Posted by: zhiv | June 14, 2009

Boston Journal Excerpts #2: Annie Fields Diary

When I’m on the road I like to get out and about early and find a coffee place, which helps to get things going. I was on LA time I guess and slept a little late, until almost 8, when I knew I had to check on the parking meter situation. So I was walking up and down Charles Street, finding coffee and considering the associations that I had developed with this locale since the time of my last visit. In “The Dante Club,” for instance, OW Holmes Sr. lives on Charles St., and a few scenes take place in his house, but it’s never mentioned that JT Fields lives down the block–did Holmes live on Charles St. too? We had done a pretty good job of covering Beacon Hill and a lot of the history of Downtown Boston on our previous visit (Freedom Trail, etc.), and that’s when my appreciation for the Charles St. location, right off the Common, had begun, before I knew anything about the famous home and salon of Annie Fields. After a while, coffee and croissant consumed, I confirmed that 142 Charles Street is now the garage where I had expensively parked my car on my previous visit. I was more thrifty this time, and my bill as I checked out of the John Jeffries House was remarkably cheap too.

I wasn’t sure about my next move, and this was when I first wished that I had planned out my literary pilgrimage activities more carefully. I didn’t have the hours for the Mass. Historical Society and thought it opened at 10 (it opened at 9), and I gravitated in its general direction, reacquainting myself with the basic city geography in the process. Just as I didn’t feel like a legitimate filmmaker or member of the production when I had visited the set the afternoon before, today I didn’t feel like a legitimate scholar as I went to look at the Annie Fields papers. But all you really need is a drivers license or photo id, and I knew exactly what I was looking for, so I didn’t have much cause for concern. The Historical Society was a tad formal, as it should be, but I calmly followed procedures and received my orientation, then got some help from my friendly guide. The diaries are on microfilm, and you don’t get to actually look at the real thing, though I had a sense that if I showed up regularly for a few days and became buddies with the Historical Society kids–everybody was young and friendly, but the tightness of the ship suggest that there are plenty of grown ups behind closed doors–that they’d pull it out and show it to me. The Annie Fields papers take up three reels of microfilm, which is something that I knew already, from going online. So if, say, some one wanted to publish that diary, in conjunction with the Historical Society of course, one would only have to copy those reels to begin preparing the text, and the reels could easily be turned into a PDF. Let’s just say that the whole thing could easily be more accessible, if anyone cared, especially since they take the romance out of looking at the papers themselves.

One thing quickly becomes apparent as you crack the diary: the “63 volumes” is a bit of a cheat. It’s more like “63 blue books” or thin little Moleskines. You’d think that AAF would have opted for a fancier venue for her thoughts. It’s another reason why it would be good to get a look at the actual diary, to be able to see what kind of stack the papers make, but it can’t be more than a couple of volumes of Pepys. (I should probably note that I know very little or nothing about Pepys–Royal Navy guy, right?–or Evelyn or any other diarists. Who are the bigwigs in the diary game? In the literary diary game? I guess Boswell’s journals count.) The entries that I looked at weren’t especially lengthy, and they were anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to three or four pages. The diary has a title: Journal of Literary events and glimpses of interesting people. I spent about an hour reading through bits here and there, mostly fascinated by the length of the chapter-like “volumes” and the amount of time they covered, usually a couple of months. My goal on this first quick visit was just to get in and try to take a general glance, and I had set aside two days at the beginning of next week if I wanted to hunker down and really read through it. I realized that my preparation could have been much better, and I regretted not bringing with me on the trip Rita Gollin’s 2002 book, an exhaustive study of AAF that I’ve checked out two different times from the library and have been reading in fits and starts.

It was raining outside and I was worrying about the parking meter–when I originally went in I didn’t know if I would be there for five minutes or five hours. The morning was getting on. In the microfilm reading room with me there was a “real” scholar, looking at another diary. I eavesdropped to try to discover his topic. He hit a snag and asked for help reading the handwriting (“how good are you at reading 18th century handwriting?” “um, probably pretty mediocre, since I’ve never done it?”). I took a shot, to no avail, and then a Historical Society tyro stepped in and figured it out in seconds. It was, I believe, Thomas Pickering’s diary he was reading–some Pickering–and he told me he was writing a book on Washington. He asked about my research, but he hadn’t heard of AAF, and I explained the diary in a speedy flourish by saying that Emerson had just stopped by, “Hawthorne shocked us by his invalid appearance,” “Who should join us in a wood-land walk this morning but Mr. Franklin Pierce formerly President of these United States”–that sort of thing. The scholar went back to work, and I rolled up the microfilm reel to leave. As I signed out I saw that he was Ron Chernow–yep, a real scholar.

It was around noon now and I thought I would fit in a couple of bookstore stops before going back out to the set. I had googled Boston bookstores before I left, but didn’t make a list–of course not. I remembered the general location of Brattle Bros. Books on West St., and saw Commonwealth Books close by, so I thought I would check those out. Every good bookstore is different, while bad ones are generally the same, and I have a standard routine for making a snap judgement on overall store quality, before settling in and poring over the shelves. I look to see sets of collected works, which are generally close by the counter, unless there’s a rare book room or it’s a very high end store. Then I mosey around looking for scholarly books on literature and other topics in search of something that I just have to have and can’t possibly resist, before working my way to seeing cheaper, trade paperback editions that I might actually purchase. I was on an extremely tight budget on this trip, so I went in with my anti-book buying force fields fully engaged. A book was going to have to be very special to break through my defenses, but the common practice is that if one book busts through then four or five very often follow. Both bookstores were excellent. My supposition is that Boston, with Harvard, MIT, and literally a zillion colleges and universities and the whole American/New England intellectual tradition thing, should be a bookstore Mecca, and these two stores provided a good start. Commonwealth had all sorts of good, well-priced books and I remember four stately volumes of G. Birkbeck Hill’s edition of Boswell’s Johnson, books that I’ve long coveted, for $100. The complete idition is 6 volumes, I believe, but the text is complete in the first four if I remember correctly. And downstairs I saw “The Letters of Celia Thaxter,” by her friends AF & __”–an Annie Fields book, for $25. The force field held steady.

And Brattle Bros. was a solid step up from the very solid effort by Commonwealth. This is a pretty dreamy bookstore, comprehensive, scholarly, accessible. Any lover of books and personal libraries could do some real damage here. It has a rare book room up on the third floor, reminding of Moe’s Books in Berkeley. It’s a little smaller than Moes’s and not an emporium like The Strand, or what I imagine Powells must be like. There are interesting sets galore, of all different kinds and prices, lots and lots of Emerson and Hawthorne and some beautiful Throeau and all sorts of stuff. I was moving quickly, scanning at top speed and checking prices and worrying about the stupid parking meter again, half a mile away in the rain. The force field was weakening, as I was happy to be in this just slightly untidy (pretty good for a bookstore), dynamic intellectual sanctuary, but I managed to bail out.

I stepped outside and stumbled on what was perhaps the best literary pilgrimage moment of my trip, completely by chance. On the house next to Brattle Bros. there is a plaque, marking it as the site of Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore. A paragraph gave a good brief description of the store as a crucial locus of the trancendental movement–I wish I had written down the quote. I suddenly felt like I was on hallowed ground, at the site of the center of things, and it’s interesting to reflect on how the spot is just a short walk across the Common from Charles St., where I had started my day. I jogged through the drizzling rain back to my car, plunging forward, but it seemed like I had gotten lucky, and was off to a good start on my literary activities.

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