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Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickenson, Robert Frost...all the way to Robert Parker.

 

New England has always been famous for its poets, writers and authors.

From the Puritan sermons and devotional writings of Increase Mather (1639-1723) and his son Cotton Mather (1663-1728), New England literature has come all the way to the punchy Spencer thrillers of Robert Parker. Along the way, New England has fostered some of America's greatest writers.

In Puritan New England, education was highly valued, for it was through education (meaning theological study) that one came to know God. The region's great colleges and universities—Amherst, Bowdoin, Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, Tufts, Williams, Yale—were all founded for the training of young men for the ministry. By the late 1800's this theological preoccupation had been abandoned, and New England's colleges became magnets for literati of all beliefs and opinions.

The runaway bestseller of the early 1800's was not a book of sermons, nor a novel, nor even a history of the late war with England; and the book remains a bestseller to this day. It's the American Dictionary of the English Language, by Yale graduate Noah Webster (1758-1843). First published in 1828, Webster's 70,000-word dictionary was bought by hundreds of thousands of Americans every year—and still is.

Among the writers most closely associated with New England is Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Emerson's beliefs in the mystical unity of nature and the divine, and Thoreau's (see below) championing of the simple life in tune with nature's laws, were radical in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts. Today such unitarian and ecological beliefs are accepted by many people around the world. Along with other writers, Emerson was a founder of the Transcendental movement, and had more effect on American literature than any other New Englander.

New England Literati

The composite photo above brings together some of New England's greatest literary lights. From left to right: John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Lothrop Motley, Amos Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, Louis Agassiz, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), a friend of Emerson's, is best remembered for Walden, or Life in the Woods(1854). This journal of observations and opinions written during his solitary sojourn (1845-47) on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, may be the best-known book on New England. Thoreau was also known for Civil Disobedience, and his accounts of walking trips entitled The Maine Woods and Cape Cod.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), was born in Salem, Massachusetts, attended Bowdoin College in Maine, then pursued a career which produced The Scarlet Letter, Twice-told Tales, and The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne is thought by many to be the writer who established the truly American short story.

His contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), was born in Boston, but pursued his career in Virginia.

Among New England poets, the 1800's belonged to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Born in Portland, Maine, he attended Bowdoin College, taught at Harvard, and lived in a big yellow house on Brattle Street in Cambridge which is now a historic landmark. Several of Longfellow's poems are so much a part of Americana that many forget that he wrote them: "Paul Revere's Ride," "The Song of Hiawatha," "The Village Blacksmith," "Excelsior," and "The Wreck of the Hesperus" are among the better-known ones.

Preceding and during the Civil War, New England writers such as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) and John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) contributed their literary and poetic talents to the struggle to end slavery.

Few Americans realize that Samuel Clemens (1835-1910), better known as Mark Twain, settled in Hartford, Connecticut at the age of 35. Though Missouri-born, Twain wrote his masterpieces Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in Hartford, as well as The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Touring his grand Victorian mansion at Nook Farm is the high point of a visit to Hartford.

The Industrial Revolution brought New Englanders wealth, and daughters of wealthy manufacturers and merchants were able to turn their energies to education and literature rather than household work. In the 1800's, many excellent New England women's colleges produced graduates instilled with a spirit of independence and self-reliance.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) felt compelled to expose the injustice of slavery in her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), which sold an amazing 300,000 copies in one year.

Opposite in temperament to the energetic Ms. Stowe was poet Emily Dickenson (1830-1886), a native of Amherst, Massachusetts, who lived there in near seclusion most of her life. Only seven of her poems were published during her lifetime, but the posthumous editing and publishing of nearly 1,000 poems established her reputation. Her influence on American poetry is matched only by that of Robert Frost.

Among New England's other famous female poets is Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929), a native of Falmouth, Massachusetts and a graduate of Wellesley College. Though much of her work is unfamilar today, every American knows her patriotic hymn, "America the Beautiful."

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in San Francisco, but his family had lived in New England for generations. He moved to New England early in life, attended Dartmouth and Harvard without taking a degree, and later returned to teach poetry at Amherst and Harvard. His many books capture the quintessence of New England living and the Yankee soul.


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Authors' Ridge Stone, Concord MA

Above, the marker showing the way to Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord MA.

Below, Orchard House, home of the Alcotts in Concord MA.

 

Orchard House, Concord MA

Customs House, Salem MA

Customs House in Salem MA, where Nathaniel Hawthorne worked.