- 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
If I continue down Beacon Street and approach the junction with Tremont Street, I will be for the first time walking through parts of Boston that were heavily occupied before the leveling of Beacon Hill. On the far left corner stands King’s Chapel, the first Anglican church built in Boston, with pews reserved, before 1776, for the royal governor and, afterward, for such eminent visitors as George Washington. In 1789 it became the first Unitarian church in America, and Emerson sometimes preached there. A five-story marble hotel called the Parker House was built on School Street opposite the chapel, where the modern 1927 version of the hotel now stands. In May 1857 a dinner took place there that was described by its host, Moses D. Phillips, a bookseller and publisher: “My invitations included only R. W. Emerson, H. W. Longfellow, J. R. Lowell, Mr. [John Lothrop] Motley (the ‘Dutch Republic’ man), O. W. Holmes, Mr. Cabot, and Mr. Underwood, our literary man.… We sat down at three P.M., and arose at eight.” At that dinner the founding of The Atlantic Monthly was proposed by Phillips in an utterance that for condescension could perhaps have been voiced only in Boston: “Mr. Cabot is much wiser than I am, Dr. Holmes can write funnier verses than I can, Mr. Motley can write history better than I, Mr. Emerson is a philosopher and I am not, Mr. Lowell knows more of the old poets than I, but none of you knows the American people as well as I do.”
By November 1857 the first issue of the magazine came out, with Lowell, who was already the author of some fifty abolitionist pamphlets and articles, acting as principal editor in addition to his duties as Smith Professor of French and Spanish Languages and Literatures at Harvard. He would deliver copy to the printer, Henry O. Houghton of the Riverside Press, in Cambridge, strolling from his home at Elmwood (now the Harvard president’s house) along the Charles to the printing factory that stood on the Charles riverbank. Holmes, in one of the earliest issues, wrote, “Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system.”
The new magazine, despite its abolitionist underpinnings, announced itself as “the organ of no party or clique,” proclaimed its devotion to “Literature, Art, and Politics,” and aspired to be “the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea” and to become “welcome wherever the English tongue is spoken.” Moreover, “Subscribers remitting three dollars, in advance, to the publishers, will receive the work for one year, post paid, in any part of the United States within 3000 miles.” The Atlantic was nothing if not ambitious, nothing if not American.
Alas, the “conductors” proved to be sounder in their various fields than Mr. Phillips was in his knowledge of the American people. Within two years his firm had gone bankrupt and the Atlantic had been sold for ten thousand dollars to a competitor, the publishing firm Ticknor & Fields, which had hastily submitted the only bid in an auction. By 1862 James T. Fields had replaced Lowell as editor.
As we continue down School Street to its terminus at Washington, we will encounter at the left end the fabled Old Corner Book Store, long derelict but now, thanks to the Boston Globe, a bookstore again, where Ticknor & Fields for a while conducted its business, publishing the works of Emerson, Lowell, Holmes, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Thoreau, Thackeray, Tennyson, Browning, and, after enormous efforts of literary piracy, Dickens. The house itself echoes Boston’s past: In the seventeenth century it was the site of Anne Hutchinson’s house; in the eighteenth it housed an apothecary’s shop and in the nineteenth, for a while, Ticknor & Fields, a gathering place for “the exchange of wit, the Rialto of current good things, the hub of the hub.” Henry O. Houghton established offices at the Old Corner in late 1865, after Ticknor & Fields moved to larger quarters. The fact is that Ticknor & Fields lost its credit, and its heart, as fast as any other Boston publishing firm. By 1881 Houghton Mifflin owned not only Ticknor & Fields but The Atlantic Monthly and the Riverside Press. Houghton died in 1895, just as all his famous three-named authors were also taking their leave of the solar system.
The corner of School and Washington streets finds us in the heart of the old bookselling and publishing center of Boston. Little, Brown, publisher of the historians William Prescott, George Bancroft, and Francis Parkman, as well as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, originally conducted its legal and general publishing business at 112 Washington Street. Ticknor & Fields had moved to 124 Tremont Street in 1866, and its successor firms hopped around the downtown area for years before Houghton Mifflin moved up Beacon Hill to 4 Park Street in 1880. Little, Brown joined it on the Hill in 1909.