Boston - On The Prim, Decorous Hill
( Originally Published 1916 )
The streets of Boston are peopled with shadows of the past; shadows of those connected with the historical or literary Boston that has gone. Nor are all the figures Bostonians. Here is Dickens, a long winter day's tramp out into the country with James T.Fields, hilariously swinging back to the city in a wild snow storm but suddenly, near the junction of the Common and Charles Street, disappearing from view in the swirling snow clouds, only to be discovered on the other side of the road helping to his feet a blind man who had fallen helplessly in a drift. Here is Thackeray driving down Tremont Street to the lecture hall, with his extremely long legs hilariously stuck out of the carriage window in sheer joy-fulness that all the tickets for his first lecture had been sold! For it will be remembered that Thackeray came over to give to the Americans all four Georges in return for the one George that we had concluded to do without. Can you imagine the feelings of the sedate Bostonians as they saw the great Englishman going to his own lecture in what with-out exaggeration could be called an informal way!
How full of life, of buoyancy, were those two wonderful Englishmen! How impossible to picture any Boston man so carried away by success unless in a condition to be carried away by the police ! But, so far as that is concerned, it is not likely that even Thackeray ever rode through a street of his own England in quite such exuberance of joy.
Dickens liked Boston, and found what he termed a remarkable similarity of tone between this city and Edinburgh. Thackeray liked Boston, and used to say playfully that he always considered it his native city. Both men made Boston their landing-place on coming from England, and this could scarcely be looked upon as chance, or merely that Boston was the terminal point of a steamer line, but it was also, no doubt, because the two chose the city whose reputation in England most appealed to them; for Boston used to be the center of American literary life.
It was in Boston that Thackeray first tasted American oysters; and enormous ones were purposely set before him at the now-vanished Tremont House, ad-joining the Old Granary Graveyard, on Tremont Street (with the "e" in "Trem" short if you would be thought a Bostonian!), and he rejected the largest because it looked like the High Priest's servant's ear that Peter cut off, and with difficulty swallowed the smallest, gasping out that he felt as if he had swallowed a baby. I think people were more natural, more frank, more full of spontaneity in those days, less afraid of what other people might think; or at least our distinguished visitors from abroad gave admirable object lessons along that line.
And picture Thackeray—and isn't it a delightful picture !—dashing down the slope of Beacon Street toward the home of the historian Prescott, gleefully waving two volumes of "Esmond" that had just come to him from across the Atlantic and which he was taking to Prescott because Prescott had given him his first dinner in America—picture him thus dashing down Beacon Street and joyously crying out to a friend whom he passed: "This is the very best I can do ! I stand by this book, and am willing to leave it when I go as my card!"
The Prescott house is still there, 55 Beacon Street, well down toward the very foot of the hill and facing out over the Common. It is a broad-fronted house, built in balanced symmetry, a house of buff-painted brick with rounded swells, with roof fronted with heavy white balusters, with window trimmings and door pilastered in white, with black iron balcony light and graceful in design; it is a fine-looking house, a house with a distinguished air. And somehow it seems to suggest a portrait of the admirable Prescott himself. It is a house worth seeing on its own ac-count and also because it was there that Thackeray received the inspiration for the sequel to the story which we see him so gleefully carrying, the sequel to "Esmond," for it was in that house that he saw the two swords (now in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society) that had been carried by relatives of Prescott in the Revolutionary War, one of them having been gallantly drawn in the service of the King and the other with equal gallantry in the service of America. Here Thackeray pondered the romance in such a situation, and the result was "The Virginians," with one Esmond to fight for the King and the other for Washington.
Over and over one realizes what possibilities of fine romance lie about us here in America. Not merely romance good enough for minor writers, as some would have us believe, but romance good enough for the giants. For Scott made brave use of the brave old story of the Regicide and Hadley, and he took his most beloved of all characters, Rebecca, from Philadelphia and Washington Irving; and Thackeray took his Virginians from Boston and Prescott; and I might refer to Dickens and "Chuzzlewit" were that not something far different from romance.
Boston could never forgive Dickens; and that he patronizingly wrote, years afterwards, that America had so changed that he could now speak well of it, aggravated rather than mitigated the enormity of his literary offense, which was, not that he had found people in America to criticise, for he had found people to criticise in his own England, but that, judging from "Chuzzlewit," he had found no one to think highly of in America. He had been cordially received by fine gentlemen, cultivated and polished men, who would have been, and some of whom were, received as fine gentlemen in the very finest society in Europe, yet none the less he went home and wrote the book that he had planned in advance to write, following the advice that he had long before put in the mouth of Sam Weller, to be sure to make a book on America so abusive that it would be sure to sell; he had, with amazing baldness, followed the published prejudices of Mrs. Trollope, which he had absorbed before leaving England; he wrote of Americans as ignorant and boastful boors; and of course, in the new portions of our country, there had to be many such. He wrote of America as being nothing but a nation of boors when he well knew us to be a nation possessing not only such men as Hawthorne and Longfellow and Webster and Motley and Prescott and Fields but many a cultured man of business and many a cultured family.
Fields, with whom Dickens loved to take long tramps, lived on Charles Street, at 148, well on the way that the jogging horse-car used to take towards Cambridge. It is now a highly undesirable street, with infinite dirt and noise, and could at no time have been really attractive. And the Fields house was al-ways hopelessly commonplace, a house high-set and bare in a row of houses all high-set and bare, built in an era of architectural bad taste. It is a brick house with brown stone trimmings, and is empty as I write, for Fields long since died and now his widow is dead, and the untenanted house has been drearily splashed, across the narrow sidewalk, from the chronically muddy street; splashed with brown and yellow dabs to more than the tops of the front doors and windows, and remaining drearily uncleaned.
I sometimes think of Fields as having been Boston's most important literary man. I do not mean as a writer, although he did write one book that has endeared him to a host of readers, but what he really did for literature was as an intelligent and keenly appreciative critic and an inspirer of literary men. He won the devotion of a host of friends; he welcomed distinguished foreign writers and gave them fine impressions of American society and literature; he counseled and inspired American writers and held them up to their best; it was even owing to him and his personal urgency that the "Scarlet Letter?' saw the light. He was one of those rare men who could judge of the value of writing without having to wait to see it in print and without waiting to watch its reception by the public. He was an anticipatory critic of insight and judgment. And that he was at the same time a publisher and for years even a magazine editor also, was in every respect fortunate, for he could publish what he thought worth while to the mutual advantage of himself and the authors.
It is to the lasting honor of Fields that, as Whipple wrote of him after a life-long friendship, he had deliberately formed in his mind, from the start, the ideal of a publisher who should profit by men of letters while at the same time men of letters should profit by him, and that he consistently and success-fully lived up to this ideal.
In the old days there was a serious effort to make Charles Street a fine home street. Thomas Bailey Aldrich came here for a time from the slope of Beacon Hill, making his home at 131, and Oliver Wendell Holmes came for a time to a house, since destroyed in the building of a hospital, at 164; but the street early showed its hopeless disadvantages, becoming, as it did long ago, a great teaming thoroughfare circling the foot of Beacon Hill from one part of the city to another.
The advantages of Charles Street are on the water-side; for it is close to the great broadening of the Charles River, which has always offered a beautiful view to the windows looking out over its sunset sweeps of water. Holmes made his home there, not only for the beauty of the water views but because he intensely loved rowing, and here he had precisely the opportunity he wanted, with the additional convenience of keeping his boat at his back door. But the increasing disadvantages of Charles Street out-weighed even these advantages of water and view.
The great rooms of the Fields house likewise looked out over the water, and it was deemed such a pleasure and such an honor to be a guest of James T. Fields that in the old days every literary man expected to be given an invitation as a hall-mark of success.
Those were the days when Boston authors were fine gentlemen and when many a Boston fine gentleman was an author. Indeed, there has never been a Grub Street in Boston. Those who look up the homes of authors need not search in the poorer parts of the city but among the homes of the socially exclusive, and the few exceptions are close by in neighborhoods that were once just as exclusive. And this is the case not only in the city but also in those near-by suburbs which are themselves essentially part of Boston, for it was not poor or unattractive or commonplace towns in which Hawthorne and Longfellow and Emerson lived, but places of such fine distinction and beauty as Cambridge and Concord.
In this matter of the fine living of its authors Boston stands almost unique among cities, the only one which has rivaled it being Edinburgh, where the group of writers who were so famous a century ago lived mostly in the best residential section. In no other particular is the resemblance between Edinburgh and Boston so interesting as this.
On Mount Vernon Street, at 59, in the very heart of conservative aristocracy, is the house that was the latest home of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a real mansion, broad of front, with classic pedimented doorway of white marble with fluted Doric pillars, and with entablatures of marble set between the second and third stories, and with a rounding swell, and a charming iron balcony, and four stone wreaths along the cornice, and four dormer windows above; and in front of the house there is even a generous grass-plot.
Mount Vernon Street, that very citadel and center of the Bralimins, as the exclusive Boston folk of a past generation loved to call themselves, attracted also for a time the most distinguished of all the Boston writers of to-day, Margaret Deland, who lived for a time at 76, in an old house whose front wall has long horizontal sets of windows that were put in for the sake of giving an unusual amount of light and sun to the flower-loving author. On the curbstone near this house is the quaintest old lamppost in Boston, a wrought iron frame set on a slim granite shaft. After her earlier successes Mrs. Deland left this home for one farther down the street, and then moved over to the Back Bay, still keeping up the Boston literary tradition of living among people of wealth. The other day I noticed in Boston's best morning news-paper a portrait of Mrs. Deland, with a review of her latest work, a new Old Chester book, and the review was amusing, because it described her as being a New England woman who writes with remarkable discernment of a New England village, when as a matter of fact she came here from Western Pennsylvania, and her Old Chester is near Pittsburgh. It is the natural tendency of Boston to assume that an excellent thing is of Boston or at least New England origin.
On Mount Vernon Street, 83, is the home of William Ellery Channing, a fine, austere house of dignity befitting the high standing of the man; a house with a low embankment wall, and grass, and a balcony of a design that is like the backs of Chinese Chippendales. His is one of the few homes that show a tablet, and it is the quietest and most unobtrusive of tablets, set as it is in the ironwork of the gatepost. In Boston everybody knows the name of this Channing, and he has been honored with a public monument over beside the Public Garden, and Longfellow wrote a poem to him, and he is remembered as a great figure and as a leader in thought; yet the Channing that those who are not Bostonians most naturally recall is the William Ellery Channing, the relative and namesake of this Charming of Boston, whom Hawthorne so loved and wrote of so lovingly.
On the difficult slope of the next street to steep Mt. Vernon, on Pinckney street, named in honor of that Pinckney who left us the heritage of that upstanding phrase, "Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute," on that Pinckney Street, at 84, is the home where Aldrich, early in his career, wrote his immortal juvenile, the "Story of a Bad Boy." It is a low-set and almost gloomy looking house, for it is without the usual high basement of the vicinity. Still it is a pleas-ant house after all, and one wonders why friends of Aldrich always referred to it as a "little" house, for it is four windows wide instead of the usual three of its immediate neighbors. The house has a peculiarly ugly over-hanging bay-window, misguidedly set by some would-be improver against what was once the attractive front of the house, and the first impulse is to say to oneself that of course this ugly bay could not have been there in the time of .Aldrich; but a lifelong resident of the street told me that she well remembers the time when he lived and wrote here and that he wrote his "Story of a Bad Boy" in this very bay-window!
Farther up the hill on Pinckney Street, at 54, is an attractive house which may really be called smallish; one feels impelled to call it "neat" even in a district of neatness, and except for that quality little of the distinctive is noticed except that it has an eight-paneled front door with the characteristic door-knob of silver-glass. This house has a most amusing connection with literature, for it was here, in July of 1842, that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his note to James Freeman Clarke, asking him to perform the marriage ceremony between himself and Sophia Pea-body, "though personally a stranger to you," as he expressed it; and the amusing feature was that al-though Doctor Clarke was told that "it is our mutual desire that you should perform the ceremony" and that a carriage would call for him at half-past eleven o'clock in the forenoon, Hawthorne quite forgot to mention the date on which the expected marriage was to take place ! And the note itself was no guide, for it was merely dated "July," without the day! And Hawthorne also quite forgot to mention where he would like the ceremony to be performed! Still, as Hawthorne wrote the street number on his note, it was possible to straighten the matter out in time.
Still farther up and on what has now become the level-top of Pinckney Street, at 20, is one of the houses where the Alcotts lived, a little, very narrow, high-perched building with its main floor reached by queer abrupt steps up to a front door deeply recessed in an almost tunnel-like approach. The house is of dingy brick and has little windows, and is immediately back of the very best of Mount Vernon Street and on a queerly narrowed part of Pinckney Street. And looking off toward the broadened Charles from this highest part of the street there comes an impression as if the hill has dropped suddenly away and the classic temple-like structures on the farther side of the water are close to the foot of a precipice.
The work of Bronson Alcott has been absolutely for-gotten and his very name would be forgotten were it not that he was the father of Louisa M. Alcott; yet he had some most unusual qualities. He wrote little and lectured much; he was not a success; he was rather tiresome; and yet with his transcendentalism, with his entirely vague thoughts in regard to what we should now call the superman, the uplift, he seems to have been near to something very excellent, very modern.
It was to this house on Pinckney Street that Alcott returned to his hard-pressed family, one cold winter's day, after a lecture tour, with his overcoat stolen and just one single dollar in his pocket! And this re-minds me of a story that I long ago heard out in Cleveland from an old resident there who told me that she remembered how, when a girl, Alcott came to lecture, and that as they had heard that he and his family were in actual need of money they actively sold tickets enough to hand him three hundred dollars, whereupon he said, quite beamingly, that in Buffalo he had seen a set of valuable books that he had very much wished for but, had been unable to buy, and that now he would go back and get them and take them home with him.
He was an impractical man, yet his friends liked him and smoothed the way for him, and in his later years the Alcott family were delightfully mainstayed by the immense success of the books of his wonderful and universally loved daughter.
The house where Bronson Alcott died at the age of almost ninety, in 1888, is also on Beacon Hill; a decorous, mid-block, characteristic Louisburg Square home, at 10, on the southern side of the square; it is a bow-fronted, white-doored house with a vestibule, with finely-paneled white inner door, hospitably showing to the street; it is a broad brick house set on a smooth granite foundation behind a little iron-railed space, with a plump pine-apple looking like a cheese at the terminal of the rail.
His daughter, Louisa M. Alcott, who won the hearts of myriads and gave such unbounded and wholesome pleasure with her "Little Women" and "Little Men," was so ill, in another part of the city, at the time of his death, that she was not told of it, and on the day of his funeral she herself died in the belief that her aged father was still living.
A few doors away, also facing out into the greenery of Louisburg Square, over in its southwest corner, at Number 4, lived for a time William Dean Howells; his once-while home being a comfortable, dormered house of the customary brick, with long drawing-room windows on the second floor, next door to a larger corner house, now a fraternity house, out of and into which young men seem always to be dashing.
Still lower on the slope of Beacon Hill, at 3 West Cedar Street, is a house that was for a time the home of the poet who figured among Longfellow's notables at the wayside Inn; for those who were pictured as gathering there and telling their tales were all very real men, although some of them were fancifully described. The poet of the party was a certain Thomas Parsons who, was thought of very highly by his famous literary contemporaries, although had it not been for Longfellow he would now be quite forgotten. He made his home for the better part of his best years on Beacon Hill Place, near the State House, but the wide-spreading State House extension has taken street and house, as it has taken many another; but his home for a while was here on West Cedar Street, in a small cozy, plain house in an entire street of similar cozy little houses, all with flowers in window-boxes and box-bushes on the doorsteps, all with brass knockers and old door-knobs and arched doorways. "A poet, too, was there whose verse was tender, musical and terse," as Longfellow expressed it; and it is pleasant to have this house mark a poet's memory, even though the memory is due to the greater poet who wrote about him.