New York Times
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)
April 30, 2023
My father, like many passionate readers, was a literary pilgrim in his native Massachusetts, a state rich in destinations, hallowed by many of the greatest writers in the language. “Look, Paulie, this is the House of the Seven Gables — go on, count them!”
What interested him — what interests me — was not a particular book but a literary intelligence, a Yankee sensibility enshrined in many local books. Boston does not, like Dublin, have a “Ulysses” — few cities do. The nearest novel to being essentially Bostonian might be Edwin O’Connor’s “The Last Hurrah”; its protagonist, Frank Skeffington, based on Boston’s flamboyant James Michael Curley, embodies Boston’s old political culture of blarney and bribery.
Richard Henry Dana Jr. fascinated my father, not for writing about Boston but for his example as an admirable Yankee. After enduring the dangerous voyage he recounted in “Two Years Before the Mast,” during which he witnessed a cruel flogging on shipboard, he returned to Boston to become an early human rights lawyer and abolitionist. Dana was a great example to me as a watchful and inquisitive traveler.
The Dana-Palmer House in Cambridge was on my father’s itinerary. On Sunday outings, he delved into Boston and ranged widely, his children in tow, from Herman Melville’s house in Pittsfield to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s in Salem and — chanting “Snow-Bound”— to John Greenleaf Whittier’s in Amesbury. The town of Concord was nearby, with the ghosts of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Lothrop, and the iconic Walden Pond. I must add that, as you drive in Boston now, across the Longfellow Bridge to the Ted Williams Tunnel, it’s pretty obvious that high culture has its philistine competition.
How did you first encounter literary Boston?
We always set off from our home in Medford — a Boston suburb, and a literary town in its own right. Lydia Maria Child, noted for her poem “Thanksgiving Day,” had been born there: “Over the river, and through the wood, to grandfather’s house we go.” And, by the way, grandfather’s house still stands — handsomely restored — thanks to Tufts University. Child was a combative and articulate abolitionist, a campaigner for women’s rights and an advocate for Native Americans. She was vilified for her antislavery views but stood her ground in “An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans” (1833). A new biography of her has recently appeared: Lydia Moland’s “Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life.”
Paul Revere rode on horseback through Medford, and stopped on High Street to rally soldiers to fight the British — a ride memorialized both by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his famous poem and in “Johnny Tremain,” by the Bostonian Esther Forbes. Her novel is regarded by my Medford High classmate Michael Bloomberg as inspirational.
Medford lies on the banks of the Mystic River, which flows from the Mystic Lakes to Boston Harbor and, mystically, to the great oceans. That river meant as much to me as a prospective traveler as any book.
A small detail in the novel “The Cardinal,” by the Bostonian Henry Morton Robinson, gripped me as a young reader. Early in the book, young Stephen Fermoyle, the prospective Cardinal and prince of the church, is described as living in Malden, a town that was just a couple miles from my house. What struck me was that someone from Malden might become a Cardinal, and also that obscure Malden could be solemnly referenced in a novel that sold in the millions.
And now, for almost 60 years, I have referred to Medford in my own writing. It’s there in the opening chapters of “My Secret History,” in the middle of “My Other Life,” in “The Stranger at the Palazzo d’Oro” and in “Mr. Bones,” in the first chapters of “The Lower River” — and also as the setting of my most recent novel, “The Bad Angel Brothers,” where I renamed it Littleford.
Boston is less a city than a cluster of neighborhoods. The house in Roxbury where Malcolm Little was a troubled teen — before becoming Malcolm X, the author of “By Any Means Necessary” — is a world away from the mayor’s office in Edwin O’Connor’s “The Last Hurrah,” or the South Boston of George V. Higgins’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” or the Dorchester of “Sacred,” by Dennis Lehane. Lehane’s “Mystic River” is quite a different take on the river where, upstream, I was a dreamy youth inspired to travel. Each of those books matter to an understanding of Boston.
To me, the heart of Boston is the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, repository of more than 23 million items and luminous murals by John Singer Sargent. Across the Charles River at Harvard, one might have a great meal in the Square while contemplating the university’s many writer-graduates, ranging from T.S. Eliot to Tracy K. Smith. After that, I would suggest leaving town. Your destination would be Concord and Walden Pond, with Thoreau’s “Walden” to help you orient yourself. Emerson’s house still stands and so does the Alcott house.
A sacred spot nearby is the place in Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” where, “Here once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world.”
With “Moby-Dick” in hand, I suggest driving to New Bedford to visit the sites that Melville mentions, among them the Seamen’s Bethel — in the novel, the Whaleman’s Chapel of Father Mapple’s sermon. Across the road is the splendid and well-stocked New Bedford Whaling Museum, which serves as a monument to Melville’s life on the sea.
An hour’s drive east from New Bedford takes you to Plymouth, and the Plimoth Patuxet Museums (renamed when Plimoth Plantation was deemed offensive). Your docent here could be Nathaniel Philbrick, whose 2006 history, “Mayflower,” describes the ordeals of the first pilgrims as well as their many abuses, which included decimating the local Wampanoag people — killing many, and capturing hundreds to sell into slavery in the West Indies. This is at odds with the romantic tale of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, the colony’s love birds in Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Philbrick describes Standish as a violent piece of work, his mind lightly furnished with anything resembling compassion, writing how, with a single ambush on the native people known as the Massachusett, three years after the Pilgrims’ landing, he “irreparably damaged the human ecology of the region.” As a consequence, “the Pilgrims had earned a new name: wotawquenange — cutthroats.”
What if readers, like Melville, are drawn to the sea?
About 20 miles south of Plymouth, across the Sagamore Bridge, is Cape Cod, “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts,” as Thoreau wrote in his book of hikes, “Cape Cod.” The Cape is more populous now than when Henry tramped the beaches and pinewoods, but much of it — especially the dunes that Thoreau described — retains its natural beauty. One of the chapters describes his encounter in Wellfleet with an old oysterman. The oysterman’s house still exists — as does, on nearby Money Hill, the one in which Edmund Wilson lived in a fractious marriage with Mary McCarthy.
Farther along Route 6A is Truro, where Wilson’s earlier lover, Edna St. Vincent Millay, lived for a time and wrote “Memory of Cape Cod,” which begins, “The wind in the ash-tree sounds like surf at the shore at Truro. …” Another few miles and you’re in Provincetown, a place prized by writers for its freedom, thanks to the tolerant Portuguese-descended fisherfolk, its louche lifestyle (with the occasional drag queen rollerblading down Commercial Street) and, as Norman Mailer, a contented resident, told me, “Most of all its wonderful and well-preserved 19th-century architecture.” His “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” from 1984, celebrates the crimes and the complexities of the town.
What other local literary haunts are worth exploring?
Lowell, just north of Boston, is not only the birthplace of Jack Kerouac but the setting of five of his novels, the best of which I regard as “Vanity of Duluoz,” from 1968. My father met his French-speaking friends in Lowell’s clubs and, though he was too old to appreciate Kerouac, he would have seen him as less a “habitant” than a son of Lowell — a football player, a drunkard and a novelist.
I agree with my father in valuing a Yankee sensibility in Massachusetts writers, but he would also have agreed that, in the Commonwealth, all writing must be regarded in its own affirming phrase — “wicked local.”
Paul Theroux’s Boston Reading List
“The Last Hurrah,” Edwin O’Connor
“Two Years Before the Mast,” Richard Henry Dana Jr.
“Snow-Bound,” John Greenleaf Whittier
“Thanksgiving Day,” Lydia Maria Child
“Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life,” Lydia Moland
“Paul Revere’s Ride,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Johnny Tremain,” Esther Forbes
“The Cardinal,” Henry Morton Robinson
“By Any Means Necessary,” Malcolm X
“The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” George V. Higgins
“Sacred” and “Mystic River,” Dennis Lehane
“Walden” and “Cape Cod,” Henry David Thoreau
“Concord Hymn,” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville
“Mayflower,” Nathaniel Philbrick
“Memory of Cape Cod,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
“Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” Norman Mailer
“Vanity of Duluoz,” Jack Kerouac
Paul Theroux is the author of “The Great Railway Bazaar,” “The Mosquito Coast” and “Riding the Iron Rooster,” among many other highly acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction. In 2015, he was awarded the Patron’s Medal from the Royal Geographical Society for “the encouragement of geographical discovery through travel writing.” His most recent novel is “The Bad Angel Brothers.”