The Case for Boston (Context City of Literature 2011)

The search for Context’s City of Literature heads back over the Atlantic now, as docent Alex Goldfeld brings us the case for Boston.

The first Bostonians were not concerned as much with literature as with literacy.  Massachusetts passed the country’s first laws requiring public education in the 1640s, and three of the schools they established, all over 365 years old, are educating children in the city of Boston today.  In neighboring Cambridge, the first printing press in the English colonies was established in 1638, just two years after the creation of what is now the international grande dame of higher education: Harvard University.  Ever focused on religion and the expansion and survival of their own way of life, the Puritans did not leave behind a rich body of literature, but rather the standard of an educated citizenry.

Cotton Mather, whose father established the first printing press in Boston in 1674, published over 400 sermons, pamphlets, and books in his lifetime. His 1702 ecclesiastical history of New England, Magnalia Christi Americana, provides the reader with tales and biographies of the events and people who were in their own ways founders of this country.  Most importantly, however, the Magnalia encapsulated and enshrined the idea that the Puritans were on a unique and holy errand in the American wilderness.  This theme became very important for the new American literature of the 1800s.

Hawthorne, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Thoreau, Whitman, and Alcott are the writers and poets from Boston’s peak as a cultural and literary center in the nineteenth century.  Each is known to us simply by their surnames, and they helped to establish a new American literature along with other familiar persons such as Margaret Fuller, Lydia Maria Child, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Frederick Douglass.

One of the major themes of their writing was the founding of America itself, though through a romantic filter, and not always in a flattering light.  Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish was set in the earliest days of the Plymouth Colony, while Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter used the young Puritan town of Boston for inspiration.  Of course, Longfellow’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere is one of the best-known poems about the American Revolution, and it has ensured that the legend of Revere will not be forgotten.

The rugged frontier and the indigenous people of America also became popular subjects, bringing with them the notions of individuality and nonconformity, and living more in concert with nature, as in Emerson’s Self-Reliance, Thoreau’s Walden, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  Another type of writing centered on self-sufficiency and the quest for freedom also took center stage during this time: the writings of African Americans.

Personal narratives of time spent in slavery, such as the best-selling Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, humanized African Americans and personalized their plight for white Northerners, thus strengthening the abolitionist movement. Since the 1773 publication of Phyllis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Boston had also been a place for different types of literature from African Americans.  Boston’s Susan Paul wrote the first biography by and about an African American, Memoir of James Jackson.  The first African-American historian to write about black veterans of the Revolution and the War of 1812 was William Cooper Nell, a native Bostonian.

From printing the first English book in America to establishing a uniquely American style of writing, Boston has produced and nourished, along with Cambridge, Concord, Salem, and other nearby communities, many of the giants of American poetry and prose. — Alex Goldfeld