Exploring Boston’s Literary District was a dream come true when I returned to Boston for my “Now Vaccinated!” vaca from Washington DC. As an English major in college, I was always obsessed with 19th-century female novelists. They blazed the way for women to have careers in a time when most occupations were prohibited. And they permanently saved a record for the modern-day reader about their lives.
As a young girl, I must have read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women about a dozen times. Their seemingly idyllic home kept the four sisters united through every trial—the Civil War, poverty, and finally sister Beth’s premature death. My whirlwind literary tour followed my trek on Boston’s Freedom Trail. So there wasn’t any question that I would explore Boston’s literary district by hunting down the Boston home of Louisa May Alcott. (I also saw the Bar Harbor home of mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart during my vacation in Maine.)
Louisa May Alcott’s Home
My friend Irma agreed to a twilight walk in Beacon Hill, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Boston. Using my map, I was able to locate Alcott’s home at 10 Louisburg Square in the heart of Boston’s literary district. Now a private residence, the house can only be viewed standing on the sidewalk.
Alcott’s Greek Revival home was built in 1880. This dowager stands like an introvert on a leafy quiet square in Beacon Hill. It is just one of the jewels studding the necklace of Boston’s literary district.
I wish I could wander its hallways. I can imagine Alcott writing late into the night. She lived in this house for six years until she died in 1888. Sadly, her work as a nurse in the Civil War resulted in her early death due to the effects of mercury poisoning. She is considered one of the most successful female U.S. writers. Little Women has never been out of print. An estimated 1.8 million copies have been published since its debut in 1869.
“It is doubtful whether any novel has been more important to America’s female writers than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women …”The New Yorker
Amos Branson Alcott’s Home
Reformer and educator Amos Branson Alcott was the father of Louisa May Alcott. In fact, just like in the novel Little Women, the Alcott family consisted of four daughters (Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May). But Branson was an unreliable breadwinner who often had to beg friends for money. The Alcott family lived temporarily at 20 Pinckney Street until they were evicted.
While certainly not as famous as his daughter, Branson was one of the leaders of the Transcendentalist movement in the 1800s. He was one of the founders of Fruitlands, a Utopian society in Massachusetts.
Alcott’s temporary Boston home was located at 20 Pinckney Street. She lived here when she was 20 years old. Many fans make the pilgrimage to Beacon Hill to see the residences where their beloved childhood writer lived.
Just down the street, you can view the residence of Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables, at 54 Pinckney Street. He resided at this house from January 1839 to October 1840.
Henry David Thoreau’s Home
Although we tend to think of Henry David Thoreau as the original poster child for the Back to Nature movement in the 19th century, he actually only lived on Walden Pond for one year. His family ran a successful business. He temporarily lived at 4 Pinckney Street. Thoreau was an iconoclast—abolitionist, naturalist, philosopher, and author. He wrote his essay “Civil Disobedience” while living at this Boston residence from 1821-1823. Seeing his home is also required when exploring Boston’s literary district.
Charles Sumner’s Childhood Home
Although most famous as the abolitionist U.S. senator representing Massachusetts in the 1850s, Charles Sumner was also a writer and lawyer. He was nearly killed by a fellow legislator on May 22, 1856. South Carolina Democratic congressman Preston Brooks attacked him in his office with a cane. His birthplace can be seen at Irving Street.
Robert Lowell’s Birthplace
Finally skip forward to the 20th century and you will find numerous poets, novelists, and YA writers also lived on Beacon Hill.
Lowell’s home is located at 91 Revere Street. He wrote Life Studies, a book of poetry. His Bostonian family could trace its origins back to the Mayflower. In “91 Revere Street,” a 40-page essay, Lowell focused on his troubled childhood and the struggles between his parents.
“It’s a challenge to read; your mind keeps asking: why, why, why, am I reading about Lowell’s tribulations in grade school.”The Poetry Foundation
Other 20th Century Writers’ Homes
Boston Magazine did a feature entitled “Five Famous Authors Who Lived in Beacon Hill.” As well as the authors listed in this article, BM’s list included Sylvia Plath (9 Willow Street) and Robert Frost (88 Mount Vernon Street).
“Bricks and cobblestones seem to inspire the pen.”Madeline Bilis
Plath resided in this apartment with her husband (poet Ted Hughes). It overlooks Acorn Street, considered one of Boston’s most quaint alleyways.
Beacon Hill Tour
Although I did not take the public tour of Beacon Hill, I can highly recommend a walking tour to learn more about this historic neighborhood. Boston by Foot offers a Hub of Literary America tour. Their guide Sally has been giving this tour since it was first introduced 30+ years ago. This tour explains Beacon Hill’s literary significance.
“Since Boston’s English Puritan founding in 1630, a heavy emphasis was placed on everyone learning to read and write, mainly so they could read the Bible. By about the mid-1800s, though, books had become part of the general culture, such that literature was no longer just religious writings and nonfiction, for example, histories and biographies. Literature was developing into what we know as a fine art. It culminated in Boston and on Beacon Hill through about 1890 due largely to the presence of those authors who would produce a golden age of American literature, led by the philosopher and intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson. They were joined by men of business, like James T. Fields, who saw a bright future for American publishing, and, above all, by readers who were cultivated and highly appreciative of the writers and their writing,” she explained.
Boston by Foot also offers a Beacon Hill evening tour through its picturesque hilly streets. The tour highlights examples of early American architecture. Many homes were designed by architect Charles Bulfinch—“Experience Beacon Hill’s ornate past, from its rural beginnings to the vision of the Mount Vernon Proprietors, while walking among this historic collection of Federal and Greek Revival row houses.”
It is believed that Bulfinch designed at least three houses on Chestnut street at #13, #15 and #17. According to the plaque, Mrs. Hepsibah Swan, an original Mt. Vernon proprietor, had these homes built for her daughters before 1810.
African American Writers
I highly recommend the Boston Literary District website. It lists dozens of scribes who Boston can claim as their own as well as where readings, conferences, and other literary gatherings occur. Although the map of writers’ residences is currently malfunctioning, the website does list the home addresses to visit when exploring Boston’s literary district.
I highly recommend their current African American history tour. Famous Black writers include Lewis Hayden, William Cooper Nell, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Susan Paul, Maria Stewart, and David Walker.
“You can take part in their remarkable stories by visiting Boston’s Black Heritage Trail®, as well as these sites in the Boston Literary District.”Boston Literary District
There are so many prominent Boston citizens who have called Beacon Hill home but I was the most fascinated by its literary heroes. Exploring Boston’s literary district is a must for any English major. Imagine visiting a place where they slaved away in their upper-level bedroom or attic writing their masterpieces. I found it transcendent.
“I want to do something splendid . . . something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten when I am dead.”Jo March (Little Women)
You succeeded Louisa May Alcott. Although you only wrote Little Women to help your family’s financial plight, you found a way to delight as well as “astonish you all someday.” Thank you.