Boston: Starting at the Beginning
I can't cross Boston Common without thinking of Emerson walking there with
Walt Whitman—nor can I walk up Tremont Street without remembering the
Saturday Club at the Parker House. I wish I knew in which Cambridgeport
house Emily Dickinson spent many a homesick month while consulting a
doctor about her eyes. . . . Have you ever felt something tickle your
cheek as you walk down Brattle Street? I'll tell you what it is—it’s
the ghostly whiskers of some long-dead
Langton, "The Importance of Whiskers"
Panoramic photograph of Boston Common, where Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt
Whitman walked in 1860 as Emerson tried to persuade Whitman to tone down
the sexuality in his poetry. "Each point of Emerson's statement was
unanswerable, no judge's charge ever more complete or convincing,"
wrote Whitman. "I could never hear the point better put—and then I
felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all,
and pursue my own way" (Library of Congress,
Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-131972 DLC).
has been called "the Athens of America" and "the Hub of the Solar
System." This is due to its role in the nineteenth century as "the New
"a center of creativity" that included the leading
Transcendentalists—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David
Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Palmer
Peabody, and many others. To get a feel for this community and its ongoing
legacy in Boston, read Rebecca Harding Davis's account, "Boston
in the Sixties."
According to the Concord Museum, "the birth of American transcendentalism
dates from 1836, when a group of people—many of them Unitarian ministers—met
in the Boston home of George Ripley, who eventually started the utopian
The Transcendental Club, as it was called, met periodically, with a fluid roster
of members. These men and women lived all over New England. They conversed by
mail, as well as in meetings and private visits—most frequently in Boston and
The Transcendentalist movement had
out of a number of religious and philosophical movements prior to the
nineteenth century. Look
at Dan's take on thinking like a Transcendentalist.
vast majority of Transcendentalist gatherings in Boston took place on or
Hill, a core part of the "City upon the Hill" founded by the
Puritans. Two good descriptions of this lively neighborhood are Jacqueline
G. Harris's "A
Beacon Hill Stroll" and "A Walk Down Charles
Street." Read Linda's reflections on Beacon
Hill Monument in front of Massachusetts State House, Boston, Massachusetts
of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company
Collection, LC-D418-30838 DLC).
burial ground next to King's
Chapel—the oldest Unitarian church in the United States, situated in
the heart of Beacon Hill—was a key cemetery in the early Puritan
community. As Nathaniel Hawthorne describes Hester Prynne's grave at the
end of his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter: ". . . after many,
many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that
burial-ground beside which King's Chapel has since been built." The
grave pictured here bears an engraving of a large letter "A"
and is said by legend to be the inspiration for Hawthorne's novel.
Left: The "A" Grave, King's Chapel
Cemetery (photo by Anna Hughes).
Waldo Emerson and other leading Unitarians and Transcendentalists attended
Boston Public Latin School near Tremont Avenue. This sidewalk mosaic marks their
mosaic honoring the Latin School (photo by Anna Hughes).
central meeting place for the literary men was the
a hotel located at 60 School Street on Beacon Hill. Because the men met on
the last Saturday of each month, their group was known as the
"Saturday Club." "Their notoriously festive
roundtables," says The
Literary Trail of Greater Boston, "featured readings and
intellectual changes amid endlessly flowing chatter, mirth, food, and
spirits." Be sure to read Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem "At
the Saturday Club," which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly
Left: The Parker House, site of the Saturday Club
(Library of Congress, Prints and
Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-68235
crucial gathering spot for the Boston Transcendentalists was the
Corner Bookstore, just down School Street at the corner of Washington
Street. Originally the site of a home built by Puritan dissenter Anne
Hutchinson and her husband, this location became central to the
Transcendentalist movement. Here, in the first brick building in
Boston, William D. Ticknor and James T. Fields "revolutionized
American book publishing between 1845 and 1865." Together, Ticknor
and Fields earned "worldwide renown as a well-stocked shop, a
prominent publishing house, and a magnet for the literary world."
Today, the Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company is the firm that remains
Left: Old Corner Bookstore
(Library of Congress, Prints and
Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-11969
four blocks down Washington Street, a visitor will soon come to 13-15 West
Street, where a plaque indicates that this was at one time the location of
Palmer Peabody Book Shop. "The store she ran at the front of her
home on West Street," says The Literary Trail, "became a
gathering place, in part because she stocked many foreign books and
periodicals." Here, Peabody published Henry David Thoreau's famous essay
"Civil Disobedience," helped to publish the Transcendentalist
magazine, The Dial, and hosted weddings for her sisters:
education reformer Horace
Mann) and Sophia (to Nathaniel
Hawthorne). Also keenly important here were the "Conversations"
Fuller. During these "Conversations," women in the larger
Transcendentalist community gathered to discuss issues of relevance to
them, and the seeds of the Women's Rights Movement were planted. Read Tiffany's reflections
on Margaret Fuller. Coming
back almost to the Parker House, the literary visitor will spot Tremont
Temple, where Bronson
Alcott, a cutting-edge educational
reformer, held his famed Temple
School, at 88 Tremont Street.
Tremont Temple (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division,
Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-11968 DLC).
around the corner, the visitor will find the
Athenaeum at 10-1/2 Beacon Street. Many Transcendentalist writers and
intellectuals conducted research and immersed themselves in their writing
at this major library and research facility. Ralph Waldo Emerson was
known, says The Literary Trail of Greater Boston, to "take the train from his home in Concord, then visit the Old
Corner Bookstore and the Athenaeum before dining at the Parker
Left: The Boston Athenaeum
(Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing
Company Collection, LC-D4-19615 DLC).
Walking the streets of Beacon Hill, the
literary traveler should also stop at 4 Pinckney Street, where Henry David
Thoreau once lived; 15 Pinckney Street, one of the places where Elizabeth
Palmer Peabody started kindergarten classes; and 20 Pinckney Street, 43
Pinckney Street, and 81 Pinckney Street, all locations where the Alcotts
rented rooms. The last home for Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May
Alcott was just around the corner at 10
Square. The father and
daughter lived here from 1885 to 1888, when they died within two days of
Left: Louisburg Square, last home of Bronson Alcott
and Louisa May Alcott (photo by Anna Hughes).
Beacon Hill's north slope, the African American community was struggling
to put Transcendentalist notions into practice as well. Boston's Black Heritage Trail
provides a wealth of information for exploring this part of the city's
history. The African Meeting
House, at 8 Smith Street, became a central gathering place for leaders of
the abolitionist movement. Here, William Lloyd Garrison, the white leader
of the movement, rallied many Bostonians to the cause, and Frederick
Douglass spoke here, as well as at Faneuil Hall and Tremont Temple.
Douglass also worked at the African Meeting House to recruit African
American soldiers for the 54th Massachusetts volunteers. The history of the
Meeting House provides excellent insight into the emergence of the
Left: African Meeting
House (permission pending from Museum of Afro American History, Boston).
Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide" was produced by students in ENGL
446, American Transcendentalism, and ENGL 447, American Literature and the
Prominence of Place: A Travel Practicum. These courses were team-taught in the Department
of English at Shepherd College,
Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in Spring 2002 by Dr.
Patricia Dwyer and Dr. Linda
Tate. For more information on the course and the web project, visit "About
This Site." © 2003 Linda Tate.