wrote were something else. The young couple recorded some of their fond memories in the house by etching notes on the window glass with Sophia’s diamond ring. Just the kind of tenants a landlord longs for. Oh, and they didn’t pay their rent for the three years they lived here.

Louisa May would have understood my irritation. I know she felt it too, though she was probably more forgiving than I am. She captured some of the perplexing attitudes of her father and his fellows in her short story, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” that satirized her father’s utopian experiment at Fruitlands.

“Reform conventions of all sorts were haunted by these brethren, who said many wise things and did many foolish ones. Unfortunately, these wanderings interfered with their harvest at home; but the rule was to do what the spirit moved, so they left their crops to Providence and went a-reaping in wider and, let us hope, more fruitful fields than their own. …

“About the time the grain was ready to house, some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away. An easterly storm was coming up and the yellow stacks were sure to be ruined. Then Sister Hope gathered her forces. Three little girls, one boy (Timon’s son), and herself, harnessed to clothes-baskets and Russia-linen sheets, were the only teams she could command; but with these poor appliances the indomitable woman got in the grain and saved food for her young, with the instinct and energy of a mother-bird with a brood of hungry nestlings to feed.”

More about Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the second visit to Concord.

Friday, September 18, 2009

2: South Berwick and Cape Neddick: Local girl makes good

A little reality check to serve as a disclaimer: I won’t necessarily be posting these “adventures” in the order I take them. I’ll be mixing it up so I don’t write about the same area or people one of top of another. First and foremost, it’s to maintain my interest level—but secondly, I hope it helps maintain yours too. Just being honest here. 

So next up … it’s a lovely late summer day. In southern Maine this is the perfect time of year. And I’m thinking Sarah Orne Jewett would agree with me. 

My friend Amanda and I arrived a few minutes before the day’s first tour at the Sarah Orne Jewett House in South Berwick, Maine, and spent the time wandering in the garden behind the house—where we met a pair of sisters (one from New Hampshire and one visiting from Seattle). We swapped stories (Amanda was visiting from Portland, Oregon) and compared notes on travel and visiting historic places.


We wound up with seven in our tour group, and we got an immediate sense of being in this together as our guide, Ann, instructed us to put on shoe covers to protect the house from outdoor contaminants. So there we all were in little booties. 

One of the interesting things about visiting historic homes is the sensation of layers of history—like Longfellow’s home in Cambridge. Yes, it was Longfellow’s home, but before that it was the Craigies’ and before that someone else’s, and George Washington even lived there. Multiple stories clamor to be told. The Jewett house whispered more than clamored—it was built in 1774 by a shipbuilder wanting to impress (many rooms have elaborate moldings), but in 1819 it was purchased by Sarah’s grandfather Jewett, so most of the house’s story is also the family’s story. 

I found it interesting to try to read between the lines of the house’s physical evidence for the ethereal familial relationships. (Must be the writer in me.) A little family history: Sarah’s grandfather, Captain Theodore Furber Jewett, had four sons, three of whom followed in his footsteps as seamen and one, Sarah’s father (also Theodore), who became a doctor. Their mother died when young Theodore was only a few years old, and the Captain remarried (and remarried and remarried). I’m guessing Cap didn’t like living alone. 

It’s a nice house, but not a huge one, yet at the time Sarah was born, it was home to her grandfather and his third wife, her great-grandfather, her uncle William, plus her parents and older sister Mary. A short time later, her father built a small house next door for his young family. (This building now houses the town library.) Another guess—the doctor wanted a place to call his own, even if it was on his father’s property. 

When the Captain died, the house was left to William. When William died in 1887, he left the house to Sarah’s sister Mary. Mary, Sarah and their mother (Dr. Jewett had died in 1878) moved back into the “great house” as they called it, and younger sister Caroline moved into the smaller house with her family. 

Tour guide Ann told us that Mary and Sarah, neither of whom ever married, were always known as “the Jewett girls.” Mary became active and influential in town matters, while Sarah, once her writing took off and gave her entrée into the wider literary society of the late 1800s, enjoyed traveling. Back to that idea of everyone knowing everyone: Jewett’s publisher was none other than J.T. Fields of Boston, and she became acquainted with Hawthorne, Longfellow and Emerson. She knew writers in her own back yard like Celia Thaxter and John Greenleaf Whittier as well as Dickens, Tennyson and Kipling. After Fields died in 1881, Jewett and his widow Annie Fields (already a close friend) enjoyed a “Boston marriage” until the end of Jewett’s life, and the two of them traveled extensively in the US and Europe. 

Despite the heady company, she always came home to South Berwick. The town provided inspiration for her work)—the title character of her first novel, A Country Doctor, was based on her father. And that wasn’t the only time she based a character on a real acquaintances; indeed speculating on those identities became a favorite pastime of the locals. Jewett’s writing was detailed, so the clues must have been abundant for those who could recognize them. It may have been this attention to detail—crafting intricate images of people and place—that made her critics point out that she was weak on plotting. She admitted herself that this was a weakness in her writing, although it didn’t seem to bother her readers—she was a very popular author during her lifetime. 

This approach may explain why her works have fallen out of favor—hers and the works of so many of the nineteenth-century writers I am visiting. They seem quaint, the language sounds strange to our twenty-first century ears. (“Befriend” was the verb related to the noun “friend,” and it had to do with the efforts to develop a friendship not clicking a button on Facebook.) These words were written in a more leisurely time when readers savored books. Now, if we read at all, we demand page-turners—plot, plot, plot that can hold our feeble attention and not give us a moment to take a breath, because our minds might wander off in that split second. And don’t even get me started on our withering vocabularies. 

If Jewett were writing today, she might be a nature writer rather than a novelist/short story writer. Her descriptions grab the details and hold them close to her readers’ faces, so they can see and smell and hear each and every feature of the scene. It may have been the story “A White Heron” in which Jewett captured her essential self. Ann, the tour guide, told us that Jewett considered nine her favorite age and that she had been quite the tomboy and nature lover. (She had learned plant names from her father when she accompanied him on his rounds). In the story nine-year-old Sylvia sneaks out before daybreak and climbs a tall pine tree to discover the next of a white heron. 

“… Sylvia could see the white sails of ships out at sea, and the clouds that were purple and rose-colored and yellow at first began to fade away. Where was the white heron’s nest in the sea of green branches, and was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height? Now look down again, Sylvia, where the green marsh is set among the shining birches and dark hemlocks; there where you saw the white heron once you will see him again; look, look! a white spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head. …” 

One of the men on our tour asked Ann if Jewett had to work. There was some confusion between them—Ann answered, yes, she her work was her writing. But did she have to work? he asked again. After the tour, Amanda said that the question must have annoyed me—that the man was inferring that writing wasn’t work. But I hadn’t interpreted the exchange that way at all: I thought he was asking if she had to work (at writing or anything else) in order to support herself. And the answer to that was no. 

So here’s my green-eyed envy: no, she didn’t have to work. She had inherited wealth to pay the bills, she lived first with her parents and then with her sister after Mary inherited the house, and she had money enough to travel both in the US and in Europe. A writer’s lifestyle is certainly easier if your family has money. I’m sure Louisa May Alcott—who had the misfortune to have a philosopher rather than a doctor for a father, which meant she actually did have to work to help support the family—would share my sentiments. 

But I’m not bitter. I think Jewett knew she had it good, so I’ll accept that.

After our visit to South Berwick, Amanda and I headed east to Cape Neddick and one of those places that define local color. Flo’s Hot Dogs has been a Route 1 fixture since 1959, no small accomplishment for a roadside snack shack. If it had been around in Sarah Orne Jewett’s day, she certainly would have put it in one of her stories. Crowded parking lot, long line trailing out the door and all. 

Once we joined the customers lucky enough to have made it inside, I could revel in the goings on. This is just the kind of American pop culture experience I live for. There are obviously rules of behavior, but they aren’t spelled out anywhere; you have to figure them out by watching and listening. The line snaked along the far wall then looped around to the counter. 

Gail (daughter-in-law of founder Flo and now obviously The Woman in Charge) presided behind the counter and handled everything herself. First she worked her way through the line asking only how many hot dogs each person wanted (the batch we were in totaled 47, with most people ordering more than one), then she’d get enough dogs and buns going before she went back to each customer to get the details of each order—toppings, chips, drinks. Several people ordered Moxie, and each time she asked if the man was sure he wanted one. “It’s carbonated Robitussin cough syrup.” The first man assured her he had had it before and actually did want it. The second was dissuaded by her description and went for a regular root beer. Talk about customer service.  One man came inside blustering to get the owner of a Mercedes to move the car because it was blocking him in. He mistakenly identified the owner (that poor guy said, “It’s not mine. I walked here.”), then the actual owner went outside with him. When she returned a few minutes later, Gail apologized to her—and the rest of us. “My customers aren’t usually that rude.” 

Outdoor seating is a handful of non-exclusive picnic tables. (There are several stools inside at the counter, but I would imagine that anyone trying to sit there would wind up with an elbow in the ear at least once as transactions took place over the counter.) We sat with two couples, both first-time visitors like we were, and compared notes on how we figured out what a “Flo’s dog” was or what the various topping options were. For the record: relish refers to the green stuff, and sauce means Flo’s special relish (seemingly a concoction of condiments that you can purchase by the jar if you want to take some home). We had ordered three dogs: one with sauce, mustard and a sprinkle of celery salt; one with sauce, mayo and the celery salt; and one with just sauce and the salt. When Gail handed it to me, she said, “What you’ve got here is the sampler.” She explained that the mustard brings out the spicy side of the sauce, and the mayo its sweeter side. Good to know—because I’ll be going back.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

1: Boston and Cambridge: Everyone, it seems, knew everyone

The project got off to a less than auspicious start as I headed out on a rainy Saturday morning with my friend Gail, but we donned our raincoats and stuck to our plan. The day’s activities began outside Border’s, near the Boston Irish Famine Memorial, where we met our volunteer guide from Boston By Foot. The organization’s website said tours take place rain or shine, and sure enough, there was Laura waiting to lead the Literary Landmarks tour. And we weren’t the only intrepid tourists—we wound up with nine altogether in our soon-to-be soggy group.  

Don’t worry, I’m not going to detail each stop on the 90-minute walk (you’ll have to take it yourself), but we covered a surprising amount of literary history in barely a mile in this Beacon Hill area. During the mid-1800s you’d have had a hard time walking up any one of these streets without tripping over a literary genius or two. 

First landmark, right there on the corner of School Street. The brick building now houses a diamond store, but in the nineteenth century as the Old Corner Bookstore and home of publishers Ticknor, Fields & Co. it sold a different sort of jewels. Ticknor and Fields published most of New England’s major literary players of the time, including poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and James Russell Lowell, essayists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe and later Mark Twain. Ticknor and Fields also served as the US publisher for Charles Dickens—Laura started off the tour with mention of his celebrity status during his US reading tour in 1867. 

Most of these folks would stop in at the publishers’ offices for a visit when they were in the city, and just up the street were two other favorite hangouts. The literary community was a close one in those days; everyone, it seemed, knew everyone else, and they made plenty of opportunities to share each other’s company. The Parker House (now the Omni Parker House) was home to the Saturday Club, an informal gathering of Boston-area intellectuals, including many of the Ticknor and Fields authors, which started in 1855. (It’s also home of the Parker House roll and Boston cream pie—for those of us who enjoy food history. Yum.) The Boston Athenaeum was another gathering spot—albeit without food and drink service. 

Yes, I could (and do, actually) recommend the works of these nineteenth century writers, but for those of you who are averse to dusting off books before you read them, I can also recommend a couple of recent books that bring this bunch to life. Two novels by Matthew Pearl feature Ticknor and Fields and some of their illustrious stable of writers. The Dante Club sets loose a serial killer in post–Civil War Boston and Cambridge as H.W. Longfellow, with the help of Fields, Lowell, Holmes and others, is working on his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Curious thing is the murderer is drawing inspiration from the hellish sufferings described in Dante’s Inferno, so the literary lions must turn their talents to catching a killer. The follow-up novel, The Last Dickens, concerns another murder and a mystery tied to Charles Dickens’s final novel (and includes flashbacks to that 1867 reading tour as well as some fascinating detail about the cutthroat nature of the publishing business in the Victorian era—DVD pirates have nothing on these guys). 

We splashed up Pinckney Street, which saw its share of would-be literary geniuses—these were the rented rooms of the not yet famous. Number four was Henry David Thoreau’s childhood home. Number 54, or a couple of rooms of it, was home to a struggling Nathaniel Hawthorne in the late 1830s. Some years later the Alcott family lived at number 20. Louisa May helped support the family working as a teacher and tried to sell her early writings.  J.T. Fields rejected her stories and essentially told her not to give up her day job—and was probably kicking himself for it not too many years later. 

This period of Alcott’s life gets the fictionalized treatment in the 2004 novel, Louisa and the Missing Heiress by Anna Maclean, the first of a trilogy of Louisa May Alcott mysteries. A 22-year-old Louisa turns detective to solve the mystery behind a friend’s untimely death. The book is filled with period details, and it’s fun to hear Louisa May Alcott’s feisty voice in the first-person narrator, commenting on her family, her times and her own idiosyncrasies. (“[F]ather’s convictions and impractical notions allowed Abba and me to indulge our favorite conspiracy: keeping at least one of his feet on the solid, practical earth and preventing his spending all of his minutes on his theories of the virtuous life and harmony with nature.”) 

It was no mystery as to why Laura suggested bringing our tour to an end at 39 Beacon Street, once home of the Appleton family whose daughter Fanny married Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The rain had picked up and everyone was soaked through. (So was my notebook.) 

A good time to take refuge from the rain and also a good time for lunch. Gail and I headed for the Union Oyster House, a short walk from Faneuil Hall. Any of our writer friends from the morning might have done the same since the restaurant—the oldest in continuous operation in the country—opened in 1826. We chose some comfort staples for a damp day: big bowls of chowder (one haddock, one clam), which were served with generous squares of warm cornbread. To linger a little longer out of the wet we finished off the meal with coffee and a serving of old-fashioned Indian pudding. (Can’t find that just anywhere these days.)


A short trip on the Red Line took us to Harvard Square for our next stop: the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Brattle Street. Nearly all of the furnishings date to Longfellow’s time, including he study, still piled with books and decorated with busts and portraits of friends and favorite writers. (My favorite room.) Longfellow first lived in the house when it was owned by the Craigie family; he rented several rooms when he came to teach modern languages at Harvard in the late 1830s. The home had been used as residence and headquarters by George Washington during the American Revolution (so Washington really did sleep here), and Longfellow was thrilled to be living in the same rooms as the Founding Father.  A few years later when Longfellow married Fanny Appleton, her parents purchased the house for them as a wedding gift. 

A roster of visitors to the house (some of whom are featured in portraits, including several by Longfellow’s son Ernest) supports the notion that the literary community was a close one. He, of course, played host to the members of the Dante Club as well as Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Longfellow admired and supported his female literary contemporaries.) 

It may seem hard to fathom from the vantage point of 2009 that Longfellow was a hugely popular author in his day. His works were bestsellers both in the US and abroad—think Stephen King or Dan Brown. And this guy was a poet!  These days if you ask the right people, you might find a few who know he wrote The Song of Hiawatha, Evangeline or The Landlord’s Tale: Paul Revere’s Ride. (Though they probably won’t remember “The Landlord’s Tale” part of the title.) 

Our tour guide, Laura, enthusiastically recited his poem, “The Children’s Hour.” In it he describes Longfellow family life in the house, and it was easy to picture the poet with his children right where we were standing. 

            From my study I see in the lamplight,
                        Descending the broad hall stair,
            Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
                        And Edith with golden hair. 

            A whisper, and then a silence;
                        Yet I know by their merry eyes
            They are plotting and planning together
                        To take me by surprise. 

I would have happily hung out with Longfellow. He was into writing and reading (he was thinking in terms of comparative literature before the term existed) and traveling. (More about him if you’re interested.) 

And we would have invited him along on the last stop of our day. As a tip of the hat to Longfellow’s love of things Italian we ducked in for a latte and biscotti at the Algiers Coffee House, also on Brattle Street, on our way back to the T. College students, just coming back to town for the academic year, filled the place with lively conversation. Longfellow probably would have fit right in.

Introduction: Insinuating myself into writers’ homes

Not anywhere near as rude as it sounds, since all of the writers have passed away and their homes have been established as museums and opened to the public. Visiting the homes is just an excuse anyway, a jumping off place for doing stuff that’s fun for me and thinking and writing about a variety of topics. 

Here’s my basic approach: 

Planning the trips is half the fun. Uncovering the homes and researching what other points of interest are in the area and of course what interesting places to eat I might visit in my travels. I’ll visit a good handful of places for this first series, but many house museums close for the winter, so I won’t be able to visit all the places I’d like to go—I’ll leave those for a second series sometime next spring perhaps. 

And then there’s the unplanning—the fun (if you look at all this as an adventure as I do) of adjusting when part of the plan doesn’t work out. Staying open to the unexpected means stumbling over points of interest that I didn’t know were there and adding a whole new element to the day. 

Recruiting friends to accompany me on these day trips has definitely been part of the fun. Each of them adds an ingredient that would be missing otherwise. 

The personalities of the writers themselves, who are always present in spirit, influence my experiences. Imagining them in their living and working spaces, seeing how their domestic lives complement or contradict their writings, learning a bit about how their characters fulfill or fall short of the images of them that have come down to us as their legacy. 

Thinking about books and how they fit in to these adventures. Books by the writers whose homes I’m visiting and other books as well—and perhaps the occasional movie. 

And then there’s just me. My mind sometimes works in mysterious ways, so you’d better expect a tangential riff here and there. You’ve been warned. 

My aim was to launch this adventure the first week of September and post once a week, but I fell short there on the reading and writing side because I was so busy on the field tripping side. So I’ll be posting a bit more frequently to start until I catch up. I'm sure it will take me a while to get the hang of this.