- Historic Sites
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.
April 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 3
To walk up Beacon Street now is to continue a walk into the past. At the corner of Spruce Street lived Boston’s first settler, the Reverend William Blaxton. At the corner of Walnut Street lived the family of the abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips. At the corner of Joy Street lived the family of Robert Gould Shaw, the young commander of the 54th Massachusetts, a black Civil War regiment. A block farther on, across from Bulfinch’s State House (the dome did not get its coating of gold leaf until 1874), is the memorial to Shaw and his men, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1897. One of the great patriotic monuments, it stands where it ought to, not only near Shaw’s birthplace and opposite the State House of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts but also only a stone’s throw from the old black quarter of Boston on the north side of Beacon Hill and within sight of the Park Street publishing house, Houghton Mifflin Company, that by 1897 had published the collected works of every scion of the Golden Day: Emerson, Lowell, Holmes, Whittier, and the rest. As Robert Lowell, another child of Beacon Hill, wrote of the Shaw monument in 1959: “at the dedication,/William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe./ Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat.” The abolition of slavery was the passion of radical Boston in the years before the Civil War, though in the 1970s Boston would still find that monument sticking in its throat. Yet Lowell’s poem, like Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1862, was published first in The Atlantic Monthly.
My invitations included only R. W. Emerson, H. W. Longfellow, J. R. Lowell,… Mr. Cabot.…”
Farther along Beacon Street, the Boston Athenaeum, a private library with some of the most beautiful interiors in the city, stands on the site of the house where Ralph Waldo Emerson grew up, now and then grazing his parents’ cows on the Common. Of all the three-named grandees of the Golden Day, only Emerson was born in Boston. For the city to become a center either for literature or for its favorite cause it would have to escape from its insularity. Colonial Boston had been a seaport. All its resources, save for the most elementary, came to it by water: settlers, import trade, export trade, religions, immigrants, and culture. (Today a tourist coming to Boston only for its history and architecture would be best advised to approach it from that direction: come in by water taxi from the airport, landing at the beautiful new gateway at Rowe’s Wharf, then walk uptown along State Street, with the magnificent harbor view behind you, toward the Old State House.) The Boston of the 1850s would still be, for a short while, an international terminus for the clipper-ship trade. Samuel Eliot Morison, writing in our century, described an arrival: “Off India Wharf the ship rounds into the wind with a graceful curve, crew leaping into her rigging to furl topgallant sails as if they were shot upward by the blast of profanity from the mate’s bull-like throat. With backed topsails her way is checked, and the cable rattles out of the chain lockers for the first time since Shanghai.” It was scenes like this that Hawthorne watched during his days in the Old Boston Custom House on Long Wharf from 1839 to 1841.
But the new Boston of the 1850s was preparing to become a national literary capital, and it could not serve a nation to which it was only barely connected by land. The first bridge to Charlestown was built in 1786; the first bridge to Cambridge in 1793; and by the 1830s Boston was reached by railroad. In came its youthful aspirants from the surrounding centers of New England— the Hawthornes, the Lowells, the Whittiers, the Fieldses, the Aldriches, the Beechers, the Thoreaus, the Longfellows—while a second generation—Henry James, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain—were to bring their wares to Boston from New York, Ohio, and Missouri. Moreover, without railroads the publishing firms could never have brought the books of new American writers to their audiences, who were now stretching out hundreds and thousands of miles into the continent. The new traffic was exciting indeed. Emerson, the child of Beacon Hill, would prophesy in 1837: “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.… We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own minds.”