- Historic Sites
148 Charles Street
The Literary Lights Were Always Bright at
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of the most frequent guests. Because he was the most popular and respected American poet of the period—excelled in critical reputation only by Tennyson among his contemporaries—his presence gave luster to any gathering. Furthermore, his kind and charming personality was a great attraction, for Longfellow was affably polite even to rude strangers who invaded his own home, though he got some relief from poking fun at them later on, particularly if they were indiscriminate celebrity hounds rather than literary admirers. He once wrote to Fields: “A stranger called here and asked if Shakespeare lived in this neigh- borhood. I told him I knew no such person. Do you?”
The entries in Mrs. Fields’ journals show that Longfellow was a warmer and more humorous man in their company than the dignified, serious gentleman of his public reputation. She repeats with great delight his story of attending the wedding of one of her schoolmates, a woman of generous proportions, to a desiccated, limping old clergyman who had buried three wives. As the bride started down the aisle on the arm of her equally sturdy brother, followed by the wizened groom, the organist chose to play Auld Lang Syne . In addition to sharing such good laughs together, Longfellow and Fields also shared a fine palate for wine. There are frequent notes in which one thanks the other for three long-necked fellows or six tall soldiers, or perhaps bemoans not buying more of a particular vintage while it was available.
Good food and drink were taken for granted by guests of the Fieldses. In the early years of their marriage there are anxious notes from James to Annie about menus. These often accompany the notice that he has invited two or three guests for dinner that night. He tells her not to worry because he’ll order some birds delivered from Parker’s (of Parker House rolls fame) to eke out the dinner she’d planned. Or with Ralph Waldo Emerson in town and coming for dinner, Annie, contrary to our modern notions, is told to put the bananas—a great delicacy then—on the ice immediately.
Aside from Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was probably the most regular guest at 148 Charles Street. Fields and Holmes had been friends since the lean, early days of their careers when the doctor had threatened to hang a sign outside his office, “The smallest fevers gratefully received.” For many years the Holmes family lived on the same street a few doors away from the Fieldses, and Annie enjoyed standing at her bedroom window early in the morning to watch Holmes rowing in his little skiff or drifting with the tide. Because he lived so close, the Fieldses initiated breakfasts to which they would invite Holmes and one or two other men to spend an hour or so with a visiting celebrity before the day began.
Holmes’ wit and love of talk often led him to dominate the conversation. Annie called him the “king of the dinner table” and recounts the time when Holmes was talking about Joseph Ernest Renan, a Frenchman whose revolutionary religious books were often discussed at dinner tables in those days: “A long while ago,” he began, “I said Rome or Reason; now I am half inclined to put it Rome or Renan.” Then suddenly turning to Hawthorne, he said, “By the way, I would write a new novel if you were not in the field, Mr. Hawthorne.” “lam not,” said Hawthorne; “and I wish you would do it.” There was a moment’s silence. Holmes said quickly, “I wish you would come to the club oftener.” “I should like to,” said Hawthorne, “but I can’t drink.” “Neither can I.” “Well, but I can’t eat.” “Nevertheless, we should like to see you.” “But I can’t talk, either.” After which there was a shout of laughter.
The diffident Hawthorne usually avoided gay social events, though normally he relaxed and enjoyed himself at 148 Charles Street. In refusing an invitation from Annie, sent to cheer him up when he was very discouraged about his inability to write, Hawthorne said in a letter to Fields: “One of my choicest ideal places is her drawing-room, and therefore I seldom visit it.”
Because of the good table they set, Annie’s tact and charm, her husband’s appreciative understanding, and the congenial company to be expected, most of the great literary figures of their day and many of those who, like Whitman, made their reputation afterward, visited the Fieldses. The guest lists would sound self-consciously pretentious if years of correspondence did not show the guests were true friends. The rapport that developed sometimes spread over two generations, as with Matthew Arnold’s niece, for instance, or Charles Dickens’ sister-in-law, both of whom corresponded for years after the death of the famous member of their families. The welcome at 148 Charles Street was genuine: Lucy Larcom, a povertystricken woman of limited poetic ability, was greeted as cordially as the world-famous Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the westerners, Bret Harte and Mark Twain, enjoyed themselves at the Fieldses’ just as much as snobbish easterners like poet James Russell Lowell and Harvard scholar Charles Eliot Norton.
All the memoirs of the period mention happy times at 148 Charles Street, and cheerfulness was part of the Fieldses’ secret of success. Guests left their troubles outside the door and entered to enjoy themselves. The parties continued right through the Civil War, with the library a respite from the conflict. Although in one year alone Holmes, Longfellow, and Henry James, Sr., received word that a son had been injured, the traditional New England stiff upper lip enabled the families to worry at home but to be cheerful at a party.