By Kevin Brown
When most people think about visiting New England to explore literary sites, they think first of Boston. While Boston has some places worth visiting, it works better as a home base that one can use to explore the variety of literary sites surrounding the city. The most important literary sites are actually outside of Boston proper, given how small Boston would have been in the early days of the country and literature produced in this area. Here are some places the literature lover shouldn’t miss in New England.
Given that many of the important sites in Boston aren’t open to tours or no longer exist, one of the best ways to explore the city is through a walking tour led by an expert who can explain why a particular house on a side street is important. For example, on the Literary Landmarks Tour (https://www.bostonbyfoot.org/tours/Literary_Landmarks), you can learn how a Chipotle on Washington Street connects to Ticknor and Fields, who published some of the most famous works of the 19th century, including Walden, The Scarlet Letter, Little Women, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For more historical background, there are a number of Freedom Trail walking tours, but there are also free walking tours of the Cambridge/Harvard area and the Black Heritage Walking Trail (which includes the Museum of African American History, where you can learn more about writers such as Frederick Douglass and Phillis Wheatley) to provide more depth to your visit.
Not surprisingly, there are a number of sites that have connections to both history and literature in Boston. The Old South Meeting House is probably best known as the revolutionaries’ meeting place just before they stormed the harbor during the Boston Tea Party; however, it has continued to focus on free speech throughout the years, sparked by the banning in Boston of Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude. A number of prominent Boston writers and thinkers also attended the church, including Benjamin Franklin and Phillis Wheatley.
Similarly, you can visit the Longfellow house, which served not only Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for more than four decades, but also was the headquarters of General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. While Washington was using this house, he received the poem Phillis Wheatley had written to him, leading him to invite her to the headquarters in Cambridge. Longfellow lived here while he wrote his most famous works, and both he and his wife died here. It was also the location of the first use of anesthesia for child birth and where Longfellow received famous visitors, including Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In the same way that the Longfellow house has served a variety of purposes, Margaret Fuller’s house doesn’t simply exist as an historical site marking where she spent part of her childhood. It has been serving the community since 1902, working to provide educational programming and food for those who are struggling, as well as financial and employment assistance.
The Boston Public Library often has lectures, readings, and exhibitions that are worth your time while you’re in town. You can walk a couple of blocks down Boylston Street and see a statue of Edgar Allan Poe at the corner of Boylston Street and Charles Street South, as Poe was born in the city. Before leaving town, be sure to go by Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plan to see the graves of William Lloyd Garrison, Eugene O’Neill and his wife Carlotta Monterey, and Anne Sexton.
During time between sites, you should definitely explore Boston and Cambridge’s bookstores, as they have a number of interesting shops that focus on a variety of interests. Trident Booksellers and Cafe not only has good books (and food), but they have a variety of events, including open mics, trivia nights, and speed friending. If you’re looking for books from a radically progressive point of view, visit the Lucy Parsons Center, a radical, independent bookstore and community space. Just a bit outside the city, but still accessible via the T, is Brookline Booksmith. Not only do they have a great collection of new books, but their Used Book Cellar contains a number of harder to find titles at affordable prices.
Cambridge also has several bookstores worth your time. The most noticeable of these is Harvard Book Store, located almost directly across from the university, though it’s not connected to the school. It is probably the largest of the area’s many bookstores, selling a large selection of new and used books. There’s even a print-on-demand machine for self-published books. Just around the corner is a unique bookstore, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop. As the name implies, it focuses solely on poetry, so it’s a wonderful place to find new contemporary poets, as well as ones most people have already discovered. If you’re looking for used books, especially scholarly works, Raven Used Books is just a few blocks away. It provides a wide variety of books, but specializes in academic titles. Porter Square Books is the geographical outlier, and it has more of a focus on popular titles, though it offers a wide selection, as well. They also have a Boston location.
To the West
Concord is just a thirty-minute drive from Boston, and it offers a surprising number of literary sites in a small area. The Old Manse is a literary two-for-one, as both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne lived here at two different times. Emerson’s grandfather built the house (the family watched the battle at Concord’s North Bridge here), and Emerson wrote his most famous essay Nature here. The Hawthornes rented the house for several years after they married, and there is still an etching in a window pane Sophia made with her diamond ring.
Visitors to Concord can see where Thoreau spent a couple years of his life by visiting Walden Pond. They will not find it as secluded as Thoreau did, as there is a public beach and a fairly well-traveled road running by the pond. However, if you walk to the location of his cabin, you can get a feel for what Thoreau might have seen during his time there. There’s a path that circles the pond, which is a great place to eat a packed lunch, sitting on the ground while contemplating nature. Beside the small shop (and, yes, we all recognize the irony there), there is a replica of his cabin, which can help you see exactly how small but functional it was.
Concord was also home to Louisa May Alcott and her family, as they lived at the Orchard House, so named because of the forty apple trees on the property when Bronson Alcott purchased it. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women here, where she lived the childhood it’s based on, but visitors will learn she and her family were so much more than that book contains.
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is where all of these authors are buried, as visitors can see the graves of Louisa May Alcott and much of her family, Emerson, the Hawthornes, and Thoreau here. It contains the graves of other writers, artists, and thinkers, including William Ellery Channing, Daniel Chester French, Richard Marius, Elizabeth Peabody, Harriette Lucy Robinson Shattuck, and Dorothea E. Reiffel Minden.
In the downtown area, which is a great area to spend an hour or two, literature lovers can browse in The Concord Bookshop. They often host readings by local authors, and they offer books for all ages, including, of course, works by famous Concord authors of the nineteenth century.
Amherst is further away, a solid hour and a half, so it would require a long day trip from Boston or an overnight visit. The main site there is Emily Dickinson’s house, which has a wonderful tour that provides a wealth of information about Dickinson and her family. The tour includes not only The Homestead (Emily Dickinson’s house), but also The Evergreens (Austin and Susan Dickenson’s home). Visitors can spend some time in the flowers and landscaping around the houses. You can then drive to Amherst’s West Cemetery to visit Dickinson’s grave.
While in Amherst, you should visit the Jones Public Library’s Special Collections, which contains not only a collection devoted to Emily Dickinson, but one related to Robert Frost, who taught at Amherst College and lived in the town part-time, making ample use of the Jones Library. The library has a variety of other collections related to the town and area, so they often have interesting special exhibits up, as well.
The Jones Library is located downtown, where one can find a variety of shops and restaurants, including Amherst Books. They have a number of primary and secondary books devoted to New England writers, but they also have a wide selection of contemporary choices, as well. They’re well worth a visit.
If you’re willing and able to go a bit further afield from Boston, Pittsfield and Lenox, about two hours west, contain two great literary homes. First, Arrowhead—Herman Melville’s home—is located in Pittsfield. The tour provides ample background on Melville and his family, especially during the time they lived in the house, which contains the chimney that served as the inspiration for Melville’s story “I and My Chimney.” You can look out the study window and see Mount Graylock, supposedly the inspiration for the white whale itself. Melville lived at Arrowhead during the prime of his writing career, though he was struggling financially.
In nearby Lenox, you can visit The Mount, Edith Wharton’s house that she not only lived in but designed. The tours explore Wharton’s life and career, but they also point out the design features of the house, revealing Wharton’s fascination with, and knowledge of, architecture and landscapes. There are often historical exhibits related to Wharton and the times that deepen one’s knowledge of her and her culture. The gardens reveal Wharton’s theories on beauty and aesthetics.
Before leaving Lenox, be sure to stop by The Bookstore and browse their selections. They even have a wine bar named Get Lit.
And for the Frost fan, about an hour north, they could visit Bennington Centre Cemetery in Vermont, where he’s buried.
For a family-friendly outing, you could stop in Springfield, MA, to see the Dr. Seuss Museum and Sculpture Garden. It’s highly interactive and extremely kid-friendly. It’s part of a series of museums aimed at children, which include The Smithsonian Spark!Lab, The Art Discovery Center (part of Smith Art Museum), The Springfield Science Museum, and Hasbro Gameland (part of the Wood Museum of Springfield History).
Hartford is only an hour and a half from Boston and contains two literary houses worth your time. Like his writing, Mark Twain’s house contains interesting stories and characters, while also reflecting the tragedies of his life. Though Twain and his wife Olivia had the house designed, they lived there just over fifteen years. Though Twain and his family were happy there, financial struggles forced them to move to Europe. Then, the death of Twain’s daughter Susy made it too emotionally painful for them to return there. Once they left for Europe, they never returned to Hartford. The years they did live there, though, were some of their most enjoyable and productive, in Twain’s case, as he began writing and/or finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and a variety of short stories while living there.
Just next door is the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, where visitors can learn about the “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” according to President Lincoln. The house combines the past and present, as visitors can learn about Stowe and her life in Hartford, as well as contemporary issues of justice through galleries and exhibitions that reflect more modern work. The Twain House gives $3 off admission with a receipt from the Stowe house, making it easy to visit both locations in one day.
To the North
Salem is best known for the witch trials, of course, but I’d suggest avoiding any of the museums associated with those trials (super cheesy) and go for The House of Seven Gables (the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, officially) instead. Nathaniel Hawthorne often visited the house when he worked at the Salem Custom House, as Miss Ingersoll was his second cousin. Those visits eventually led to his writing the novel of the same name. The tour not only gives the history of the house, but also relates the various secrets of the house that appear in that novel. It contains the desk where Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne’s birthplace has been moved to the grounds of the House of Seven Gables.
The custom house where Hawthorne worked is just a few blocks away, so visitors can walk down to see it. Directly across from the custom house is a grassy area where one can walk out toward the Derby Wharf Lighthouse and enjoy lunch near the water.
The one witch-related site people should see in Salem is the memorial to the victims of the witch trials. It is easy to miss as it is not ostentatious, made up of stones surrounding a small green space. Each stone has the name of a victim, how she or he was killed (almost all she), as well as the date of death. It serves as a stark reminder of the people who lost their lives during that dark time.
And just a side note: some of the best food I’ve had in New England came from Howling Wolf Taqueria in Salem.
For fans of Robert Frost, there are two locations within driving distance of Boston. The closest is the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, only forty-five minutes or so away. Not only do they provide tours of the house where he wrote his poems, but there is also a nature/poetry trail consisting of a fifteen- to twenty-minute walk around the edge of the property. They sponsor a poetry conference and reading series, in addition to other events, so check their website to see what’s coming up. Further north, about two hours away in Franconia, New Hampshire, you can visit the Frost Place. There is a museum here, but it serves primarily as a retreat for a young American poet, as they provide a fellowship that includes a cash stipend and a chance to live and write in the house for several months. They sponsor an annual festival and conference with a variety of classes and workshops.
An hour north of Boston, you can visit the John Greenleaf Whittier Home and Museum in Amesbury, MA. Whittier lived here for almost sixty years, and he wrote almost all of his work here, as well. They host a variety of events, in addition to talking about Whittier’s writing and his work as an abolitionist.
If one wants to go north into Maine, about an hour and a half north of Boston, they can visit South Berwick and the Sarah Orne Jewett House Museum. Jewett lived at this house as a child, then she and her sister inherited it, ultimately inspiring her novel Deephaven. Berwick Academy, where Jewett attended school, is still a thriving K-12 school, and the campus is worth seeing while in town.
About an hour further north is another house connected to Harriet Beecher Stowe. She and her family lived her for only a few years, but they were productive years in her life, as she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin here. In addition, she sheltered John Andrew Jackson, a person who was enslaved, who was escaping bondage. It is now owned by Bowdoin College and consists of faculty offices, but they do have space in the front of the building that is open to the public. The house doesn’t align with the architectural design of Stowe’s day, but the college has furnished the space with items evocative of Stowe’s time living there.
To the South
Fans of Moby-Dick will enjoy a trip to New Bedford, just over an hour south of Boston. There, they can visit the Seaman’s Bethel, the church where Ishmael listened to Father Mapple’s sermon shortly before sailing on the Pequod. I will warn visitors that it is much smaller than Melville makes it out to be, and the pulpit is a step or two off the ground, not requiring a rope ladder to ascend to it. If you want more about whales than Melville provided, you can visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum. While not specifically focused on Melville, he certainly would appreciate the depth of knowledge the museum provides about the whaling industry and whales themselves.
New Bedford also played an important role in the Underground Railroad and African American History. When Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna escaped from slavery, they took shelter at the Nathan and Polly Johnson House, and it was Nathan Johnson who gave him the last name of Douglass. Tours are only available by appointment, so plan accordingly. This house is only one stop on the Black History Trail, as visitors can see a number of churches, memorials, and homes that celebrate people who played important roles in this country. There is an Underground Railroad Walking Tour visitors can use to learn even more about New Bedford’s role in helping enslaved people find freedom.
There are a variety of literary sites throughout New England, making the area a great place for one long trip or a number of shorter visits. While Boston is the better known city, the surrounding areas are worth the visit, both for the literary sites and the small-town feel.
Kevin Brown is a high school English teacher and freelance writer. Whenever he returns from a trip, he always finds some new site he should have visited when he was there. He has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. You can find out more about him and his work on Twitter at @kevinbrownwrite or at http://kevinbrownwrites.