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Paul Theroux’s Boston Reading List


Boston is less a city than a cluster of neighborhoods. The home in Roxbury where Malcolm Little was a troubled teen — before becoming Malcolm X, the creator of “By Any Means Essential” — is a world away from the mayor’s office in Edwin O’Connor’s “The Last Hurrah,” or the South Boston of George V. Higgins’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” or the Dorchester of “Sacred,” by Dennis Lehane. Lehane’s “Mystic River” is sort of a special tackle the river where, upstream, I used to be a dreamy youth inspired to travel. Each of those books matter to an understanding of Boston.

To me, the center of Boston is the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, repository of greater than 23 million items and luminous murals by John Singer Sargent. Across the Charles River at Harvard, one may need an awesome meal within the Square while contemplating the university’s many writer-graduates, starting from T.S. Eliot to Tracy K. Smith. After that, I’d suggest leaving town. Your destination could be Concord and Walden Pond, with Thoreau’s “Walden” to assist you orient yourself. Emerson’s house still stands and so does the Alcott house.

A sacred spot nearby is the place in Emerson’s Concord Hymn,” where, “Here once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard around the world.”

With “Moby-Dick” in hand, I suggest driving to Latest Bedford to go to the sites that Melville mentions, amongst them the Seamen’s Bethel — within the novel, the Whaleman’s Chapel of Father Mapple’s sermon. Across the road is the sumptuous and well-stocked Latest Bedford Whaling Museum, which serves as a monument to Melville’s life on the ocean.

An hour’s drive east from Latest Bedford takes you to Plymouth, and the Plimoth Patuxet Museums (renamed when Plimoth Plantation was deemed offensive). Your docent here could possibly be Nathaniel Philbrick, whose 2006 history, Mayflower,” describes the ordeals of the primary pilgrims in addition to their many abuses, which included decimating the local Wampanoag people — killing many, and capturing lots of to sell into slavery within the West Indies. That is at odds with the romantic tale of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, the colony’s love birds in Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Philbrick describes Standish as a violent piece of labor, his mind calmly furnished with anything resembling compassion, writing how, with a single ambush on the native people generally known as the Massachusett, three years after the Pilgrims’ landing, he “irreparably damaged the human ecology of the region.” As a consequence, “the Pilgrims had earned a latest name: wotawquenange — cutthroats.”

About 20 miles south of Plymouth, across the Sagamore Bridge, is Cape Cod, “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts,” as Thoreau wrote in his book of hikes, “Cape Cod.” The Cape is more populous now than when Henry tramped the beaches and pinewoods, but much of it — especially the dunes that Thoreau described — retains its natural beauty. One in every of the chapters describes his encounter in Wellfleet with an old oysterman. The oysterman’s house still exists — as does, on nearby Money Hill, the one through which Edmund Wilson lived in a fractious marriage with Mary McCarthy.

Farther along Route 6A is Truro, where Wilson’s earlier lover, Edna St. Vincent Millay, lived for a time and wrote Memory of Cape Cod, which begins, “The wind within the ash-tree seems like surf on the shore at Truro. …” One other few miles and also you’re in Provincetown, a spot prized by writers for its freedom, due to the tolerant Portuguese-descended fisherfolk, its louche lifestyle (with the occasional drag queen rollerblading down Industrial Street) and, as Norman Mailer, a contented resident, told me, “Most of all its wonderful and well-preserved Nineteenth-century architecture.” His “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” from 1984, celebrates the crimes and the complexities of the town.

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