Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Book of Boston
Return to the Previous Chapter
THE CITY OF HOLMES
HE authors of Boston seem to have been, in an altogether pleasant sense nomads even though they kept their nomadic activities within a very limited district. Although there is little in the life of Boston authors which in the ordinary sense could be termed moving, as they were a happy, fortunate, conventional folk, their lives were certainly moving in another sense, for moving is what they spent a great deal of time in doing. Three homes for Aldrich, at least three for Holmes – four, counting the beautiful early home now gone, in Cambridge, and five if the Berkshire home should be included; several different homes in Boston for the Alcotts, who even had three homes out in Concord between times; various homes for Parsons and for Palfrey, three for Motley, two for Parkman – thus the list goes on, and Prescott is almost the only one I think of who did not go moving about, and probably even he did some moving that I have never heard of. Even Mrs. Deland, Bostonian by adoption, has so readily adapted herself to Boston's literary way as already to have lived in at least three different Boston homes. It all reminds me of a most interesting little place that I came across in Europe, Neutral Moresnet, where the inhabitants make it almost a point of honor and certainly a point of duty to change their houses once a year.
On Walnut Street, facing down Chestnut, was the boyhood home of Motley, the historian, a house that has since been torn down; the best part of his life was spent in Europe, but he also loved his Boston, and a Chestnut Street house is pointed out, at 16, with a brass-knockered, brass-handled door, with a wonderful fanlight, designed in flowing lines, as a place where he lived for a time.
Chestnut Street is a neighborhood of very felicitous doorways and at 13, well up the slope of the street, is a charming house that was long ago one of the several successional homes of Julia Ward Howe. It has an unusually striking doorway, with four slim, prim white pillars, and is an individual sort of house as if to befit the strikingly individual woman who lived here. No one else, surely, in all literary history ever won acknowledged literary leadership through a long life by one single song plus personality! Mrs. Howe died a few years ago, but when Henry James came over to take his final look at this country to see that it really wasn't worth while and to shake its dust forever from his feet, she was still alive, and the two met at a reception, and a story was told me, by one who heard and witnessed the scene, of what took place at their meeting. Mrs. Howe had known him from his boyhood and he at once began to tell her with effusion of how he had thought and thought of her, so much and so often, while away, and of what a precious delight it now was to meet her again. But she must have had some doubt of his entire sincerity for, looking over her spectacles at him as she used to do when he was a boy, and speaking to him as if he were still a little boy, she melted his sugary pleasantries by saying, with gentle and very slow admonition and with an accented "me," "Don't lie to me, Henry."
Far down at 50 Chestnut Street, in a section. where the typical houses have three-part windows as the main. windows in their front, is the house where the historian Parkman lived and worked for twenty years. It is a house with exceedingly tall chimneys and a door deeply recessed within an arch, and is almost directly through from the house of the historian Prescott on the next street parallel, Beacon Street. And nothing could be more strange, than that both of these historians, whose homes were so near together, were so grievously troubled with their eyesight as to need specially made appliances, a sort of machine or frame, to enable them to read and write at all; each gave a superb example of working under almost insuperably depressing difficulties; and that they were both historians, both Americans, both of them dwellers on Beacon Hill for many years adds to the strangeness of it.
Out in front of the State House, at the corner of Beacon Street and Park Street, stood the beautiful home of the man who used so to represent Boston in the public eye that it was playfully suggested that the city be called Ticknorville. Here stood the home of George Ticknor. In a sense, the house still stands here, but it has been so altered in fitting it up for business and offices, for antique dealers and decorators and lawyers, that one's first impression is that it has quite vanished and that another building stands in its place. But even yet one-half of the distinguished horseshoe stair still remains, leading up to the front door, and although the fine original door has been replaced by a window, part of the old portico is still in place, surmounted by some exquisite old ironwork which is among the very finest bits of old ironwork in Boston. The marble hall of which Hawthorne writes and in which so many distinguished visitors were received, has gone, and the stairs have been altered and new-banistered, and it is now hard to imagine the old-time glory of the place, although the great height of the ceilings gives an impression of spaciousness and dignity.
For many years Ticknor lived here, pleasantly varying his life with lengthy trips to Europe for travel and study. He had married the daughter of an extremely wealthy merchant, and this made life sufficiently easy for him to spend years and years in producing an agreeable and scholarly history of Spanish literature. Even yet, a Bostonian writing or speaking of the old house and its old-time glory, is likely to refer to it as "her" house, and to mention "her" hospitality and even, incredible though it seems, "her" library! Ticknor must have been a most likable man, for so many likable men liked him so very much indeed, and he was deemed an immensely distinguished man, yet he stands as a striking example of great fame in one generation and practical oblivion in the next.
And how impressively all of those old-time American writers loomed! And how neglected are most of their works to-day! And yet individual remembrance or forgetfulness is not the only test. As a class, or group, they brilliantly made the beginnings of our national literature, they showed that American writers could mark out paths of beauty and learning, they made it clear that American writers could be men of imagination and poetical power. That most of them are now unread is neither discredit nor criticism. In England there has been the same forgetting of men once famous, for of the English authors of the past only a few of the preeminent are read, and the many others who meant so very, very much in their day, are but names and vague memories. But that does not mean, either in England or in America, that the now forgotten writers of the past were not excellent and noteworthy writers, for numbers of them were very excellent and noteworthy indeed, and their combined influence is a powerful and still-continuing force.
It is pleasant to realize that this old section is notable for its connection with other art as well as that of literature; in its architecture it is agreeably distinguished, and it has a pleasant association with the best paintings, for I remember that in looking over a list of those who, a few years ago, were the owners of Gilbert Stuart's works, I noticed that quite a proportion were still in the possession of residents of Beacon Hill; which is just as it ought to be.
Not only is the entire hill, regarding it as a whole, a highly successful example of domestic architecture, whether the houses are considered singly or in mass, but there are individual houses notably worthy of attention. For example, at 85 Mount Vernon Street, is an especially attractive Bulfinch house of a design not usual with that unusual man, and he built it thus differently in order to match an unusually broad frontage of building space and to harmonize with an unusual depth of long and high retaining wall in front. It is a big square-fronted house, one of the largest homes of the entire neighborhood, with its entrance door not on the front of the house at all but on one side, and with its front beautifully balanced with overarched windows, with separate little balconies, with Corinthian pilasters; and it has a great octagonal lantern on the roof. In addition to all else of dignity and fineness there is the excellent feature of continuing back to the wall of the courtyard, completing a design that is architecturally an adjunct. But the house is now all gray, in one dull monotone, and it is really necessary to picture it in the beauty of its original design of red brick and white pilasters and black iron to see it as it ought to be seen.
Doorway of Prescott's Home on Beacon Street
Of all the writers who by their combined influence gave the Boston of the past its high literary distinction none was so important as Oliver Wendell Holmes. Not that he need necessarily be considered the greatest among them, although in his particular line he was supreme, but that he so stood for Boston, so represented Boston, so interpreted Boston, so gave the city definite form out of vaguely general imaginings, so placed it before the world, as to make himself its definite exemplar.
Boston is the City of Holmes, and he himself was Boston epitomized. He was in himself a human abridgment of Boston, an abstract of the city that he so loved. He was the best of Boston concentrated into one human form, and he was a writer of whom any city in the world might be proud. To read his "Autocrat" is an intellectual aesthetic delight. Seldom has there been a man so clear-sighted, and at the same time so cleverly able to put his clear-sightedness into such delightful literary form, Montaigne would have loved him. Lamb, who died when the career of Holmes was just beginning, would have called him brother.
Over in King's Chapel, where Holmes had a pew in the gallery during most of his long life, there is a tablet to his memory. He is not buried there, but his friends very properly wished him to be commemorated in that old-time building of Boston; only, the tablet is really entertaining, although that is the last word that would usually be thought of in regard to any cenotaph, for it begins its description of Holmes with the words "Teacher of Anatomy," letting "Essayist and Poet" follow!
Curious, you see, the order of precedence. No admirer of Holmes, outside of Boston, would ever have thought of his fame as an essayist being second to anything else, least of all as being second to his fame as an anatomical teacher. He was, doubtless, an excellent surgeon, and being of an original bent of mind he put his originality into all he did, and long ago some of his surgical or medical opinions led some one of the Teutonic name of Neidhard to write a book attacking them, and another controversial anti-Holmes book came from the equally Teutonic-named Wesselhoeft, but these men and their books are themselves no more forgotten than is the fame of Holmes himself as a surgeon.
And yet, at a dinner in honor of Holmes, on his seventieth birthday, when friends and admirers gathered from various cities, President Eliot of Harvard arose, after there had been. general felicitation of Holmes as a man of letters, and said: "It seems to me my duty to remind all these poets, essayists and storytellers that the main work of our friend's life has been of an altogether different nature. I know him as the professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard for the last thirty-two years. You think it is the pen with which Doctor Holmes is chiefly skillful. I assure you he is equally skillful with the scalpel."
That is delightfully remindful of the meeting of Voltaire and Congreve, when Voltaire expressed his pleasure at meeting so distinguished a literary man, and Congreve stiffly replied that it was not as a literary man but as a gentleman that he wished to be considered, whereupon Voltaire promptly replied that he did not need to come so far to find a gentleman. Holmes must have thought of that, though as guest of honor he could not speak of it! He knew perfectly well that these admirers had not come there to find a surgeon. And he must have remembered, with glee that was tempered with chagrin, that although Harvard had long honored him as an M.D., Boston in general had refused to take him seriously, as a doctor, after he had jokingly let it be known that "fevers would be thankfully received."
Of all Boston writers it would be expected that Oliver Wendell Holmes would choose the finest and most attractive house to live in, and this not alone because of his being a man of such ability but because he so loved the fine things connected with the fine old times, and because his own life began in a house that was a most charming example of old architecture. I well remember the house where he was born; it was over in old Cambridge, close to the Common, but it has been destroyed for some reason, and the spot stands empty; I well remember what a fine old pre-Revolutionary house it was, picturesque in the highest degree, the kind of house that delights the imagination, low-set, homelike, yellow and gambrel-roofed; but he has written of it himself:
The ideals of Holmes were all of the olden-time. He stood, as he frankly said, for the man who could show family portraits rather than twenty-five cent daguerreotypes, for the man who inherits family traditions and the cumulative humanities of at least four or five generations; and among these cumulative humanities one would have expected Holmes, of all men, to rank high the possession of an old-time house, rich in the feelings and traditions of the past. But after living through his early years in a house that was a thing of beauty, Holmes did not find it a joy forever to continue to live in a fine house, but chose instead to live in commonplace houses! Nor, after writing as he did of the striking down of thousands of roots into one's own home, did he settle down in any one house for a lifetime! The trouble was that, all unconsciously, he was in this regard not living- up to his own ideals. His ideals led him toward the old and beautiful, the things connected with ancestry and the past; but with old houses it seems to have been with him as it was with old furniture; he writes apologetically, somewhere or other, of loving old-time furniture but of keeping it practically hidden in some out-of-the-way room, and he seems to have felt the same perverse desire to keep from showing any outward love for old houses. He chose a home for himself, not even on Beacon Hill, although close beside it; he chose to live in Bosworth Street, then called Montgomery Place, a court leading off Tremont Street opposite the Old Granary Burying Ground, and ending in a few stone steps, arched with a wrought iron design, leading down to an alley which borders where once stood the ancient Province House and where antiquarians still point out what they say is a fragment of the Province House foundation wall. All this region was long ago given up to business, but where Holmes lived is still pointed out at the farthest left-hand, next to the corner of the court, and it was never an attractive place, and the next door house, still standing, is positively commonplace. Still, with a curious perversity, he lived here for almost twenty years, and here wrote almost all of his remarkable "Autocrat." It was a well-to-do neighborhood, and perhaps even wealthy, but it missed being distinguished.
But Holmes finally tired of the house and died out of it. I use his own words to express his moving away from it: for, as he writes, after referring to his having lived in this very house for years and years, and then leaving it, people die out of their houses just as they die out of their bodies. He and his family, he narrates, had no great sorrows or troubles there, such as came to their neighbors, but on the whole had a pleasant time, but "Men sicken of houses until at last they quit them," as he goes on to say.
Whereupon one feels sure that this splendid Autocrat would surely, the next time, choose a home in which he could feel pride. But, no! He went to the Charles Street house, which was a house as commonplace as the one he left. Here, however, he had the water immediately behind the house, with its sunset glows and the distant hills. Still restless, he moved again, and this last time to the house in which at a mellow age he died, at 296 Beacon Street: not the Beacon Hill district, but in the Back Bay extension of Beacon Street. Again he had chosen a house with back-view on the waterfront, but, still perverse on this subject of homes, he had again chosen an undistinguished home and undistinguished environment, although it was a house and a neighborhood of well-to-do but monotonous comfort.
One naturally wonders whether, had he chosen a home more fitting to his ideals, he would not have left behind him more than the single superlative book he did leave. But as that single book is really in the very first class, of its kind, perhaps it was all for the best, after all.
One likes to think, and I am sure it is more than a mere fancy, that the influence of that beautiful house in Cambridge, the birthplace of Holmes, extended in at least a considerable degree over his entire life, and it assuredly had much to do with making him a finely patriotic man, devoted to the best Americanism. For there was much more to that house than age and gambrel-roof and beauty; there was association with the most heroic deeds of our American past; for that very house was headquarters of the Committee of Safety, and the American soldiers who were to fight at Bunker Hill lined up in front of that very house before making their night march to the battlefield, and stood with bared heads while the President of Harvard College, standing on the front steps of the house, prayed for the success of the American arms.
Those associations thrilled Holmes throughout his life, for even in the house where he died, far down among the houses of the Back Bay, one likes to remember that, looking from his windows, the thing which most of all impressed him was (a fact of Boston geography surprising even to many a well-informed Bostonian) that from those windows he was able to see Bunker Hill Monument.