The average American’s literary introduction to Boston comes at the hands of "The Scarlet Letter." Though English teachers have long purported the book to be full of vital meaning, any high schooler will tell you that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic is little more than a muddy slog through the streets of Puritan Boston. Fortunately, an introduction is just a first interaction, and "The Scarlet Letter" is only a glimpse into the vast literary library that unfolds on the streets of Boston.
City of Books
From a children's classic featuring ducks to a superior pulp thriller about stool pigeons, here are five notable works that inspire us to explore America's Walking City and beyond.
"The Friends of Eddie Coyle" by George V. Higgins, 1970
If you pressed the damp pavement and browned snowbanks of a Boston winter into two hundred pages of print, the result would be "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." Though this Boston crime drama is about as cheerful as a deep February afternoon on the Government Center Plaza, Higgins’ themes and settings render an uncannily palpable distillation of a frigid Boston afternoon. Bleak, yes, but within that there is an undeniable beauty, one that any who have grown up around Boston can’t deny. In 1973, the book became a movie, starring Robert Mitchum.
"Make Way for Ducklings" by Robert McCloskey, 1941
One of the most beloved pieces of writing to come out of Boston is not a titan of American literature, rather, it is a simple children’s book about a family of ducks. "Make Way for Ducklings," the 1941 picture book by Robert McCloskey, takes place in and throughout the Boston Public Garden. Little has changed in the Garden since the book was first released, though just inside the northeast gate you can visit the famous brass statues memorializing McCloskey’s book.
"The Perfect Storm" by Sebastian Junger, 1997
Though Sebastian Junger first decided it was time to change professions after shearing himself on a hedge trimming job in the Public Garden, it wasn’t until he made his way to Gloucester one October afternoon that those plans came to fruition. Obsessed with man’s attraction to dangerous jobs, Junger was drawn to the fishing town when reports arose that a local boat, the Andrea Gail, had gone missing while a freak combination of a nor’easter and a hurricane tormented the north Atlantic in late October, 1991. What started out as a newspaper article soon became a full-length book, as Junger immersed himself and his readers into the social landscape of Gloucester. The local landmarks are endless throughout the book, though most notable and the worthiest of a visit is the Crow’s Nest, a true salt-of-the-earth pub frequented by the real-life characters of the tragic tale.
"The Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood, 1985
Before Hulu showed the world the backward future of the Republic of Gilead, Margaret Atwood created the dystopian society in her novel, "The Handmaid’s Tale." A graduate of Radcliff College, Atwood set the action of the story on the grounds where she learned to write, what is today known as Harvard Square. As the copper-roofed newsstand and Harvard Yard are long standing in the book, you should go see them before they're consumed by the revolution.
"Shutter Island" by Dennis Lehane, 2003
For as many islands fill Boston Harbor, just as many stories occupy those strips of rock and grass. With the likes of quarantined Native Americans and Nazi-submarine spotters having resided on the islands, it’s no wonder that Dennis Lehane decided to base his psychological and psychotic thriller "Shutter Island" on Boston Harbor’s Long Island. Throughout much of the twentieth century, Long Island was accessible only by boat, and it was the variety of hospitals and treatment facilities, ominously isolated yet visibly present, that inspired Lehane's story of insanity. Though inaccessible and largely abandoned today, the many empty windows of the island’s facilities still peer out over the harbor, asking onlookers, “Am I really the crazy one?”