My Literary Neighborhood


There ought to be a room in every house to swear in.                                    Mark Twain

I live near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass, in a “Harlow buidling.” These beautiful brick structures were designed by Hamilton Harlow in the early decades of the twentieth century and were designed to blend in with the features of Harvard University buildings – red brick, elegant ironwork, and leaded glass windows.

It’s a cool neighborhood. A really cool neighborhood for a writer, partly because so many famous authors lived nearby. Two doors up from my building is where William Dean Howells lived in the 1870s, when he was editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

howells sign

There is a great story in Justin Kaplan’s biography of Mark Twain which details Twain’s visit to this house in April, 1876, and the ill-fated attempt of Howells and Twain to get to Concord by train for centennial celebrations presided over by President Grant. It is a comedy of errors worthy of a story by Twain himself, which ends with Twain chasing a packed carriage and falling in the mud.

Around the corner, in another Harlow building, Vladimir Nabokov lived at 8 Craigie Circle in the 1940s while working as a butterfly taxonomist at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

craigie entrance

In the introduction to Bend Sinister, the first novel he wrote in the US, Nabokov describes his time in this apartment, saying, “I slept at least four or five hours, the rest of the night walking pencil in hand about the dingy little flat…where I lodged under an old lady with feet of stone and above a young woman with hypersensitive hearing.”

When I walk past this building, I like to look up at the windows and guess which one VN stared out of at night while constructing sentences such as: “An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see the nether sky.”

craigie bldg

A decade later, VN had returned to Harvard to complete research for his translation of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin, and lived in another Harlow building on Chauncy Street, just two blocks away.

chauncy outside

Throughout this period, Robert Frost was also living in Cambridge, on Brewster Street, a stone’s throw from Craigie Circle:

frost bldg

And maybe a few stones were thrown, as Frost and Nabokov apparently did not get along. In the forties, the two writers gave several poetry readings together, including an appearance at Wellesley College’s “Poets Reading” series in 1946 along with Archibald Macleish and T. S. Eliot. Though Nabokov found Frost rude, it did not stop him from briefly renting Frost’s house in 1952. He and his wife found it too cold to stay in (Nabokov later called it “the Jack Frost house”), and it troubled Nabokov that Frost had left the study in the house locked.

Eliot had a long relationship with Cambridge. In 1913 and 1914, when he was teaching at Harvard and revising “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he lived on Ash Street:

eliot porch2

Alas, it is a nice but ordinary house, whereas next door is my favorite house in the city, an exotic, unique building with wonderful gardens and infinite charm:

ash st

Then again, if Eliot had lived in this house next door, he may have been too charmed to write “The Wasteland.”

There are many other writers who called Cambridge home, including e.e. cummings and Richard Wilbur and of course great nineteenth-century figures such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell and Richard Henry Dana. And there are those who came to rest here, like Bernard Malamud, the New Yorker who is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery. I like to think that their ghosts still walk the streets of the city, inspiring readers and writers and all who value the written word.

Memorial Day 2014, Cambridge, Mass.

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Even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.      Kurt Vonnegut

I spent this afternoon wandering around the Old Burying Ground near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking at the weathered headstones and thinking about those who have died in American wars. Opened in 1634, it is one of America’s oldest cemeteries. As the only cemetery in Cambridge for nearly two hundred years, it took in a cross-section of the population, from the destitute to the powerful. It also took in its share of soldiers.

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There are nineteen graves of Revolutionary soldiers, including two African-American slaves who served and died. The headstone above is for Joseph Taylor, who was wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775 and lingered for two months at a makeshift army hospital before dying. He was from Peterborough, New Hampshire. He was eighteen years old.

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The remains of six other Revolutionary soldiers from Cambridge were relocated here in 1870 after being rescued from a common grave by the Harvard professor Eben Horsford. There is at least one soldier from the War of 1812, but in the early nineteenth century the City of Cambridge opened a new cemetery in Cambridgeport, and regular burials ceased.

But the wars did not. Within sight of the Old Burying Ground is Harvard’s Sanders Theater, built as a memorial for the Civil War dead, and up Garden Street is a statue commemorating veterans of the Spanish-American War:

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And lest we forget that violence is visited only on those who go to war, a block away the First Church in Cambridge – founded in 1633, even earlier than the Old Burying Ground – has a moving tribute to 2014’s victims of gun violence in the Boston area:

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