Literary Hot Spots: Boston

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Oliver Wendell Holmes once referred to the State House on Boston's Beacon Street as the "Hub of the Universe." Ever since, Bostonians have stretched that sobriquet to apply to the whole town. While some may debate its current relevance, Boston was indeed once the cultural center of America -- a setting boasting a long list of literary locations.







The Public Garden
You may not know them as Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Oack, Pack, and Quack, but fans from around the world recognize these bronze statues of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings at first sight. In Robert McCloskey's beloved 1941 children's classic, "Make Way for Ducklings," Mr. and Mrs. Mallard search all over Boston to find a good home for their rhymed progeny. The Nancy Schon statues of the brood in the Northeast corner of the Public Garden have been polished by numerous hugs and kisses since 1987.
Corner of Charles and Beacon Streets.

The Boston Athenaeum
Before the age of public libraries and wireless hotspots, writers and thinkers from throughout New England bought memberships in this venerable institution. Started as a private library in 1807, the Athenaeum has served as working space and research library for the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Amy Lowell and Walt Whitman. In his short story, "The Ghost of Dr. Harris," Hawthorne recounts running into a ghost in the Athenaeum, and, because conversation was strictly forbidden in the library, and the apparent ghostly protocol that ghosts can only speak when spoken to, Hawthorne and the ghost were reduced to staring silently at each other before the ghost left in frustration.
10 ½ Beacon Street.

The Old Corner Bookstore
On the corner of Washington and School Streets sits a building that has seen many inhabitants, likely none more influential in American literature than the publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields. William Ticknor and James T. Fields ran the business from what was known as The Old Corner Bookstore, which served as publishing offices, bookshop, and literary hangout for some of America's finest writers of the Nineteenth Century. One of the many stories to come out of The Old Corner Bookstore involves Fields lending money to a young woman who he believed was a good person but a lousy writer. "Little Women" author Louisa May Alcott later proved him wrong by repaying the debt out of the proceeds from the sale of millions of her books. More recently, The Old Corner Bookstore made an appearance in Mathew Pearl's mystery thriller, "The Dante Club." The building is currently owned by Historic Boston, which has hosted a rotating set of nonprofit exhibitions from groups like The Bennett School and Historic New England while they pursue permanent tenants.
3 School Street.

Washington Street
Anchored for years by stores like Macy's and Filene's, Washington Street has long served Boston as a shopping mecca. Filene's was started by William Filene in 1852 in Salem, but he opened his beaux arts flagship store on Washington Street in 1912. With the tremendous popularity of Filene's, Washington Street shortly became a central landmark for Boston visitors and locals alike. In Denis Lehane's "The Given Day," much of the rioting and looting that accompanies the police strike occurs along Washington. Although Filene's is long gone, the area is experiencing a rebirth as one of Boston's hot new spots for shopping and (safe) nightlife.

The Boston Common
On a cold wintry February day in 1860, two men walked the paths of the Boston Common engaged in a heated literary debate. One, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was passionately arguing against publishing the main part of the other's poem, "Children of Adam." The defender, Walt Whitman describes it in his "Journals" like this: "I walk'd for two hours, of a bright sharp February mid-day twenty-one years ago, with Emerson, then in his prime, keen physically and morally magnetic, arm'd at every point, and when he chose, wielding the emotional just as well as the intellectual, During those two hours he was the talker and I was the listener...I could never hear the points better put – and then I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way." After Emerson failed to convince Whitman, they went off to a great dinner and later, Emerson registered Whitman at the Boston Athenaeum.
Bordered by Tremont, Beacon, Charles, Park and Boylston Streets.

Fenway Park
America's oldest baseball stadium is rife with stories and legends from Babe Ruth's curse to an unprecedented come-from-behind 2004 series win against the Yankees and the Red Sox taking their first World Series championship in 86 years. Undoubtedly, the best description of the park comes from John Updike's short story, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu:" "Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities. Its right field is one of the deepest in the American League, while its left field is the shortest; the high left-field wall, three hundred and fifteen feet from home plate along the foul line, virtually thrusts its surface at right-handed hitters."
4 Yawkey Way.

The Orpheum
The Orpheum (formerly the Music Hall) makes an appearance in Henry James' "The Bostonians." In the final scenes of the James novel, Basil Ransom shows up at the Music Hall just as his love, Verena Tarrant, is about to give a feminist speech arranged by Ransom's cousin Olive Chancellor. Ransom persuades Tarrant to elope, leaving Chancellor in tears. The Music hall, built in 1852, and the original home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was renamed The Orpheum in 1906 and operated as a Loews Theater until the 70's. It now hosts primarily live music concerts.
1 Hamilton Place.

The Boston Tea Party Museum
One of the most famous nights of Boston's long history is that of December 16, 1773, when groups of colonists snuck aboard three ships in the Boston Harbor to dump chests of tea overboard. This event became a pivotal scene in Esther Forbes' classic coming of age novel "Johnny Tremain." In the book, Tremain boards the boats with the others, using an axe to split the wooden chests before dumping them into the water. After extensive renovations, the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum is set to open again on the Congress Street Bridge.
Closed for renovation until 2012.

Anderson Memorial Bridge
Near the Weld Boathouse on the Cambridge side of the Anderson Memorial Bridge is a plaque dedicated to the memory of Quentin Compson. However, Compson was not a real person, but the name of a fictional character from William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury." In the novel, Compson jumps from the bridge to drown in the Charles River, a move also contemplated by Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar." While spring brings lovely views of blooming cherry trees and noontime joggers along the Charles River, thousands line the bridge on the third full weekend in October when the waterway is home to the Head of the Charles, rowing's largest two-event.

Union Park
In Ann Patchett's novel "Run," the Doyle family brings young Kenya back to their Union Square house after her mother saved one of the Doyle boys from being hit by a car, injuring herself in the process. Union Park is South End's version of Beacon Hill's Louisburg Square, an image of respectability and wrought-iron, but surrounded by South End's trendy eateries along Shawmut and Tremont. Most of the houses, including the Doyles' (Patchett doesn't specify which is theirs) are classic Victorian brick numbers with solid oak doors and ornate door-knockers and ironwork.

Robert Todd Felton is the author of "Walking Boston," "A Journey into the Transcendentalists' New England," and "A Journey into Irish Literature." He has written about Boston for "National Geographic Traveler," "Wilderness Press," and "AMC Outdoors." Read his blog on Red Room.
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