Seeing 'New Englandly'

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Find out more about Megan Marshall's biography The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism.

Megan Marshall’s biography The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism was awarded the Francis Parkman Prize by the Society of American Historians, the Mark Lynton History Prize, and the Massachusetts Book Award in nonfiction, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography and memoir.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Special Places, The Trustees' member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-finalist for The Peabody Sisters, recalls how 19th-century Massachusetts writers introduced her to New England – and to the fundamental link between people and land.

By Megan Marshall

I grew up in southern California, a landscape and culture about as distant from New England’s as any you can find in the continental United States. Until I came east for college, I’d never seen snow fall or a maple leaf turn red. Yet the house my family lived in had been designed, sometime in the 1920s, by two spinster sisters from New England. They’d moved to Pasadena believing the warm dry air would improve their health, and built a house that I always imagined mimicked their own back east: center-entrance colonial, white clapboards, green shutters, oak tree out front.

The Pasadena tree, broad and towering when I knew it, bore the small, spiny leaves of a California live oak, and they never fell to the ground in a carpet of orange and yellow. Otherwise, the McLellan sisters must have felt very much at home when they moved into their new house as aging invalids.

When the sisters died in the 1950s, they had no heirs, and my parents – moving up from a one-story tract home – bought the house fully furnished. Suddenly my little sister and I had twin maple four-posters and, better still, several shelves of children’s books published in Boston in the 1880s. I grew up reading the McLellan sisters’ editions of Little Women, The Five Little Peppers, and What Katy Did. Hard snowy winters, rivers that froze solid for skating, and the tree-lined country lanes of Concord, Massachusetts (where two of the three authors lived when they wrote their books), became as vivid to me as Nancy Drew’s River Heights was to most girls my age.

I was lucky, because Concord – and Massachusetts – turned out to be a real place, populated in the 19th century with a score of gifted authors who fixed that landscape indelibly in words for future readers. When I entered high school, I could read the works of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson, which seemed distant at times to some of my classmates but never to me, and fill out the New England of my imagination with a wealth of historical, topographical, and horticultural detail. I came to know the troubled Puritans and persecuted Quakers of Hawthorne’s tales; the sandy-bottomed ponds that captured Thoreau’s fancy along with his “brute neighbors,” the woodchuck, the loon, the mud turtle; and Dickinson’s iris, aster, and anemone, bartsia, crocus, and rhodora, “so thick upon the plain” in her beloved Pioneer Valley. On a summer visit to Boston for college interviews, I insisted on a side trip to Concord to see Walden Pond. Like many pilgrims before and since, I felt the uncanny draw of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin site and made my way there without needing to follow any signs. I had never been to Walden before, and yet I had.

In one of Emily Dickinson’s poems that I read as a high school student, she writes, “I see – New Englandly.” When I arrived in the Boston area for college, then settled here to raise a family, and later worked for two decades on a biography of three New England sisters who were part of the Concord circle, I often recalled that phrase. I believed I was seeing New Englandly when I walked the streets of Boston and managed to subtract traffic lights, mini-skirted pedestrians, and honking taxicabs from my field of vision and replace them with the image of Louisa May Alcott striding across the Common in long skirts and scuffed boots to deliver a manuscript at the Old Corner Bookstore at School and Washington Streets.

Or when, climbing Monument Mountain in the Berkshires, I visualized a “champagne-brightened” Herman Melville showing off for his new friend Nathaniel Hawthorne at their famous picnic of August 1850 by clambering up “a peaked rock which ran out like a bowsprit” and hauling imaginary ropes.

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