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.


  1. I loved this book tour tucked into a house tour, Sam, and I'm looking forward to your next adventure!

  2. Reading this early installment of your tour reminded me of my visit to Longfellow's home many years ago and my plan to read all of Hawthorne's works along with a good biography of the writer!