- 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
At State Street I turn right and approach the Old State House, grateful for its humane proportions.
Walk back along Washington Street past Filene’s, Jordan Marsh, and the horrific facade of Lafayette Place, the most hideous building in the city, whose mirrored and windowless walls hide a forest of malls inside. (Fortunately it is slated for destruction before it reaches its tenth birthday.) Turn right on West Street, and on your right look into the Cornucopia Restaurant, which was once the residence of the Peabody sisters of Salem. Here Emerson in the 1840s helped Margaret Fuller edit The Dial and smiled supportively on her feminist writings, her translations of Goethe, and her bluestocking lectures. Here Hawthorne was wed to his wife, Sophia Peabody.
Then walk out to the Boston Common and take the path that leads before you to the top of Flagstaff Hill and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. If you look straight ahead of you from here, you will see all the Back Bay, the towers of the beautiful churches built by Henry H. Richardson, the variably ugly towers built for hotels and insurance companies, and soaring above them all the dazzling prism of the John Hancock Tower, built by I. M. Pei and Partners. At the turn of the twentieth century Yankee Bostonians built palaces in the new lands of the Back Bay to keep their culture safe: the Boston Public Library (1895), the Massachusetts Historical Society (1899), Symphony Hall (1900), Mrs. Jack Gardner’s monument to herself at Fenway Court (1902), the Museum of Fine Arts (1909). Though the facades looked generous, what lay behind them was self-celebration, celebration, as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in 1959, of “Boston and its mysteriously enduring reputation.… History, indeed, with its long, leisurely, gentlemanly labors, the books arriving by post, the cards to be kept and filed, the sections to be copied, the documents to be checked, is the ideal pursuit for the New England mind.”
Before walking back across the corner of the Common that will bring me to Charles Street and home to River Street, I look away from the west, and the long receding towers of the Back Bay, and the vast acreages of filled land that make up contemporary Boston. I feel some pride in what we have become—a city of technological marvels, of scientific inquiry, of institutions that investigate, that invest, that inter—and then I look at the narrow apartment building above the corner of Walnut Street and Beacon Street, where, more than thirty years ago, my friend Edwin O’Connor wrote what still stands as Boston’s most recent prose classic, The Last Hurrah. But that nostalgic phrase, though it has found its way deep into the language, will not govern. Boston, after all, rose from the waves to start with, and it has, not very gracefully, stood up to wave after wave of new immigration, new experience. We may no longer be able to conduct ourselves with complete confidence in the face of the challenges that face us now, as we did, in good puritan conscience, when faced with the evil principles of slavery. But even though the foundations of buildings on Boston’s filled land are beginning to succumb to rot, there is a spirit about the Hill that has not yet quite finished offering thinkers and statesmen to America. As Emerson wrote in the first issue of the Atlantic, “They reckon ill who leave me out.”