“Such was the condition of the Charles Street ghosts, it seemed to me—shades of a past that had once been so thick and warm and happy; they moved, dimly, through a turbid medium in which the signs of their old life looked soiled and sordid. Each of them was there indeed, from far, far back; they met me on the pavement, yet it was as if we could pass but in conscious silence, and nothing could have helped us, for any courage of communion, if we had not enjoyed the one merciful refuge that remained, where indeed we could breathe again, and with intensity, our own liberal air. Here, behind the effaced anonymous door, was the little ark of the modern deluge, here still the long drawing-room that looks over the water and towards the sunset, with a seat for every visiting shade, from far-away Thackeray down, and relics and tokens so thick on its walls as to make it positively, in all the town, the votive temple to memory. Ah, if it hadn’t been for that small patch of common ground, with its kept echo of the very accent of the past, the revisiting spirit, at the bottom of the hill, could but have muffled his head, or but have stifled his heart, and turned away forever.”
Henry James, The American Scene (NY & London: Harper & Brothers, 1907), 235-236.
Narratives usually contain people, places, and things, as well as, the happenstances or occurrences between those, and other elements of storytelling. In American Studies, our scholarly task includes the deconstruction of many storytelling paradigms, quite often, singularly regarding place. Geography comes in handy for this task, as well as, the ability to read historic maps. In this context, place is usually assigned meaning for all of us, throughout our lifetimes. Usually for reasons of profitability, often at times, sentimentality, and possibly, even destiny. Sometimes the meanings of places are assigned by others, and sometimes they are assigned by ourselves, as we seek to unravel purpose for the locations that return again, and again, on whichever journey we might find ourselves, at any given time in our own history, and in the histories of others.
So it has been for me at a meaningful location that I have returned to, seemingly without awareness, across the unusual events of my lifetime. It has been very nearly ethereal for me, and certainly somewhat magical for others in my circle, to observe the discoveries and unearthed the treasures, that I have known. My hope is that in learning about mine, you will be inspired to learn about yours, too. Because, while deconstruction is a notion that has made its way into the collective and independent consciousness of twenty-first century American society and culture, as it seeks to remedy its historical accuracies and inaccuracies, nothing could have prepared me for the deconstruction of such a meaningful location, a place in the narrative that would become my life story, known as No.148 Charles Street, Boston, Massachusetts.
No.148 Charles Street, Boston, Massachusetts, now the location of a large twentieth century building currently situated at what marks the beginning of its upscale Beacon Hill neighborhood, today houses specialty markets, an enormously grand car park condominium, and various small businesses and offices along the entire city block, which it now occupies. It wasn’t always so, since the block was once comprised of nineteenth century houses, No.144, No.146, and No.148, before the 1915 death of Annie Adams Fields, wife of nineteenth century Ticknor & Fields Publisher, James T. Fields.
Behind these houses, long ago, there were beautiful, elegant, private gardens belonging to Annie and James that reached all the way to the Charles River, where visitors could meander slowly as they viewed the setting sun. The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital was not too far, nor was the City Jail, located just down the northern end of the street. And across the street, up into the deeper eastern neighborhood of Beacon Hill, toward the Massachusetts State House, and just across from the beautiful Boston Common and Public Garden, were the homes of some of the most accomplished of the New England regional literati, such as Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Sarah Wyman Whitman, and numerous others.
The house at No.148 Charles Street was a finely appointed home, where Annie and James Fields lived, worked, and created the salon that hosted the New England regional literati who frequented its library, parlor, dining, and guest rooms. Occasionally, authors from old England made their way to the visit in the Fields’ home, where they were welcomed most enthusiastically, especially Charles Dickens. The intricate relationships that followed, between members of salon cultures in New England and old England, were essential to the standard for perceived excellence in American art and literature that was established to continue for decades and which crossed from the nineteenth into the twentieth century.
What eventually became the American literary canon that generations of students would study in high schools, colleges and universities across the United States, emerged from the efforts of the No. 148 Charles Street, Boston salon culture and society, as it was guided by Annie and James Fields. They are why you, if you grew up in American public education, were perhaps required to read The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. But, I’ll save my research and writing on Ticknor & Fields Publishing and the American Literary Canon for another installment.
Just now, I’m researching, (I’ve a need to return to Harvard Library, soon, where I can further read Annie’s last will and testament), and writing on the significance of No.148 Charles Street, Boston, not only in all our young adult American lives throughout the twentieth century, but in my own life, in particular. Unknown to me during the course of my undergraduate career at Smith College, No.148 Charles Street had been and would become a profoundly meaningful location for me, from throughout my childhood, until long into my adulthood. My current research and understanding of No.148 Charles Street’s dramatic changes in its neighborhood, during the early part of the twentieth century, were quite significant for my mother’s family, and for the changing social and cultural needs of the city of Boston.
Still, it is not too difficult to imagine No.148 Charles Street as it was during the nineteenth century, if one squints a bit, when gazing down along Charles Street’s evening gaslit charm and cobbled beauty, all the way to Boston Common and Public Garden. Historic locations often evoke a romance and mystery that lures tourists to wander along the sidewalks, to linger outside the doorways, and to spend time inside the shops. Charles Street, as a meaningful location to the history of Boston, is no different, even today.
The No. 148 Charles Street home of Annie Fields, who was known throughout her husband’s Ticknor & Fields Publishing community as a kind and gentile hostess, nurtured the nineteenth century New England salon community where she and others in her sphere, such as Sarah Orne Jewett, gathered together to discuss art, literature, and other topics of interest to the development of culture and society in New England. And, as early as 1872 in a letter to his wife, then retired publisher James T. Fields wrote that Julia Margaret Cameron sold twenty of her photographs to him for a discounted sum and at this time, through her correspondence with Fields, some of Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits came to New England.
In their salon collection at No.148 Charles Street and in the homes of others in the charmed circle of Fields, fine art photographic portraiture of “famous men and fair women,” crafted by Julia Margaret Cameron, served to emphasize a perceived cultural standard of excellence that was quite literally and figuratively, viewed. Today, just at the top of Beacon Hill, housed in the Boston Athenaeum, one might view Cameron portraits that belonged to Annie and James Fields, with inscriptions to the couple made in Julia Margaret Cameron’s own hand.
After Annie Adams Fields passed away in 1915, her will stated that No.148 Charles Street was to be demolished. As it happened, some years later in its place, Boston’s first thriving Volkswagen dealership was installed by my mother’s family, in a new building at the same address, consuming the spaces where houses No.144 and No.146 had also been located. It absorbed the entire city block. Fine new imported vehicles with German engineering were eventually stored, marketed, and sold there, throughout most of the twentieth century, first by my great-grandfather, and then by my grandfather. Young adults in my mother’s family, making their way to college, were offered a job at the dealership, with young women working in the office, and young men servicing customer needs. Any family member in need of a vehicle, was also assisted by my grandfather’s generosity.
We grandchildren were fortunate enough to be able to see our grandfather whenever we were in the city, and it was there, that I visited when I was a little girl, waiting inside my grandfather’s office as I watched Beetles and Squarebacks driven into the enormous elevator that took them to the upper floors for storage, or onto the line for service, or out the door after a sale. It was there, that I remember stopping by what we grandchildren called, “Miss Lucy’s Candy Shoppe,” across the street, to have sweets that my grandfather bought for us, or walking all the way down Charles Street to the lovely Public Garden, for a swan boat ride on the pond.
And so, it began.
I could not know then, what I know now, as Henry James wrote, “Here, behind the effaced anonymous door, was the little ark of the modern deluge”, nor could I have known that I would grow into adulthood, motherhood, and beyond, to discover and research, to write and publish on the subject of No.148 Charles Street, Boston. What I did know, almost 50 years ago, was that I was always hauntingly enchanted by that neighborhood, whenever I visited there, for reasons which I did not understand at the time. When I first began to research and write about Julia Margaret Cameron, I stumbled upon Annie and James Fields and their No. 148 Charles Street home, almost by accident, while reading about Cameron’s niece, Julia Duckworth Stephen, and Stephen’s daughter, author Virginia Stephen Woolf.
Woolf’s godfather was none other than family friend and poet, James Russell Lowell, whose daughter, Mabel Lowell, accompanied James and Annie Fields on their travels to England, in 1869. While they visited Alfred, Lord Tennyson at his Farringford home, Mabel was summoned to sit for her fine art photographic portrait, by Julia Margaret Cameron, which was crafted at her home, Dimbola, in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, England. Today, the portraits of Mabel Lowell reside in the collections at the Cunningham Center for Prints, Drawings, & Photographs at Smith College Museum of Art, where I first worked in a museum as an undergraduate student in 2009, which was the “little ark” of my own “modern deluge.”
And so, it began, again.
More developments occurred, as I learned about No.148 Charles Street, Boston, and the New England regional literati salon that Annie and James Fields hosted there. Few of the New England regional author’s or artist’s families ever amassed extraordinary financial security, as did the Lowell, Cabot, or Lodge families of the Boston Brahmin community. Individuals from these two social groups were influenced by changing nineteenth century class distinctions that forged new relationships between them for the achievement of status and prestige.
While the story of an evening toast made by a Harvard man at dinner with colleagues might capture the spirit of the time, as it went, “This is good old Boston, home of the bean and the cod, where Lodges talk only to Cabots, and Cabots talk only to God,” the raising of glasses at Annie and James Fields’ No. 148 Charles Street home on Beacon Hill in Boston, began to include the likes of a New England regional writer from Berwick, Maine named Sarah Orne Jewett, together with one of the founding presidents of the Harvard University Radcliffe College for Women, named Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, wife of Professor Louis Agassiz, of Harvard University. But culture and society were changing even more rapidly in Boston, after the American Civil War, and with those changes came Southern regional influences, ideologies, and impressions.
It followed that my husband, Stratton McCrady, as he was clearing out his parent’s house, found among the family McCrady papers which his father, Professor Edward McCrady stored, numerous items that belonged to his great, great grandfather, John McCrady, Professor of Biology, also of Harvard University during the nineteenth century tenure of Louis Agassiz. John McCrady and his wife, Sarah, who according family lore was an aspiring author, lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, arriving from a defeated Charleston, South Carolina, just after the American Civil War. Journals from this period written by John McCrady chronicle his time with New England academia, and the adjustments he faced after the death of his mentor and friend, Louis Agassiz.
It was a difficult period for the young McCrady family, who lived with their children in what could be, at times, a hostile political environment. After the task that is bittersweet, when sorting through a beloved home, my husband obtained several nineteenth century books from among his family’s shelves. As I looked through each one of them, to add to our own book collection, I opened a tiny volume on biology, and out fell nineteenth century calling cards that belonged to his great, great grandparents, Professor John and Mrs. Sarah McCrady. One of them was from Mrs. Henry James, mother of author, Henry James, and another was from Mrs. Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, wife of Professor Louis Agassiz. Both, friends of Annie and James Fields, and both, frequent guests at No.148 Charles Street, Boston.
And so, it began, still again.
Text from, Framed in Constructed New England Regional Literary Identity: The Julia Margaret Cameron Photographic Portraits of Famous Men and Fair Women, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020.