What are some literary itineraries around the city?
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.