It’s a long-standing joke among Boston-area residents that we never visit the usual tourist sites except when family or friends come to visit. For a couple years in grad school, for instance, I lived in Beacon Hill, but I never set foot in the Hampshire House, the bar whose façade appeared in exterior shots of the TV show “Cheers.” As a resident, I walked by the Hampshire House countless times, but going inside was something only tourists did. It became a perverse point of pride that I could live a few blocks away from a celebrated spot without rubbernecking or gawking: there’s nothing to see here, folks, so move along.
This past week, we’ve had family visiting from out of state, so I’ve set aside some of this long-standing residential snobbery. Although none of our visitors wanted to see “Cheers,” we did pass the familiar exterior of the Hampshire House on a tourist trolley we took around town, and J and I finally had reason to visit various landmarks we’ve often passed without fully exploring.
Before this week, for instance, I’d often passed by the Old North Church in Boston’s North End, but I’d never set foot inside…and although I spent several hungry years in grad school working a retail job at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, I’d never before this week set foot in Faneuil Hall’s impressive Great Hall.
Before this week, I’d often walked along Boston Harbor, but I’d never taken a “Spirit of Boston” lunch cruise, nor had I ever tossed tea aboard one of the harbor’s replica Tea Party ships.
And for all the times I’ve been to Concord to visit Walden Pond and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, I’d never seen the inside of the Old Manse, where Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Nature and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Mosses from an Old Manse at a desk built by Henry David Thoreau…
…nor had I ever toured the Orchard House, where both Bronson and Louisa May Alcott lived and where Louisa May wrote Little Women.
The greater Boston area offers an embarrassment of riches if you’re interested in history, literature, or the arts: where else, for instance, can you stroll from a house where both Emerson and Hawthorne lived (and where Thoreau dug the garden as a wedding gift to Hawthorne and his bride, Sophia Peabody) to cross the bridge where the Revolutionary “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired?
As we toured Boston and Concord with our relatives this past week, J and I marveled at how much has happened in the general vicinity we call home. At times, it seems like everyone in colonial and 19th century New England knew and was influenced by one another. On the morning after Paul Revere’s famous ride, for instance, Rev. William Emerson, Senior (Ralph Waldo’s grandfather) stood in his farm fields watching the battle at the North Bridge while his young son watched the fight from the window of the Old Manse…
…and when an unknown Concord boy named Daniel Chester French expressed a desire to become a sculptor, he received encouragement from May Alcott–Bronson Alcott’s daughter, and sister to Louisa May–and grew up to sculpt not only the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, but also the Minute Man who stands at the foot of the Old North Bridge in Concord.
“People want to know what’s in the water here,” our guide at the Orchard House remarked, given how many significant historical and literary events happened in the region.
It does seem like something magical must have happened in colonial Boston and 19th century Concord to inspire so many great historic and literary deeds…and yet modern-day Bostonians’ reluctance to check out these sites points to the way history still happens here. For as thrilling as it is to stand in the room where Emerson and Hawthorne wrote or to admire flowers in a garden Thoreau planted, at the end of the day we each have our own proverbial row to hoe. If something great happened in that house, then, why can’t something equally impressive happen in this house, today?
The title from today’s post is borrowed from a chapter of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, where she suggests that writers should scour their surroundings for noteworthy details, just as tourists voraciously see the sights. It’s a title I used for a post several years ago when J and I toured the USS Constitution, which we re-visited with family this week: what goes around comes around.