America’s Frontier Forever Changed

The West the Railroads Made

Half a century after engines touched pilot to pilot at Promontory, Utah, to complete the first transcontinental railroad, the imprint of the Iron Road was nearly everywhere in the American West. Some enthusiastic real estate promoters and railway officials even claimed that the railroads invented the West—or at least the national image of the West.Read more »

The Hub Of The Solar System

The author walks us through literary Boston at its zenith. But Boston being what it is, we also come across the Revolution, ward politics, and the great fire.

Like three Bostonians out of four, I live on a site that was originally underwater. My house is on River Street, an alleyway that was built for stables at the bottom of Beacon Hill in the middle of the nineteenth century. Until my wife, twenty years ago, redesigned the carriage house we live in, no humans had resided there. Out of the back of the house we see the spire of the Church of the Advent, a late-nineteenth-century Gothic-revival creation that has the best music, and the highest Episcopal service, in Boston.Read more »

Where Would Emerson Find His Scholar Now?

His speech was called “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.” Its theme was the universe itself; its hero, Man Thinking. Now, one hundred and seventy-five years later, a noted scholar sees Emerson’s great vision as both more beleaguered and more urgent than ever.

ON AUGUST 31, 1837, THE DAY AFTER COMMENCEMENT—they don’t seem to have gone in for vacations in those earnest times—the academic year at Harvard was ushered in with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s address to Phi Beta Kappa on a stock topic, “The American Scholar.” The meeting was held in the First Parish Church, on the exact spot where Anne Hutchinson had been examined for heresy two centuries before. Read more »

Three Sisters Who Showed The Way

Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody managed to extend the boundaries that cramped the lives of nineteenth-century women. Elizabeth introduced the kindergarten movement to America, Mary developed a new philosophy of mothering that we now take for granted, and Sophia was liberated from invalidism by her passionate love for her husband.

Other men,” Ralph Waldo Emerson told an admiring crowd in Boston’s Odeon Theater toward the end of 1845, “are lenses through which we read our own minds.” The eminent philosopher then went on to tell his audience of the importance in their lives of “Representative Men,” such as Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. “These men correct the delirium of the animal spirits, make us considerate, and engage us to new aims and powers,” Emerson concluded. “Thus we feed on genius....” Read more »

Traveling With A Sense Of History

From Fort Ticonderoga to the Plaza Hotel, from Appomattox Courthouse to Bugsy Siegel’s weird rose garden in Las Vegas, the present-day scene is enriched by knowledge of the American past

To grow up in New England is to grow up with an inescapable sense of history, a heritage that a New Englander carries with him wherever he goes. Read more »

Plain Talk From Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many Americans, Hemingway among them, thought him a solemn prig. But Emerson’s biographer discovers a man who found strength and music in the language of the streets.

In the wake of the centennial year of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s death in 1882, scholars, critics, and journalists in various parts of the country started to take a fresh look at the man and his works. They have found that the prejudices against Emerson expressed by H. L. Mencken and Ernest Hemingway persist to the present day. Mencken said in The American Mercury (October 1930) that “Emerson was always very careful to keep idealism within the bounds of American respectability.Read more »

Fruitlands

The idealists who founded this Utopian colony were singularly well versed in mystical philosophy— and singularly ignorant about farming

On the first day of June 1843, Bronson Alcott drove a large wagon up to his house in Concord, Massachusetts. Onto it he loaded his wife, Abby, three of his four little girls, his books, and enough belongings to sustain them in a new home. Ahead of the wagon walked a sour-faced Englishman, Charles Lane, and the oldest Alcott girl, May. Lane’s son, William, aged ten, found a place on the wagon, where he was entrusted with a bust of Socrates. Read more »

William James Finds His Vocation

One of America s truly great men—scientist, philosopher, and literary genius—forged his character in the throes of adversity

THE YEAR IS 1890 and the place Cambridge, Massachusetts. On one of the streets leading northeast along the Harvard Yard a man in early middle age—he is, in fact, fortyeight years old, of slight build and medium height but vigorous motion—is walking with a pair of students, boy and girl, who have followed him out of his class in experimental psychology. His face is bearded and his eyes bright blue, and his features reflect the rapidity of his thought. He is William James, the scientist and philosopher.Read more »

“Half Song-thrush, Half Alligator,”

An exasperated Ralph Waldo Emerson said of his rudest, most rebellious—and most brilliant—protégé. Their turbulent relationship survived what one newspaper called “the grossest violation of literary comity and courtesy that ever passed under our notice.”

One Saturday evening early in March, 1842, a twenty-two-year-old journalist named Walter Whitman came to the reading room of the New-York Society Library on Broadway, a few blocks north of City Hall, to hear a public lecture on “The Poet.” He had just been appointed chief editor of the Aurora , a daily paper that aspired to be the court circular of the beau monde, and he dressed the part of a man about town—he wore a flower in the lapel of his frock coat and carried a polished walking stick.Read more »

Tree House

John Mason Hutchings, an Englishman, first, saw Yosemite Valley in 1855 and never got it out of his system. Nine years later he returned to the valley to be innkeeper of the Hutchings House, the frame hotel at left. Before long the hotel’s cooks—Hutchings’ wife and mother-in-law—demanded a separate kitchen. But when it came time to build, an obstacle presented itself in the form of a huge cedar, twenty-four feet around at the base.Read more »