Literary Boroughs #54: Boston, MA (Part 1)

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The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the fifty-fourth and final post on our hometown, Boston, Massachusetts, by the entire Ploughshares staff. Part One of this post will run today; Part Two will run later in the week; and, also later this week, look out for a bonus Boston Literary Borough walking tour by Emerson professor Megan Marshall. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

When Boston was first settled back in the 1630s, it wasn’t much more than three hills on a tiny peninsula—Sentry Hill, Cotton Hill, and the charmingly (and aptly) named Mt. Whoredom. These three hills gave the city its original name, Trimountaine, but all that’s left of them these days is Sentry Hill (now Beacon Hill), and the street running along the east edge of the Common that takes its name from the original settlement’s: Tremont.

The other two hills, along the way, were leveled to make way for residential development, and to provide part of the landfill that now makes up the Back Bay. Indeed, thanks to aggressive land reclamation, by 1890 Boston had tripled in size. Walk down to the Charles Street edge of the Common and you’ll be standing on what was once the Boston waterfront; cross over to the Public Gardens and you’re being supported, in some small part, by the earth that was once Mt. Whoredom.

Along the way, Boston was also the setting for a few historical events you’ve probably heard of—the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Battle of Bunker Hill—and a few you probably haven’t: the first subway in North America, the Boston Molasses Disaster, and the Cocoanut Grove Fire. It’s also home to the largest highway project in the history of the United States, the Big Dig, which took a little over fifteen years and an estimated $22 billion to complete.

Today, Boston is a world-class city—no matter what those snooty New Yorkers say—and one of the warmest (figuratively) and most welcoming places to live in the whole country. The city’s charm lies not just in its sense of history, its rabid sports fans, or its quirky neighbors in Cambridge and Somerville and Southie, but in the rich feeling of closeness and community that runs right around the I-95 loop. It is, above all, a city that we at Ploughshares are very proud to call our home.

What the City Is Known For

Fenway Pahk and that team that plays there (plus the Gahden and Foxboro, of course); the Big Dig; Hahvahd/MIT/B.U./B.C./ Nohtheastehn, and all the rest…; Sam Adams, Paul Reveeah, John Hancock, and all the rest…; the Kennedys; DUNKIN’; the Boston Tea Pahty; Ben Affleck; Filene’s; the Boston Pops; the Dropkick Murphys; the Freedom Trail; Cheeeahs; the Citgo sign; landfill; Boston Creme Pie; biotech stahtups; the Boston Marathon. Oh, and did we mention the wicked strong accent?

Resident writers:

It seems almost silly to begin this list, since it effectively never ends (for a truly comprehensive exploration, check out Imagining Boston). In the meantime we’re sure to upset people who we forget to mention. Still, we might as well point out that the following writers have all, at one point, lived in Boston and the surrounding areas (in alphabetical order):

Horatio Alger, Isaac Asimov, Elizabeth Bishop, William Stanley Braithwaite, Sam Cornish (Boston’s current Poet Laureate), e.e. cummings, Andre Dubus (II & III), Dave Eggers, Edward Gorey, Gish Jen, Jack Kerouac, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert McCloskey, Susan Orlean, Tom Perrotta, Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Sexton, John Updike, Dorothy West, Edith Wharton—plus all the other famous ones we cover in…

Literary References

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is set in Puritan-era Boston, and a ride on the Commuter Rail to Salem will take you to his The House of Seven Gables. Hop on the train to Concord (Fitchburg line) and you can see the recreation of Thoreau’s cabin, immortalized in Walden; the Alcotts’ house, immortalized in Little Women; and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, which is not immortalized at all in his essays. Much of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar also takes place in Boston; ditto Henry James’s classic The Bostonians and William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham. Malcolm X also grew up in Roxbury, and his house there has just been added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

One can’t ignore a certain university in Cambridge, of course, which has made its appearance in many books over the years, from Harold Brodkey’s stories and Matthew Pearl’s literary mystery The Dante Club to John Kenneth Galbraith’s A Tenured Professor (a title that could perhaps apply to a few too many local novels). W. E. B. Du Bois, born in Western Massachusetts, was the first African American to earn a doctorate there.

More recently, Jhumpa Lahiri has made her name with a novel, The Namesake, and two collections of short stories, many of which take place in Cambridge and the surrounding areas—as do many of the stories in Junot Díaz’s recent collection and Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which was just made into a movie. Large portions of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest are also, of course, set in Boston (the connections are comprehensively documented at Infinite Boston), and DFW’s best buddy Jonathan Franzen also set his second novel, Strong Motion, in Boston, Somerville, and beyond.

But perhaps no one has gotten Boston more attention in recent years—both on film and in print—than Dennis Lehane, whose novels are all set in or around Boston, including Mystic River, Shutter Island, and his most recent, The Given Day, set in the early 20th century. In a similar vein, Robert Parker’s crime novels—most famously the Spenser series—have also brought a great deal of attention to Boston. Michael Patrick McDonald‘s All Souls is a great memoir about growing up in Southie (and a good antidote to the usual stereotypes).

Finally, we shouldn’t forget the poets. Robert Frost lived for a few years in Beacon Hill, and a plaque commemorates his presence; Robert Lowell wrote beautiful poems about the Boston Public Garden and the Robert Gould Shaw memorial (“For the Union Dead”); Elizabeth Bishop lived in Cambridge near the end of her life, and also grew up in Worcester, not too far away, which is featured in the “In the Village,” about her mother’s madness, and “In the Waiting Room,” about accompanying her aunt to a dentist’s appointment.

We can end with the beloved ducks of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, who are now cast in bronze and strutting along the Public Garden, normally being ridden by a line of excited toddlers.

Where to Learn

Ploughshares founding editor DeWitt Henry puts it pretty succinctly: “[Boston’s] various writing programs are literary congregations: Emerson, BU, and Lesley with grad programs and faculty; and Emerson, Harvard, BU, BC MIT, Brandeis, Tufts, Suffolk, Wheaton, Wellesley, and Bradford with undergraduate programs and faculty. Also, most of these programs sponsor public readings and have literary magazines.”

Beyond university writing programs, Boston is also blessed with the second largest independent center for creative writing in the United States—Grub Street. Perched in a literary spider’s nest—the tiny upper corner of an old office building overlooking the Boston Common—Grub Street was founded in 1997 and today offers aspiring writers everything from one-night seminars to year-long novel “incubators.” They also throw great parties.

And no matter your age, you can find help learning to write at 826 Boston (6- to 18-year-olds), which is actually in Roxbury but easy to get to (Orange Line) and well worth the visit; at the Boston Center for Adult Education (ages 18+), which is right downtown, and features classes in everything from feature writing to short stories to blogs; or at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, close to Harvard Square, (Red Line) where in addition to writing classes, you can learn to waltz, play the ukulele, and master the art of French cooking (they have a huge catalog).

Where to Get Published

Let’s call them the Big Six:

AGNI, founded at Antioch College in 1972 and published at Boston University since 1987, printed the first published excerpt of Susanna Kaysen’s Girl Interrupted, and has also filled its pages, over the years, with Jhumpa Lahiri, Seamus Heaney, and (now editor) Sven Birkerts. They’re also locked in an informal but vicious battle with Ploughshares for the most O. Henry/Pushcart/Best American prizes to their name. We won’t brag about who’s winning.

Boston Review is an independent magazine edited by Deborah Chassman and Joshua Cohen (you may also have heard of their fiction editor, a fellow called Junot Díaz), and publishes writing on a little bit of everything—including politics, poetry, film, fiction, book reviews, and criticism. They have a mission based on exactly the sort of lefty ideology your father warned you about when you moved to Boston, and they are fiercely proud of it.

Harvard Review was founded in the Harvard Library in the 1980s, by a man with the unlikely name of Stratis Haviaras (former Ploughshares guest editor), and has since published writing by Arthur Miller, Joyce Carol Oates, Jorie Graham, John Updike, John Ashbery, Alice Hoffman, and Gore Vidal. Seamus Heaney turned up here, too, in its inaugural issue—then called Erato.

Salamander, founded as an independent and now affiliated with Suffolk University (the other college on the Common), will be celebrating its twentieth birthday at AWP this year. Stop by for wine, hors d’oeuvres, and to compliment them on all the wonderful poetry and prose they’ve published over the last two decades.

Post Road is Boston College’s official contribution to the city’s lit mag scene, though it was previously housed at Lesley and, before that, floated around as an independent. It’s widely praised as the edgy, more experimental publication of the bunch, though the Phoenix kindly noted that it’s not “edgy for the sake of edginess.” It’s named for the old mail route between Boston and New York, where the journal also has roots.

…and, of course, there’s Ploughshares. No introduction necessary.

Beyond those big six, of course, there are also approximately three zillion other journals, zines, alt weeklies, blogs and more where you can get your writing published. Among the most notable: Redivider (also at Emerson College), The Phoenix (formerly the Boston Phoenix), Fringe, Constellations, Night Train (alas, recently stopped publishing) and, according to Ploughshares senior poetry reader Wes Rothman, Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

Where to Find Reading Material

Since we imagine (and hope!) that many of you will be visiting Boston for AWP next week, we’ve arranged our bookstore overview in terms of distance from the conference’s base at Hynes Convention Center. The list, to use our standard caveat, is by no means exhaustive…

So, your first port of call is Trident Booksellers and Café on Newbury Street (map), which has “the largest cappuccinos I’ve yet to come across,” according to our editorial intern Ellen Duffer. It also serves great food, though of course what you should really go for are the books—often discounted on the front table—and the large selection of magazines and periodicals. It’s a cramped space, and the café seems to grow larger every week, but boy do they pack a lot in!

Next up is Raven Used Books, also on Newbury Street (map). Our marketing assistant Mimi Cook says: “It’s a little pricey, but if you’re looking for a nice used version of something, this is the place to hit up. Their books are pristine and their tiny shop is lovely.” They also have a location in Harvard Square—of which more, later.

After Raven, breeze past the Ploughshares offices on Emerson’s campus, and make your way to the formidable Brattle Book Shop, tucked onto West Street off the Common (map). The store’s interior is massive and piled floor to ceiling, but the real prize—on days when it isn’t raining or freezing—is the outdoor book stalls in the lot next to the store. Here you can find beautiful old books, dating back a few years or sometimes to the Victoria era, for $5, $3, and $1. Everything is on carts, from beautiful hardcovers of classics to obscure volumes that have long since fallen out of print. Don’t expect to find an item that you’re looking for, but do expect to make several entirely unsought discoveries. There’s no better place to feel the wonder and variety and sheer size of the global literary project, and to come home loaded down with far too many pages.

Commonwealth Books, where our blog editor Andrew Ladd fondly spent his freshman year browsing through the outdoor $1-5 used book racks, has sadly moved from its original location on Boylston Street—but you can still visit its amazing selection of rare and used books, plus wonderful old prints, at its two stores in Downtown Crossing, just a hop skip and a jump from Brattle (map and map).

Now you’re going to have to get a little braver: get on the Red Line (you can walk to Park Street, or take the Green Line there from Hynes) and make your way to Cambridge. In Central Square, Rodney’s Books narrowly escaped closure in 2010, thanks to an understanding landlord and a wildly successful Going Out of Business sale. In addition to its wide selection of books, you can also buy shelves to put them on and posters to hang above them (map). Across the street, Seven Stars specializes in books about spirituality (map). Both are right next to the Central subway station.

One stop further down the Red Line, though, in Harvard Square, is where you really hit the bookstore jackpot. Here’s our fiction editor, Margot Livesey, on one of the square’s most beloved literary residents: “In search of both the past and the present I go to Harvard Bookstore, which is brimming with new novels and brainy books of all kinds. Given that the shop has been in business since 1932, I like to think that Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and all manner of writers, past and present, have browsed these shelves. If you can’t find what you want they have a print on demand machine and an excellent secondhand department.”

Just around the corner from Harvard Bookstore, visitors “should not miss a chance to get to the Grolier Poetry Bookshop,” says our poetry editor, John Skoyles. (map) “The shop contains only books of poetry, poetry magazines and poetry criticism. It’s a tiny place, about 400 square feet, with an intimate atmosphere. This year it celebrates its 85th anniversary. Robert Creeley has said: ‘Poetry is our final human language and resource. The Grolier is where poetry still lives, still talks, still makes the only sense that ever matters.’”

In the back streets around Harvard you’ll also find Raven Used Book’s second location, as well as the Globe Corner, which specializes in maps and travel writing, and the really superb foreign-language bookstore Schoenhof’s. Our blog editor somewhat abashedly reports that his father, who lives in Scotland, makes a point of traveling to Schoenhof’s whenever he’s even vaguely in the New England area, and it really is that good—not just for literature and academic writing, but for kids’ books, too. If you want a foreign language Tintin, an original French Asterix, or Harry Potter in pretty much any language you can think of—including Hebrew, Serbian Cyrillic, Korean, and Czech—Schoenhof’s is the place for you. They have particularly enormous sections in French and Spanish, with shelves of classics and new books.

It seems dirty to recommend what is essentially a glorified Barnes & Noble, but smack in the middle of Harvard Square is the Harvard Coop, and you’d honestly be silly not to stick your head inside. Beyond the floors and floors and floors of books, plus kitschy Ivy League merchandise, you’ll likely spot students making out in the Freud section (*N.B.: we really did witness this once), tourists lining up to use the bathroom, and, in the café, a selection of magazines and periodicals rivaled only by Out of Town News, the newsstand across the street, which has selections from around the world.

If you’re not exhausted after all that, take the Red Line one more stop to Porter Square, and visit the eponymous Porter Square Books. This bookstore has perhaps the most devoted following of any indie in town—like our senior fiction reader, David Goldstein, who sent us so many hundreds of words gushing about PSB that we had to edit it down to just this: “After I asked for the new David Foster Wallace biography, the guy behind the counter told me how much he was looking forward to reading the book too. We then talked about Infinite Jest for 10 minutes. When I went to pick up the book a few days later, there was another guy behind the counter, and I had a similar conversation with him. The folks at this bookstore really love books.” (map)

Finally, get yourself back to Harvard Square and hop on the infamous #66 bus to Coolidge Corner and Brookline Booksmith. They have new books upstairs, used books downstairs, and a constant stream of readings and author events—if an author is touring in Boston, they are pretty much guaranteed to be at the Booksmith. Though they probably don’t take the #66 there. Further afield, our founding editor DeWitt Henry also recommends Newtonville Books, in Newtonville, and My Back Pages, in Waltham.

Check back later this week for Part Two of this post!