Read Your Way Through Boston

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Paul Theroux for The New York Times. The quintessential travel writer has also enshrined his Massachusetts roots in his writing. Here are his recommendations for those who come to visit. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Ilustration Credit: Raphaelle Macaron

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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.

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.”

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Here is a direct link to the article.

Paul Theroux‘s many books include Picture Palace, which won the 1978 Whitbread Literary Award; The Mosquito Coast, which was the 1981 Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year and joint winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was also made into a feature film; Riding the Iron Rooster, which won the 1988 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; The Pillars of Hercules, shortlisted for the 1996 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; My Other Life: A Novel, Kowloon Tong, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Fresh-air Fiend and Hotel Honolulu. Blindness is his latest novel. Most of his books are published by Penguin.

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