Where literary greats once trod

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The Boston area is known for its history – Paul Revere, the shot heard 'round the world, and that famous tea party, for starters.

But Boston also has more than 200 years of literary history to tell. Founded in 1630, the city became a hub of creativity to which authors, poets, and philosophers were drawn.

To learn about it, tie on a comfortable pair of shoes and follow the Literary Trail through Boston, Cambridge, and Concord. This self-guided, 20-mile tour, developed by the Boston History Collaborative, takes you where some of America's best-loved authors – Emerson, Longfellow, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Alcott – met, wrote, and lived.

Recommended: A literary road trip through New England

The trail can be done on foot around Boston and Cambridge, but a car is necessary to reach Concord.

The Literary Trail begins at Tremont and School Streets in the Omni Parker House Hotel, America's oldest continuously operated hotel, home of Parker House rolls and Boston cream pie.

It was here that Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Nathaniel Hawthorne started the Saturday Club: On the last Saturday of each month, they would meet for readings, political discussions, fun, and food. Other members included John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Atlantic Monthly editor James Russell Lowell. Charles Dickens was an honorary member who attended when he visited Boston.

However, when Henry David Thoreau was invited to become a member, he declined, saying: "I would rather sit on a horsehair couch with my peers than on a velvet one."

It was at the Parker House that Longfellow drafted "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and where Dickens gave his first reading of "A Christmas Carol." In the upstairs hall are the mirror and mantel Dickens used while practicing his speaking techniques.

Nearby on School Street, the publishing firm of Ticknor & Fields was housed in what is now the Globe Corner Bookstore. Ticknor & Fields was the publishing agent for the members of the Saturday Club as well as for Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Julia Ward Howe.

From the Omni Parker House, cross Tremont Street and walk up Beacon Street to the Boston Athenaeum, a National Historic Landmark. With 700,000 books and manuscripts, the Athenaeum is the second-largest private membership library in North America (the Library of Congress is the largest). It is currently closed for restoration, but is worth a walk-by to admire its classic Italian Renaissance architecture.

The next stop isthe venerable Boston Public Library. It opened in Copley Square in 1852 with a gift of 50 books from the city of Paris. The Dartmouth Street entrance brings you into the Italian marble lobby. Inscribed on the ceiling tiles are the names of Boston's literary greats. On the second floor is the 218-foot long Bates Hall, where Emerson, Alcott, et al. did their research and writing. Look on the library walls for original artworks by Edwin Austin, Puvis de Chavannes, and John Singer Sargent.

Your next stop on the tour is Harvard Square in Cambridge, easily reached via subway (called the "T" in Boston) by taking the Red Line from the Park Street station.The city of Cambridge was settled a few months after Boston. Six years later, Harvard College was founded, named for its benefactor, John Harvard, who bequeathed his library of 300 books to the school. Emerson, Lowell, Holmes, and Thoreau graduated from Harvard, and Longfellow was a professor there.

Surrounding Harvard Yard are the freshman dormitories, 367-year-old, Federal-style brick buildings with rounded archways, slate roofs, and dormer windows. Inside the yard is a statue representing John Harvard that was sculpted in 1884 by Daniel Chester French. America's first female published poet, Anne Bradstreet, had her house on what is now the site of the Out of Town News kiosk.

Just outside Harvard Square, at 105 Brattle Street, is the house where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived for 45 years. There he created some of his most famous works: "The Village Blacksmith," "The Courtship of Myles Standish," and "The Song of Hiawatha."

On Sunday afternoons in the summer, poetry readings and music recitals are held on the grounds. After being closed for restoration, the house will reopen for tours on Wednesday, June 5.

A visit to the colonial New England town of Concord is like stepping back in time several centuries. Located 16 miles from Boston, Concord (pronounced "conquered") is so rich in history that you could spend several days here.

The Concord Museum honors two of the town's greatest writers – Emerson and Thoreau – with original furnishings from Emerson's study and Thoreau's cabin at Walden. Six galleries display collections of historic decorative arts, Concord-made furniture, clocks, and silver, as well as one of the original lanterns that was hung from the Old North Church on the night of Paul Revere's ride. Swords, powderhorns, and pistols used by the Concord Militia during the battle of North Bridge in 1775 also hang on the walls.

Across the street is the white clapboard house where Emerson lived for 49 years. Docent-led tours of the house provide insights into his life.

Nearby is the Wayside, the first literary site to become part of the National Park Service. When the Alcotts – Bronson and Louisa May – lived there they called the house Hillside; Nathaniel Hawthorne named it "the house by the Wayside." It is the only house that Hawthorne ever owned – in his tower office he wrote "The Scarlet Letter" and "The House of the Seven Gables."

Next to the Wayside is Orchard House, home to the Alcotts from 1858 to 1877. While living here, Louisa May spent three months writing the novel that would make her famous: "Little Women."

Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is the final resting place of these famous authors. Thoreau did the surveying for the cemetery's pond and front gate, and his great friend, Emerson, gave the address at the consecration in 1855.

In 1845 Thoreau went to live at Concord's Walden Pond, about two miles from the town center, in a tiny cabin that he built himself. In the two years, two months, and two days Thoreau lived there, he found that studying nature and knowing oneself were one and the same.

But as famous as his nature writings are, many think that Thoreau's greatest work is "Civil Disobedience," an essay on passive resistance that influenced Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Today, writers from around the world draw inspiration by visiting the original site of Thoreau's cabin. Many leave a stone on the cairn, a simple memorial to this great writer.

• For more information on the Literary Trail, contact the Boston History Collaborative at (617) 350-0358, go to www. lit-trail.org,

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