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The Hub Of The Solar System

May 2024
13min read

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.

Like three Bostonians out of four, I live on a site that was originally underwater. My house is on River Street, an alleyway that was built for stables at the bottom of Beacon Hill in the middle of the nineteenth century. Until my wife, twenty years ago, redesigned the carriage house we live in, no humans had resided there. Out of the back of the house we see the spire of the Church of the Advent, a late-nineteenth-century Gothic-revival creation that has the best music, and the highest Episcopal service, in Boston. Outside the front door stands the Charles Street Meeting House, originally built in 1804 as the Third Baptist Church—by the waterside for baptismal convenience. A favorite meeting place for abolitionist orators, it became an African Methodist Church, and serves today as an office building.


My work (I am a poet and an editor) regularly takes me on a route that covers the history of literary Boston in the nineteenth century. I walk to work (as do most people in Boston who value their personal safety), and my way takes me along Charles Street, built in 1799 by filling the edge of Boston Harbor with the soil from one of Boston’s five original hills (Mount Vernon, cheerfully called Mount Whoredom by the appreciative redcoats who occupied Boston during the Revolution). Mount Vernon Street certainly altered the character of the place; by the early twentieth century Henry James would call it “the only respectable street in America.” From a literary point of view he could not be faulted: Robert Frost, Robert Hillyer, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Henry Adams, and Julia Ward Howe all lived on this street at one time or another, while the side streets gave residence to Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, W. S. Merwin, L. E. Sissman, and George Starbuck during the little Boston poetic renaissance of the 1950s. Parallel to Mount Vernon Street runs Chestnut, obedient to the principles of English Georgian architecture as interpreted by Charles Bulfinch, and to my taste the most beautiful street on the Hill. It sheltered James Russell Lowell, Richard Henry Dana, and Francis Parkman. Edward Weeks, the tenth editor of The Atlantic Monthly, still lives at the near end of Chestnut Street, as the ninth editor, Ellery Sedgwick, once lived at the far end.


So I walk each morning past the antique shops of Charles Street, past the mouths of Mount Vernon and Chestnut streets. On some days, when I arrive at the corner of Charles and Beacon streets, I turn left toward Beacon Hill to my work at Houghton Mifflin Company; on others, I turn right toward the Back Bay, to work at The Atlantic Monthly, two enterprises that in the nineteenth century were closely allied.

If I were to stop at this corner I would be standing at the present cultural crossroads of the city. But in 1800, if I had stood here after dark, I would scarcely have seen a light. Straight ahead there would only have been an embankment to keep the waters of the Back Bay under control, with a road atop it leading half a mile straight ahead until it encountered Washington Street, the only land exit from Boston at the time. To my right there would have been nothing whatever except a watery waste, for Bostonians were only just beginning to outgrow their little peninsula of 785 acres of land and begin filling in the shallows around it. Up the Hill to my left, in 1800, I would have seen the open country of the Boston Common. Halfway up the Hill, along Beacon Street, the farmhouse of John Singleton Copley probably would not have obscured the view of Charles Bulfinch’s two-year-old State House, though the steep slopes, not yet leveled, might have kept me from seeing it from here.

Seen from this spot fifty years later, Beacon Hill would have looked very different. Boston’s population would have totaled 136,881. The top of the Hill, removed to fill the coves around the edge of the peninsula, would have dropped nearly sixty feet. The brick houses of Charles Street, Chestnut Street, and Mount Vernon Street would have sprouted up on the eighteen acres that the Mount Vernon Proprietors, in one of the great land grabs in history, had managed to buy in 1795 from the agents of John Singleton Copley for one thousand dollars an acre. By 1850 all the great houses of Beacon Street were in place. Beacon was principally a street for those aspiring to social grandeur, though today only institutions can afford it.

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.”

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.


Downtown, across Washington Street, beyond the Old South Meeting House and above the birthplace of Benjamin Franklin, were to stand the quarters of the Boston Post and of the paper whose readers T. S. Eliot would evoke in sardonic lines: “When evening quickens faintly in the street,/Wakening the appetites of life in some/and to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript .…” The district also held the offices, within my memory, of most of the other newspapers, though the Globe and the Herald, sole survivors, have now moved to distant parts of the city. The papers betook themselves to South Boston, while the publishing houses grouped themselves around the rim of the Boston Common and Public Garden.

For a while in the 1870s Boston book publishing ventured farther into the thrilling purlieus of the new business district that developed along State and Franklin and Summer streets, displacing the fashionable residential districts that had preceded the development of Beacon Hill. Those beautiful groupings like Franklin Place and the Tontine Crescent soon enough fell to giddy financial planning or builders’ greed while immigrations from Ireland and elsewhere filled the old North End and the new South End, and the Brahmins who could not find places on Beacon Hill began to move to the new Back Bay. The worst disaster of all, fire, struck on November 9, 1872, when an epidemic of equine influenza had felled most of the nation’s horses, and only two of Boston’s ninety-odd fire-horses could answer the call. Eighteen hours after the fire had sprung up at the corner of Summer and Kingston streets, some 700 buildings, 960 businesses, and nobody knows how many residences were gone. The holocaust left downtown Boston, from Washington Street to the harbor, and from Milk to Summer streets, completely devastated. Further crushed only a year later by the panic of 1873, Boston publishing continued its gradual decline, just as the giving over of Boston to business continued the process of destruction for the rows of beautiful houses that Bulfinch had left along Tremont and Park streets, in Bowdoin Square, and in the old South End.

Ticknor & Fields publishing house was “the Rialto of current good things, the hub of the hub.”

By 1875 Boston had grown to nearly 342,000 people, and it was turning its downtown over to clothing and textile businesses while the new population moved into newly filled land. To walk today from the Old Corner leftward on Washington Street is to find the old print district erased to the point of blankness. A faceless tower stands where the Globe and the Advertiser once published newspapers. At ground level the street is given over to New England Telephone and to an abandoned movie theater. At State Street I turn right and approach the Old State House from the uphill side, grateful for its humane proportions, but I remember that in 1876 Boston was ready to tear down both the Old State House and the Old South Meetinghouse, then used as a post office. The city of Chicago actually offered to buy the State House and move it to the shores of Lake Michigan, brick by brick, and both buildings were saved by the first outraged wave of the preservation movement. I look down the long vista of State Street and see a glimmer of the harbor at the end between the skyscrapers that have grown like concrete fungi on both sides. The splendid 1977 restorations of the Quincy Market evoke some memories of early seagoing grandeur, but Boston is no longer a seaport of much consequence. What Boston won from the land it lost again and what New York did not claim, Baltimore and San Francisco picked up.


I turn right on Devonshire Street and walk toward Franklin between even higher, darker walls. At Franklin the street burgeons out into a wide lunar shape, a remnant of Bulfinch, and straight ahead of me I can see a handsome new red-topped twenty-story building, an appropriate size for this city, standing on the place where the 1872 fire was kindled. If I wander back up Franklin or Summer Street to Washington Street, however, it becomes clear that the nature of Boston changed some time ago. The creative center shifted to some other part of the city after the catastrophes of the Gilded Age. This was once the theatrical district, but nearly all the theaters, even the X-rated ones, are closed.

In 1881 William Dean Howells, the most intellectually energetic editor of the Atlantic, was tempted away from Boston to New York by the refusal of Henry O. Houghton to pay his editor more than five thousand dollars a year, “dragging,” as Alfred Kazin writes, “the center of American literary culture with him.” The two last decades of the nineteenth century saw Boston culture transform itself from a creating culture to a preserving one. As the titans of the Golden Day died off, Boston publishers devoted themselves to preserving their works in titanic sets. As the riches earned by commercial Bostonians got turned into chattels, Boston began to preserve the Chinese vases and old masters, tucking them away in larger and larger museums, libraries, and memorials.

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.”

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