American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide

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Boston: Starting at the Beginning


"Today 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 transcendentalist."     

~Jane Langton, "The Importance of Whiskers"

Above: 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).


Boston 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 World's Hub," "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 community Brook Farm. 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 Concord." 

The Transcendentalist movement had grown out of a number of religious and philosophical movements prior to the nineteenth century. Look at Dan's take on thinking like a Transcendentalist.


The vast majority of Transcendentalist gatherings in Boston took place on or near Beacon 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.

Left: Beacon Hill Monument in front of Massachusetts State House, Boston, Massachusetts (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D418-30838 DLC).


A key part of the Transcendentalist community was its connection to the Unitarian denomination. In a sense, Unitarianism evolved out of Puritanism. To learn more about Unitarian history in Boston, read the Unitarian Universalist Association's overview, "Visiting Boston." Particular sites of UU history can be located on Beacon Hill and on Boston Common. Read Linda's reflections on King's Chapel and the beginning of Transcendentalism.

Left: King's Chapel (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LOT 12003, p. 14).


The 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).


Ralph Waldo Emerson and other leading Unitarians and Transcendentalists attended Boston Public Latin School near Tremont Avenue. This sidewalk mosaic marks their accomplishments.

Left: Memorial mosaic honoring the Latin School (photo by Anna Hughes).


One central meeting place for the literary men was the Parker House, 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 in 1884.

Left: The Parker House, site of the Saturday Club (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-68235 DLC).


Another crucial gathering spot for the Boston Transcendentalists was the Old 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 generations later. 

Left: Old Corner Bookstore (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-11969 DLC).


Walking 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 the Elizabeth 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: Mary (to education reformer Horace Mann) and Sophia (to Nathaniel Hawthorne). Also keenly important here were the "Conversations" held by Margaret 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. 

Left: Tremont Temple (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-11968 DLC).


Just around the corner, the visitor will find the Boston 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 House."

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 Louisburg Square. The father and daughter lived here from 1885 to 1888, when they died within two days of each other. 

Left: Louisburg Square, last home of Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott (photo by Anna Hughes).


On 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 abolitionist movement.

Left: African Meeting House (permission pending from Museum of Afro American History, Boston).


Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists recruited soldiers for an all-black regiment as part of the Union forces for the Civil War. The Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial marks their contributions and is located on Beacon Street.

Left: Sarah Alouf and Catherine Hall in front of Civil War (photo by Anna Hughes).


Read Lizzie's farewell to Boston.

"American 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.