CAMBRIDGE THROUGH THE PAGES, A LITERARY TOUR
Thu Sept 30, 2021
Did you know Cambridge was “home” to a mad scientist and a man who could see into his own future? Did you know a teenage poet actually met with George Washington here? Across the centuries, Cambridge has inspired literary characters and influenced writers of poetry as well as fiction. Read on for the Cambridge Through the Pages Tour and download a printable program.
Stop 1: 105 Brattle Street
“To His Excellency General Washington,” Phillis Wheatley (1775)
Born in West Africa in 1753 and sold into slavery in Boston at a young age, Phillis Wheatley rose to literary prominence while still a teenager and gained fame as a poet throughout the transatlantic world.
In October 1775, Wheatley wrote a poem commending General George Washington’s achievements during the Revolutionary War — aptly titled “To His Excellency General Washington” — and sent a copy to his headquarters in Cambridge. Washington’s response expressed his admiration for Wheatley’s talent, and he invited her to visit: “If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.”
Historians have not found any official record of the visit between Washington and Wheatley, but it likely took place at Washington’s headquarters at 105 Brattle Street during the spring of 1776.
Stop 2: 3 Berkeley Street
“Suburban Sketches,” William Dean Howells (1872)
When William Dean Howells moved to Cambridge in 1866, he witnessed the city’s rapid evolution. The dramatic transformation made a profound impression on Howells, who had relocated to take on both a Harvard professorship and an editorial position at the Atlantic Monthly. He was also a prolific writer of fiction, and he found abundant inspiration in his new surroundings. In “Suburban Sketches,” published in the Atlantic Monthly as a series of installments in 1872, Howells described Cantabridgian life in vivid detail.
Stop 3: Plaque, 52 Brattle Street
“The Village Blacksmith,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1840)
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow held a status in America’s cultural life that is unparalleled today. Widely regarded during his lifetime as the country’s most distinguished poet, he was a revered national figure. Longfellow lived most of his adult life at 105 Brattle Street, later named the Longfellow House, which today is a national historic site commemorating his life and work.
Longfellow’s poem “The Village Blacksmith” became instantly popular upon its 1840 publication. The blacksmith Dexter Pratt, who lived and worked at the nearby house at 54 Brattle Street, served as Longfellow’s inspiration. The first line of the poem, “Under a spreading chestnut-tree,” refers to a magnificent tree that stood at this spot until 1876. When the tree was cut down, children of Cambridge raised money to have a chair constructed from its wood and presented it to Longfellow on his 72nd birthday. Today, this plaque commemorates the site where the tree once stood, as well as the poet it inspired.
Stop 4: 132 Mount Auburn Street
“Of One Blood,” Pauline Hopkins (1903)
Pauline Hopkins is hailed today as one of the most influential Black writers of the early twentieth century. Hopkins spent much of her adult life in Cambridge, living in both North Cambridge and Cambridgeport, and featured the city prominently in her literary works. Her 1903 proto-science-fiction novel “Of One Blood” has deep connections to the city. The novel’s protagonist, Reuel Briggs, is a destitute but brilliant medical student who hides his mixed-race origins and lives in a “third-rate lodging house near Harvard Square.” His close friend, Charlie Vance, resides luxuriously on Mount Auburn Street. While Hopkins does not give an exact address for the Vance estate, this particular location was chosen because it evokes the leafy, luxurious ambience that Hopkins describes.
Stop 5: Plaque, Larz Anderson Bridge
“The Sound and the Fury,” William Faulkner (1929)
William Faulkner’s first novel was published in 1924, and his second, “The Sound and the Fury,” in 1929. The piece tells the story of an aristocratic Mississippi family, the Compsons. The oldest brother, Quentin, is a freshman at Harvard in 1910.
Walk halfway along the eastern side of the Anderson Bridge and you will see a small, bronze plaque that commemorates this fictional character. “Quentin Compson,” it reads. “Drowned in the odour of honeysuckle. 1891-1910.” The plaque was placed anonymously on the bridge during the 1960s.
Stop 6: Bench by the Charles River
“The Other,” Jorge Luis Borges (1972)
“It was in Cambridge, back in February, 1969, that the event took place.” The simplicity of this sentence belies the mysterious complexity of the story it introduces, Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Other.” Its narrator proceeds to describe a strange encounter: as he relaxes alone on a bench by the Charles River on a chilly winter morning, he suddenly senses the presence of a visitor. The interloper is none other than his past self. The two embark upon a bizarre sort of family reunion, each trying to discern whether their implausible meeting truly is occurring.
Stop 7: Running Path by the Charles River
“The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Junot Diaz (2012)
Junot Diaz is a Cambridge resident and MIT professor, and his familiarity with the city is evident throughout his work. In his 2012 short story collection “This Is How You Lose Her,” Diaz sets the book’s final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” in Cambridge. The story’s protagonist is Yunior, a patently semi-autobiographical character. Like Diaz, Yunior is a Dominican immigrant who grew up in New Jersey and now teaches writing at a Boston-area university.
This is an excerpt of History Cambridge’s literary tour, made possible by the Cambridge Heritage Trust and written by Lucy Caplan, Lecturer of History & Literature at Harvard University. For more on Cambridge’s literary ties, visit the History Cambridge website and read the complete version of this tour with all nine original stops.
About History Cambridge:
History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today they have a new name, a new look and a whole new mission.
History Cambridge engages with the city to explore how the past influences the present in order to shape a better future. They strive to be the most relevant, responsive historical voice in Cambridge by recognizing that every person in the city has insight into Cambridge's history, and their knowledge matters. They support people in sharing history with each other—and weaving their knowledge together—by offering them the floor, the mic and the platform. They shed light where historical perspectives are needed. They listen to the community and live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.
Their theme for 2021 is “How Does Cambridge Mend?” Make history at historycambridge.org.