148 Charles Street

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Anyway, one room was always available, and out-oftown friends were urged to make 148 Charles their headquarters when they were lecturing or just visiting in the area. Bayard Taylor stayed with them several seasons, sometimes leaving his wife for Mrs. Fields to entertain while he put up alone with the rude conditions of lecturing in small New England towns. The Emersons and the Alcotts (Louisa May was a cousin of Annie’s) sometimes spent the night when they came to Boston from Concord. Emerson called 148 Charles Street a “lighted genial asylum with doors wide open and nailed back” and said that Fields was “the guardian and maintainer of us all.” Fields deserved the tribute. He published Emerson’s books, sometimes persuaded the philosopher to release his grip on a poem or essay so that it could be published in the Atlantic , and organized “conversations” where Emerson could read his lectures to a congenial paying audience. Mrs. Hawthorne and the children also made frequent long visits after Hawthorne’s death in 1864, and Harriet Beecher Stowe used to stay at 148 Charles when she visited Boston. (Annie confided to her journal that Mrs. Stowe was a trial because she was a sloppy eater and left a mess of bread crumbs, yet her visits were welcome since she was a grand storyteller and loved to put her feet on the fender and tell fabulous New England folk stories by the hour.) Whittier could never put aside his Quaker ways and be comfortable at elegant parties, but he loved to drop in from Amesbury unannounced and felt free to stop by early in the morning to visit with Mrs. Fields, whom he always called Annie Meadows. (Others such as Hawthorne also called Annie by this nickname in an apparent attempt to express affection without offending the nineteenth-century decorum that rarely allowed the use of first names even among friends.) Once in the house Whittier seemed to relax and talk with any of her house guests, no matter how grand or homely.

 
 

One of the noticeable characteristics of the relationships at 148 Charles Street was that there were no clear lines between professional and personal lives. The outstanding example of this interrelationship was the visit to America of Charles Dickens in 1867, which undoubtedly generated the most exciting evenings of entertaining that the Fieldses ever enjoyed. Dickens had been reluctant to return to the United States after the indignant response to his American Notes , published following his first visit in 1842. Now, however, he came not only for the financial return, but also because of the trust he had in Fields’ help and counsel. His arrival in November of 1867 inaugurated an experience of adoration and ecstasy for James and Annie Fields that seems incredible in a couple who, as Fields’ modern biographer, W. S. Tryon, says, “were otherwise perfectly sober and sane people.”

That the capture of Dickens was a great financial coup would not entirely explain the enthusiasm of Fields. A tremendous personal rapport existed between the two men. They were already friends when the Fieldses visited Dickens at Gad’s Hill during their trip abroad in 185960. Their tastes were congenial; Fields took a long walk with Dickens every afternoon that they were in the same city; they were both accomplished raconteurs; and they saw eye to eye on what was important in life, whether it was the correct amount of butter in the rum punch or the belief that old-fashioned church organizations were inadequate for modern Christianity.

Dickens dined frequently with the Fieldses each time he visited Boston during the tour. When he was there in January, 1868, he consented (there is a suggestion of royal condescension here) to stay in their house, the only private home that he slept in during his six months in the United States. This made Mrs. Fields the envy of every hostess in the land. Annie, born an Adams and a Boston Brahmin, gushed, “Jamie and I are truly penetrated with grateful love for Charles Dickens.”

Dickens was as much an entertainer as he was a guest. The same fertile imagination that created characters who have become part of the English heritage was applied to the small events of daily life. The mixing of a punch after the readings became a great dramatic ritual, and very ordinary games that he taught became grand intellectual events. (Perhaps you remember “My grandmother’s trunk” from childhood days at summer camp—each player adds, in alphabetical order, an article to the trunk after naming all those “packed” by previous players—or “Buzz,” in which the players simply count but must substitute the word buzz each time they come to a number that contains seven or is a multiple of seven. These are two of the games that Annie raves about in her journals.)