Boston and Concord

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On 17 December 1877 Mark Twain attended a dinner in Boston honoring John Greenleaf Whittier on his seventieth birthday. The dinner was sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly, the most prestigious literary journal in America at the time. On this occasion Twain chose to tell a humorous tale that gently satirized three of New England's most distinguished literary figures: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. All three were present at the dinner. Twain thought the tale was inoffensive and well received, but his friend William Dean Howells was horrified at this "bewildering blunder" and subsequently urged Twain to issue letters of apology to all three dignitaries. Twain, somewhat surprised and abashed by the whole thing, quickly followed his friend's advice. It was his first lesson in New England literary decorum (Emerson, p. 109). The episode was indicative of the significant changes that were reshaping the contours of the American literary landscape in the second half of the nineteenth century. The old romantic idealism, represented by Longfellow, Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Emerson, Whittier, Charles Eliot Norton, and others, was being challenged by a new, brash, realistic type of writing that was represented most prominently by Twain, Howells, and Henry James. Naturalism, an outgrowth of this realistic movement, would emerge in the last decade of the century as writers such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and others arrived on the scene. Eventually the literary icons of the antebellum period would be displaced by these younger voices. Such a dramatic change could not occur without a struggle.


In the 1870s, Boston was still for the most part the hub of America's literary universe, as it had been for the previous two decades at least. Slowly, however, the center was beginning to shift to New York (Brooks, p. 1). One sign was the growing circulation of popular journals like Harper's New Monthly Magazine (founded in 1850) and Century Magazine (founded in 1870). These journals and others like them were aimed at a broader reading public than the more sophisticated Atlantic Monthly. They were part of a rapidly growing magazine-fed literary culture. As a result of this trend, Boston was slowly losing its ability to attract the younger generation of writers then emerging (Brooks, p. 377; Sedgwick, p. 77). Change was in the air. Even the venerable North American Review, Boston's oldest journal, moved to New York in 1878. The New York journals were filled with the writings of new authors like Twain, James, Howells, Hamlin Garland, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and others (Brodhead, p. 474). These "new realists" concerned themselves for the most part with everyday events in the lives of common people. They sought to tell their stories in a language that was immediate, unadorned, and simple. Often they incorporated the ungrammatical, accented diction of the common people. They also eschewed idealism. Howells (1837–1920), later summarized the essential theory of realism when he declared in Criticism and Fiction (1891), "let fiction cease to lie about life; let it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and passions in the measure we all know, . . . let it not put on fine literary airs; let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know—the language of unaffected people everywhere" (p. 51).

Many of the young writers who dared to speak this new language were, like Howells and Twain, from the American West. The Brahmin class of Boston viewed them as little more than invading Goths who threatened to destroy the edifice of American cultural sophistication and purity that they and their predecessors had labored so hard to build. Beginning in the late 1870s they would fight a holding action in defense of what became known as the "genteel tradition" in American literature. These individuals are described by Daniel Aaron as "men and women of culture and taste who did their best to mitigate the crudities of the Gilded Age" and who "glanced back nostalgically to the myth of unspoiled homogenous America, and shrank from the squalor, violence, and vulgarity of their own times." In their effort to preserve the past, they "closed ranks against naturalism, literary experimentation, and social heterodoxy, against any movement that might endanger . . . the 'spiritual rootage of art'" (pp. 734, 735). The struggle between the new and the old became especially intense in the 1880s as the realistic movement took hold of America's literary imagination. Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900) offered a strong indictment of the movement in an article published in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1883. Robert Falk summarizes the sins of "modern fiction" noted by Warner as "overmuch photographic fidelity, a lack of idealization, a superabundance of analysis, an artistic indifference to nobility and virtue and justice, a preoccupation with the seamy side of life, a sad neglect of stories with happy endings, and a rejection of Sir Walter Scott" (p. 424). The latter was seen as projecting an ideal of chivalrous conduct and personal virtue that was most worthy of imitation. Warner himself made the source of his ire explicit.

The characteristics which are prominent, when we think of our recent fiction, are a wholly unidealized view of human society, which has got the name of realism; a delight in representing the worst phases of social life; an extreme analysis of persons and motives; the sacrifice of action to psychological study; the substitution of studies of character for anything like a story . . . and a despondent tone about society, politics, and the whole drift of modern life. (Falk, p. 424)

Henry James responded to such criticisms in his essay "The Art of Fiction" (1884) by asserting that

Art is essentially selection, but it is a selection whose main care is to be typical, to be inclusive. For many people art means rose-colored windowpanes, and selection means picking a bouquet for Mrs. Grundy. They will tell you that artistic considerations have nothing to do with the disagreeable, with the ugly; they will rattle off shallow commonplaces about the province of art and the limits of art till you are moved to some wonder in return as to the province and the limits of ignorance. (P. 17)

Unfortunately Warner's views would carry the day for the time as Boston gradually became the center of literary conservatism rather than the vibrant hub of American literary life. The Atlantic became its fortress on a hill. There is a great irony in this. At the time of its founding, the Atlantic Monthly was a voice of liberalism and progress. In its first issue, which appeared in November of 1857 under the editorship of James Russell Lowell, the journal declared that "it will not rank itself with any sect of anties: but with that body of men which is in favor of Freedom, National Progress, and Honor, whether public or private" (Howe, p. 27). In the early years the journal routinely published the works of writers who were themselves the vanguard of America's most progressive thought in art, literature, and politics. These included Emerson, Longfellow, Norton, Holmes, Whittier, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), Lowell, and many others (Howe, p. 24).

By 1881, however, when Thomas Bailey Aldrich assumed editorship, the Atlantic Monthly was, in the words of Willard Thorp, "bent on upholding the Ideal in literature," even though the vogue of idealism was largely a thing of the past for the new authors then emerging (p. 4). There were many reasons for this change. The horrors of the Civil War, the ruthless competitiveness of America's laissez-faire economy, the scientific harshness of Social Darwinism, the mighty and imposing figures of the new "captains of industry," a myriad of new scientific and technological developments, the exponential growth of industry and with it the factory system, as well as the rapid growth of cities with their imposing skyscrapers and depressing slums (inhabited mostly by recent immigrants) all combined to render idealism of any sort both quaint and largely irrelevant. As Henry Adams would later put it in his Education (1918), "the new American . . . was the child of steam and the brother of the dynamo" (p. 466). Such a gritty and scientifically conceived reality demanded a similarly gritty and scientific literary rendering. Eventually the new realism of the 1880s opened the way for the new naturalism of the 1890s, which sought to observe and record reality with almost scientific detachment (Pizer, pp. 108–110). This movement had its roots in Continental literature, especially the works of the French novelist Émile Zola. Not surprisingly, Aldrich "despised naturalism (an abominable Gaulish invention of Zola and Flaubert) and fought to keep American letters free from its taint." For Aldrich, literature—especially that published in the Atlantic—"could still be the preserver of the True and the Beautiful" (Thorp, p. 4).

Signs of this conservative entrenchment were everywhere. When Walt Whitman's (1819–1892) Leaves of Grass was published in Boston in its second edition in 1856 the reception was generally positive. Indeed, Gay Wilson Allen reports that "on the whole Boston and New England were actually more receptive to the book than was New York" (p. 174). Twenty-five years later Boston proved less receptive. When Leaves of Grass was issued in 1881 by Boston's James R. Osgood & Company, one of the country's most prestigious publishers, the defenders of public morality soon took notice. On 1 March 1882 the Boston district attorney informed Osgood & Company that its edition of Leaves of Grass violated the statutes banning "obscene literature" and demanded extensive excisions of offending materials. Whitman refused to make the changes specified, and the firm ceased publication of the work (Loving, p. 414). Episodes such as this had a telling effect over time on American writers. They looked elsewhere for a more open-minded literary and social culture. (Whitman subsequently took his Leaves to Philadelphia, where it was published by Rees Welsh and Company.)


Even Concord, a center of liberal thought and literary creativity before the Civil War when it was home to Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, was not immune from the Brahmin influence of nearby Boston. For a time the intellectual afterglow of the town's original brilliance was reflected somewhat in the activities of the Concord School of Philosophy. This was actually a series of summer lectures on various philosophical topics held at Bronson Alcott's (1799–1888) "Orchard House" home. The first session was in 1879. Alcott himself had never achieved much recognition beyond Concord. His reputation at this time was easily eclipsed by that of his famous daughter, Louisa May, whose Little Women (1868–1869) catapulted her to national fame. She followed this with a number of other successful works that appealed to the innocent sensibilities of many readers. She would remain a popular writer until her death.

A number of reasonably prominent people lectured in the School of Philosophy. Alcott offered one of the early presentations, a meditation on "The Powers of the Person in a Descending Scale." Benjamin Peirce lectured on "Ideality in Science," Thomas Wentworth Higginson on "The Birth of American Literature," and Emerson, now in his twilight years and suffering signs of Alzheimer's disease, lectured on the somewhat ironic topic of "Memory." The school lasted for ten years and was generally considered a success. Although some townsfolk at first reacted with trepidation to a project that "fill[ed] the village with long-haired men and short-haired women," as one historian put it, the school was eventually deemed acceptable because "What brings money to the town . . . is a success" (Scudder, pp. 282, 283).

Concord's toleration of the liberal element had its limits, however, as Mark Twain (1835–1910) discovered. When Twain's classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn made its American appearance in February 1885 it was generally well received. One critic wrote of its "many pleasant episodes" and its "extraordinary power" in presenting living scenes of life along the Mississippi. A review in Century Magazine praised its strong moral sense, which was communicated deftly and realistically. "Life teaches its lessons by implication," noted the writer, "not by didactic preaching; and literature is at its best when it is an imitation of life, and not an excuse for instruction" (Emerson, p. 157). Concord, however, had a different opinion. In March the town's Library Committee voted to exclude the book. As reported in the Boston Transcript (17 March 1885), one member of the committee stated that he considered the book "as the veriest trash" while "the librarian and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people."

Despite such hostility to the new trends in literature, Concord became a popular destination for literary pilgrims from home and abroad, people who remembered its glorious past. Whitman made his last visit to Emerson in 1881 at the very time that the Boston controversy over Leaves of Grass was coming to the fore. Ignoring the matter for the time, Whitman reported spending a "long and blessed evening" with his old friend and loyal defender (Loving, p. 408). In less than a year, Emerson would be dead. His home eventually became a public memorial. The same would eventually be true for the Alcott's "Orchard House" and Hawthorne's "Wayside." The "Old Manse," Emerson's ancestral home and the Hawthornes' Concord abode for three years in the early 1840s, is also a popular pilgrimage site. It is located next to the Old North Bridge, which Emerson made famous as the place where "once the embattled farmers stood / And fired the shot heard round the world" at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Perhaps the most sacred spot of all, however, is not a structure but Thoreau's precious Walden Pond, the site of his experiment in simple living made famous in the classic Walden (1854). Emerson deeded the property around the pond to the citizens of the state of Massachusetts at the time of his death in 1882. Since then thousands of pilgrims have made their way to "Thoreau's Cove" to place a stone on the cairn that memorializes his life and legacy (Harding, p. 144). Eventually all of Concord's literary giants would find their final resting places on Sleepy Hollow Cemetery's appropriately named "Authors' Ridge." Here, enjoying the same proximity in death as in life, lie the remains of Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson, and most of the authors' families.


Among those drawn to Concord, even in the early years, was William Dean Howells, who was destined to become arguably the most important writer and critic of the post–Civil War period in terms of his influence on the literary trends of the time. When Howells, a self-described "passionate pilgrim from the West," first made his way to "the holy land at Boston" in 1860, he stopped at Concord. There he found Emerson, who was "shining a lambent star of poesy and prophesy at the zenith" (Friends, pp. 13, 10). In his conversation, however, Howells sensed that his literary tastes differed from those of the great philosopher. As he would recall their interview years later in Literary Friends and Acquaintance (1900), the young westerner felt that "Emerson had, in fact, a defective sense as to specific pieces of literature; he praised extravagantly, and in the wrong place, especially among the new things, and he failed to see the worth of much that was fine and precious" (p. 62). It was an early sign of the divergent literary views that would evolve in the balance of the century. Howells would eventually emerge as a leader among the new breed of writers that changed the face of American literature, but first he would complete an apprenticeship in Boston.

In 1860 Howells was welcomed by the Boston literary establishment as a fit successor to and a suitable defender of the genteel tradition. The young author from Ohio already had published some early work in the Atlantic (Lynn, pp. 79, 85). During this first visit, as he later recalled, he was thrilled when, while at a dinner party, Oliver Wendell Holmes looked from Howells to James T. Fields (head of Ticknor & Fields, publishers of the Atlantic Monthly), and remarked with a smile, "Well, James, this is something like the apostolic succession; this is the laying on of hands" (Friends, p. 37).

After serving for a time as an assistant, Howells eventually became editor of the Atlantic Monthly in 1871. As time passed, however, and his talent evolved, he became increasingly uncomfortable in the stuffy confines of Boston where the Brahmin caste, represented to him most immediately by Holmes, was a looming presence. As his biographer points out, during his tenure as editor, when Holmes submitted his literary work to the Atlantic, "Howells never failed to accept it. After Howells began to write novels in the early 1870s, Holmes not only read them, but also monitored them for social errors" (Lynn, p. 96). After leaving the Atlantic in 1881, Howells felt a new breath of freedom. He told a correspondent at the time that he was "reading everything of Zola's that I can get my hands on" (Lynn, p. 258). Following the trend of the time, Howells moved to New York in 1889 and took a position on the editorial board of Harper's. In his monthly "Editor's Study" column, he openly promoted the cause of realism and the realistic writings of Continental and British authors whose works, in some cases, he introduced to an American audience. These included such notables as Henrik Ibsen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Leo Tolstoy (Gougeon, pp. 117–119). Meanwhile, Boston continued its reactionary ways. When Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (set in Boston and destined to become his most enduring work) was serialized in Century Magazine in 1885, it was condemned by one genteel critic as a work whose moral tone was "hopelessly bad" (Cady, p. 16). The following year, when Howells published The Minister's Charge, another exercise in the new realism, he incurred the severe disapproval and even hostility of a majority of Bostonians. Indeed, the criticism reached such an intensity that he had to warn his father not to believe what was being written about him in the newspapers (Lynn, p. 286). It was yet another sign of the times. Boston simply would not tolerate the "newness" that was coming to the fore in literature and in American culture generally. When Charlotte Perkins Gilman's powerful short story "The Yellow Wall-Paper" was recommended to Horace Scudder for publication in the Atlantic in 1890, he refused it. Scudder returned the manuscript to Gilman with a terse note that read: "Mr. Howells has handed me this story. I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!" (Gilman, p. 119).


This attitude prevailed in the years following the turn of the century as Boston continued to censor itself. Whereas before the Civil War, Boston had been recognized as the "chief center for the publication of literary works in the United States," due to the tireless efforts of ambitious and open-minded publishers like James T. Fields, it was now largely a cultural anachronism (Austin, p. 17). Progressivism was taking hold throughout America, but there was little that was progressive in Boston's literary outlook. Van Wyck Brooks points out that, in the years before the First World War, the "Watch and Ward Society" of Boston "prohibited sixty books that were generally accepted in the rest of the country." As a result "the phrase 'banned in Boston' [became] the novelist's dream of successful publicity, but Boston banned itself in excluding the world; and American writers generally now regarded it with a certain rancour as illiberal, sterile, indifferent, censorious and petty" (Brooks, p. 504).

There would be, however, occasional reminders of Boston's and Concord's liberal past. In August 1897 a brilliant young African American intellectual named W. E. B. Du Bois would make what his biographer considers his "national debut" in the Atlantic Monthly with an article titled "Strivings of the Negro People" (Lewis, p. 198). Boston and Concord, along with the rest of the country, would remember Emerson on the centenary of his birth. An elaborate memorial celebration was held in July 1903. Speakers at the event in Concord included the philosopher William James, the reformer Julia Ward Howe, and the future first president of the NAACP, Moorfield Storey. One of the last notable Boston publications of the period was Henry Adams's The Education of Henry Adams, issued by Houghton Mifflin in 1918. The following year the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Ironically, it is a work that describes the virtual uselessness of the old values of Concord, Boston, and Harvard in dealing with the complexities of the modern age. Like his New England predecessors, Adams was a searcher, but unlike them, he discovered no truth that could bring unity and meaning to the world. Consequently he describes his autobiography as a story that "has no moral and little incident" (p. 4). Boston, once the hub of America's literary universe, had finally become a center that would no longer hold.

See alsoThe Atlantic Monthly; Book Publishing; Genteel Tradition; Immigration; Libraries; Literary Friendships; Museums


Primary Works

Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. 1918. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. 1935. New York: Arno Press, 1972.

Howells, William Dean. "Criticism and Fiction." In Criticism and Fiction and Other Essays, edited by Clara Marburg Kirk and Rudolf Kirk, pp. 9–87. New York: New York University Press, 1959.

Howells, William Dean. Literary Friends and Acquaintance. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1900.

James, Henry. "The Art of Fiction." In The Art of Fiction and Other Essays, edited by Morris Roberts, pp. 3–23. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.

Secondary Works

Aaron, Daniel. "Literary Scenes and Literary Movements." In Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott, pp. 733–757. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Austin, James C. Fields of the Atlantic Monthly: Letters to an Editor, 1861–1870. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1953.

Brodhead, Richard. "Literature and Culture: 1865–1910." In Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott, pp. 467–481. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Brooks, Van Wyck. New England Indian Summer: 1865–1915. New York: Dutton, 1940.

Cady, Edwin H. Introduction to The Rise of Silas Lapham. Edited by Edwin H. Cady, pp. v–xviii. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

Emerson, Everett. Mark Twain: A Literary Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Falk, Robert. "The Rise of Realism: 1871–1891." In Transitions in American Literary History, edited by Harry Hayden Clark, pp. 381–442. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1960.

Gougeon, Len. "Holmes' Emerson and the Conservative Critique of Realism." South Atlantic Review 59, no. 1 (1994): 107–125.

Harding, Walter, ed. Henry David Thoreau: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1971.

Howe, M. A. De Wolfe. The Atlantic Monthly and Its Makers. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1909.

Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois. Vol. 1, Biography of a Race, 1868–1919. New York: Holt, 1993.

Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Lynn, Kenneth S. William Dean Howells: An American Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Rev. ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Scudder, Townsend. Concord: American Town. Boston: Little, Brown, 1947.

Sedgwick, Ellery. The Atlantic Monthly, 1857–1909: Yankee Humanism at High Tide and Ebb. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Thorp, Willard. American Writing in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Len Gougeon