- Historic Sites
148 Charles Street
The Literary Lights Were Always Bright at
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
In 1863 Henry James, Jr., who had stayed home from the war, was searching disconsolately for his role in life and for the place that his sensibilities would find congenial. (The Fieldses, who knew both his parents well, called the young man Harry.) In 1904 when he described 148 Charles Street as a “merciful refuge” in The American Scene , he was an expatriate, a successful novelist, and a magisterial figure. In those later years Mrs. Fields, a widow since 1881, presided alone over the gatherings, bringing together Willa Gather and the woman who was to become her mentor, Sarah Orne Jewett. Charles Street was by that time a noisy, dirty city thoroughfare, apartment houses had been put up on the riverside gardens of adjoining land, and the pressures of modern industrial society were being felt by artists and businessmen alike. It is easy to understand why James also referred to 148 Charles as “the little ark of the modern deluge.” When Annie died in 1915, James then wrote a memorial essay, “Mr. and Mrs. James T. Fields,” for Cornhill Magazine , which also appeared in the July Atlantic Monthly . (The interest of the English magazine in such an essay shows the international reputation of the Boston salon and of its host and hostess.) James referred to the i86o’s in Boston as “the golden age” and “the dawn of those associations that seemed then to promise everything.” His disappointment that Boston had become a sterile community living in the past did not dull the glow of the shining days in his memory.
Many tributes to the Fieldses and their hospitality have been preserved in prose and poetry. Sometimes friends wrote poems commemorating particular evenings or special guests. Annie recorded the guest list for one such evening that was celebrated in verse by Celia Laighton Thaxter. After her first poem, “Land-locked,” was published in the Atlantic in 1860, Celia and her husband Levi began to move in the Fieldses’ orbit, and Celia developed an intimate friendship with Annie.
Her welcome into the Fieldses’ circle had meant a great deal to Celia, not only because of her intimacy with Annie but also because it enabled her to indulge her deep love of music. It was an evening of music that she commemorated in her poem, a sonnet entitled “Modjeska.” Madame Helena Modjeska was a Polish exile who became a popular actress in the United States. She and Edwin Booth sometimes played together, much to the delight of theater managers who knew the combination would guarantee full houses. Booth and his wife were also guests the night that Celia wrote about. The others were Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, who had written a nineteenth-century best seller, The Gates Ajar , and Otto Dresel, a German musician, and his wife, who was the daughter of Ellis Gray Loring, an abolitionist and important Boston lawyer. That evening Dresel played Chopin for Madame Modjeska, and the beauty of the music and the dramatically expressed emotions of the actress as she thought of her beloved Poland gave pleasure to the entire group.
Although good talk was the usual fare at 148 Charles Street, there was a variety of other entertainment, too. Ole Bull might play his violin, or Charles Dempster sing poems of Longfellow and Tennyson that had been set to music, or a young artist whom the Fieldses had helped to gain recognition in Boston might perform. Some evenings the guests played charades; one particular night Lowell, Holmes, and writer Bayard Taylor challenged each other with conundrums. Sometimes the excitement was an author reading from his new novel, or the individual thrill of reading Tennyson’s Maude from the galley proofs sent over from England. Henry James describes the “rapture” of reading Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism in similar proofs lent him by Fields.
Being on their proper behavior, nineteenth-century memoirs never looked above the second floor. Fortunately such reticence was not shared by twentieth-century guests. One such was young Mark DeWolfe Howe, who became Annie’s literary heir and published generous portions of her journals in his book about her, Memories of a Hostess , in 1922. Thus we know that there were three bedrooms on the third floor and two attic rooms for servants. Since the Fieldses, to their deep regret, never had children, there were two guest rooms available—unless they took in one of their own relatives or someone else’s.