- Historic Sites
148 Charles Street
The Literary Lights Were Always Bright at
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
Everyone wanted to be invited to 148 Charles Street, where Charles Dickens mixed the punch and taught the guests parlor games, John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe vied in telling ghost stories, and Nathaniel Hawthorne paced the bedroom floor one unhappy night in the final miserable year of his life. Willa Gather used the address as the title of an essay in her book Not Under Forty , and Henry James described, in The American Scene , the “effaced anonymous door” where he found “merciful refuge.” The address was once nearly as well known as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is today, and for much the same reason—it represented a center of power. The power was not, however, political, but cultural.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the center of publishing and intellectual influence in the United States was still Boston. A major factor for this was the firm of Ticknor & Fields, a publishing house from which the present-day Houghton Mifflin Company traces its ancestry. Ticknor & Fields published the weighty North American Review and the influential Atlantic Monthly , as well as the books of many important English authors, including Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and all the important American authors. (Important in their day, that is. Neither Walt Whitman nor Herman Melville was published by Ticknor & Fields.) Ticknor & Fields, to use the words of literary critic and essayist Van Wyck Brooks, harvested the flowering of New England and basked in the sunny days of its Indian summer.
The younger of the partners, James T. Fields, was a thirty-seven-year-old widower in 1854 when he married Annie Adams. She was the daughter of the well-known Boston physician Dr. Zabdiel Boylston Adams and a cousin of Fields’ first wife, Eliza Willard, who had died at age nineteen in 1851. For the first year of their marriage, the couple lived in the Adams’ home on Pearl Street while her parents travelled abroad. Early in 1856 the Fieldses were taking a Sunday walk when they saw a house under construction that they immediately decided was the house they wanted. The address was then 37 Charles Street; when the city fathers renumbered the street ten years later they assigned 148 to the narrow three-story house with its long back yard reaching to the Charles River.
One forty-eight Charles was a modest size for the extensive entertainment that took place there. The first floor consisted of a small reception room and a dining room, which overlooked a garden and the river in back. The drawing room, or library, as the Fieldses modestly preferred to call it, took up the entire second floor, except for a small alcove tucked off to the side at each end. Bookcases lined the wall of the library opposite the entrance from the staircase, and full-length windows at the far end gave a memorable view of the sun setting over the Charles. The bookcases were filled with rare books and autographed first editions. Other mementos and objets d’art, most with literary associations, were scattered around the room, which also contained a large piano.
When social historians and biographers writing about this period refer to the “literary salon” of the Fieldses, they are talking about the parties and informal gatherings of friends and other guests in this library. But literary salon is too awesome a term to describe the happy entertainment of an inveterate host and bon vivant like James T. Fields, for his office was a social center where one picked up the latest Hub gossip or heard a funny story or a topical pun.
Literary salon is also a misnomer because the guests were never limited to the field of publishing. Always fond of the theater, James took Annie and her mother to see his favorite play, The Hunchback , to celebrate their engagement. Perhaps the two most famous actors to become intimates of their home were Edwin Booth and Charlotte Gushman. If modern readers fail to recognize the names of some of the other artists who visited frequently, it is because the reputations of few of that period endured. A painter like William Morris Hunt, for example, has gone out of style. Hunt’s murals, painted on the ceiling of the state capitol in Albany, New York, just before his suicide in 1879, have literally faded from the plaster as well as from serious critical consideration. Ole Bull, the Norwegian violinist, once made thousands laugh and cry with his music; now his name is more likely to arouse a laugh because of current slang. The names of some of the political figures, such as John Andrew, the great Civil War governor of Massachusetts, have been dimmed by the passing of time, but those of others, like Senator Charles Sumner, still shine bright and clear.