February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
The Literary Lights Were Always Bright at
Everyone wanted to be invited to 148 Charles Street, where Charles Dickens mixed the punch and taught the guests parlor games, John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe vied in telling ghost stories, and Nathaniel Hawthorne paced the bedroom floor one unhappy night in the final miserable year of his life. Willa Gather used the address as the title of an essay in her book Not Under Forty , and Henry James described, in The American Scene , the “effaced anonymous door” where he found “merciful refuge.” The address was once nearly as well known as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is today, and for much the same reason—it represented a center of power. The power was not, however, political, but cultural.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the center of publishing and intellectual influence in the United States was still Boston. A major factor for this was the firm of Ticknor & Fields, a publishing house from which the present-day Houghton Mifflin Company traces its ancestry. Ticknor & Fields published the weighty North American Review and the influential Atlantic Monthly , as well as the books of many important English authors, including Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and all the important American authors. (Important in their day, that is. Neither Walt Whitman nor Herman Melville was published by Ticknor & Fields.) Ticknor & Fields, to use the words of literary critic and essayist Van Wyck Brooks, harvested the flowering of New England and basked in the sunny days of its Indian summer.
The younger of the partners, James T. Fields, was a thirty-seven-year-old widower in 1854 when he married Annie Adams. She was the daughter of the well-known Boston physician Dr. Zabdiel Boylston Adams and a cousin of Fields’ first wife, Eliza Willard, who had died at age nineteen in 1851. For the first year of their marriage, the couple lived in the Adams’ home on Pearl Street while her parents travelled abroad. Early in 1856 the Fieldses were taking a Sunday walk when they saw a house under construction that they immediately decided was the house they wanted. The address was then 37 Charles Street; when the city fathers renumbered the street ten years later they assigned 148 to the narrow three-story house with its long back yard reaching to the Charles River.
One forty-eight Charles was a modest size for the extensive entertainment that took place there. The first floor consisted of a small reception room and a dining room, which overlooked a garden and the river in back. The drawing room, or library, as the Fieldses modestly preferred to call it, took up the entire second floor, except for a small alcove tucked off to the side at each end. Bookcases lined the wall of the library opposite the entrance from the staircase, and full-length windows at the far end gave a memorable view of the sun setting over the Charles. The bookcases were filled with rare books and autographed first editions. Other mementos and objets d’art, most with literary associations, were scattered around the room, which also contained a large piano.
When social historians and biographers writing about this period refer to the “literary salon” of the Fieldses, they are talking about the parties and informal gatherings of friends and other guests in this library. But literary salon is too awesome a term to describe the happy entertainment of an inveterate host and bon vivant like James T. Fields, for his office was a social center where one picked up the latest Hub gossip or heard a funny story or a topical pun.
Literary salon is also a misnomer because the guests were never limited to the field of publishing. Always fond of the theater, James took Annie and her mother to see his favorite play, The Hunchback , to celebrate their engagement. Perhaps the two most famous actors to become intimates of their home were Edwin Booth and Charlotte Gushman. If modern readers fail to recognize the names of some of the other artists who visited frequently, it is because the reputations of few of that period endured. A painter like William Morris Hunt, for example, has gone out of style. Hunt’s murals, painted on the ceiling of the state capitol in Albany, New York, just before his suicide in 1879, have literally faded from the plaster as well as from serious critical consideration. Ole Bull, the Norwegian violinist, once made thousands laugh and cry with his music; now his name is more likely to arouse a laugh because of current slang. The names of some of the political figures, such as John Andrew, the great Civil War governor of Massachusetts, have been dimmed by the passing of time, but those of others, like Senator Charles Sumner, still shine bright and clear.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of the most frequent guests. Because he was the most popular and respected American poet of the period—excelled in critical reputation only by Tennyson among his contemporaries—his presence gave luster to any gathering. Furthermore, his kind and charming personality was a great attraction, for Longfellow was affably polite even to rude strangers who invaded his own home, though he got some relief from poking fun at them later on, particularly if they were indiscriminate celebrity hounds rather than literary admirers. He once wrote to Fields: “A stranger called here and asked if Shakespeare lived in this neigh- borhood. I told him I knew no such person. Do you?”
The entries in Mrs. Fields’ journals show that Longfellow was a warmer and more humorous man in their company than the dignified, serious gentleman of his public reputation. She repeats with great delight his story of attending the wedding of one of her schoolmates, a woman of generous proportions, to a desiccated, limping old clergyman who had buried three wives. As the bride started down the aisle on the arm of her equally sturdy brother, followed by the wizened groom, the organist chose to play Auld Lang Syne . In addition to sharing such good laughs together, Longfellow and Fields also shared a fine palate for wine. There are frequent notes in which one thanks the other for three long-necked fellows or six tall soldiers, or perhaps bemoans not buying more of a particular vintage while it was available.
Good food and drink were taken for granted by guests of the Fieldses. In the early years of their marriage there are anxious notes from James to Annie about menus. These often accompany the notice that he has invited two or three guests for dinner that night. He tells her not to worry because he’ll order some birds delivered from Parker’s (of Parker House rolls fame) to eke out the dinner she’d planned. Or with Ralph Waldo Emerson in town and coming for dinner, Annie, contrary to our modern notions, is told to put the bananas—a great delicacy then—on the ice immediately.
Aside from Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was probably the most regular guest at 148 Charles Street. Fields and Holmes had been friends since the lean, early days of their careers when the doctor had threatened to hang a sign outside his office, “The smallest fevers gratefully received.” For many years the Holmes family lived on the same street a few doors away from the Fieldses, and Annie enjoyed standing at her bedroom window early in the morning to watch Holmes rowing in his little skiff or drifting with the tide. Because he lived so close, the Fieldses initiated breakfasts to which they would invite Holmes and one or two other men to spend an hour or so with a visiting celebrity before the day began.
Holmes’ wit and love of talk often led him to dominate the conversation. Annie called him the “king of the dinner table” and recounts the time when Holmes was talking about Joseph Ernest Renan, a Frenchman whose revolutionary religious books were often discussed at dinner tables in those days: “A long while ago,” he began, “I said Rome or Reason; now I am half inclined to put it Rome or Renan.” Then suddenly turning to Hawthorne, he said, “By the way, I would write a new novel if you were not in the field, Mr. Hawthorne.” “lam not,” said Hawthorne; “and I wish you would do it.” There was a moment’s silence. Holmes said quickly, “I wish you would come to the club oftener.” “I should like to,” said Hawthorne, “but I can’t drink.” “Neither can I.” “Well, but I can’t eat.” “Nevertheless, we should like to see you.” “But I can’t talk, either.” After which there was a shout of laughter.
The diffident Hawthorne usually avoided gay social events, though normally he relaxed and enjoyed himself at 148 Charles Street. In refusing an invitation from Annie, sent to cheer him up when he was very discouraged about his inability to write, Hawthorne said in a letter to Fields: “One of my choicest ideal places is her drawing-room, and therefore I seldom visit it.”
Because of the good table they set, Annie’s tact and charm, her husband’s appreciative understanding, and the congenial company to be expected, most of the great literary figures of their day and many of those who, like Whitman, made their reputation afterward, visited the Fieldses. The guest lists would sound self-consciously pretentious if years of correspondence did not show the guests were true friends. The rapport that developed sometimes spread over two generations, as with Matthew Arnold’s niece, for instance, or Charles Dickens’ sister-in-law, both of whom corresponded for years after the death of the famous member of their families. The welcome at 148 Charles Street was genuine: Lucy Larcom, a povertystricken woman of limited poetic ability, was greeted as cordially as the world-famous Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the westerners, Bret Harte and Mark Twain, enjoyed themselves at the Fieldses’ just as much as snobbish easterners like poet James Russell Lowell and Harvard scholar Charles Eliot Norton.
All the memoirs of the period mention happy times at 148 Charles Street, and cheerfulness was part of the Fieldses’ secret of success. Guests left their troubles outside the door and entered to enjoy themselves. The parties continued right through the Civil War, with the library a respite from the conflict. Although in one year alone Holmes, Longfellow, and Henry James, Sr., received word that a son had been injured, the traditional New England stiff upper lip enabled the families to worry at home but to be cheerful at a party.
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.
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.)
The famous walking match he arranged is another example of the way Dickens generated fun and excitement out of ordinary material. The match was a walking race between his manager, Dolby, and Fields’ young partner, Osgood. Dickens laid out a course covering six and a half miles to Newton Centre and the same distance back to Boston. He then wrote a clever “contract” between “The Boston Bantam” (Osgood), who was seconded by “Massachusetts Jemmy” (Fields), and “The Man of Ross” (Dolby), who was seconded by the “Gad’s Hill Gasper” (Dickens). He also arranged for an elegant dinner at the Parker House to follow the completion of the contest- which was lost by Dolby, who was, according to Dickens’ “official” account, “a thought and a half too fleshy.”
This energetic embracing of life was bound to arouse an enthusiastic response from James and Annie Fields, who themselves found life exhilarating and enjoyable. Dickens died in 1870, but they saw their beloved friend once more before his death, when they went to England in 1869. Let another great novelist, Henry James, have the final word on Dickens’ visit to the United States and his stay at 148 Charles Street: “I liked to think of the house, I couldn’t do without thinking of it, as the great man’s safest harborage through the tremendous gale of those even more leave-taking appearances, as fate was to appoint, than we then understood.”
No one else, appropriately enough, ever received guests at 148 Charles Street, for soon after Annie died in 1915, the building was torn down. There is now a garage on the site; when the doors are open, one can just manage to glimpse the river through the traffic along Storrow Drive where the Fieldses’ garden used to grow.