Posted by: zhiv | June 18, 2013

Literary Boston: John P. Marquand and Newburyport

I should start by saying, about my last two posts, that I really have no idea what I’m talking about, and I know next to nothing about John P. Marquand and his work. I could beat myself up and unpack a few of the untruths I’ve already tossed out, but instead I’ll keep moving forward, and probably do more damage. At any rate, Marquand is a good, interesting, and fairly neglected topic these days, it seems. There’s a lot to consider and look at, and probably some very good books. The problem, such as it is, with his reputation is that there may not be any great books, but again, what do I know. Maybe we’ll see.

I mentioned that Marquand’s contemporary Walter Edmonds made literary hay after attending Harvard by writing regional novels about the Mohawk Valley. Part of the problem with my blundering approach at the moment is that I’m starting with Marquand’s breakthrough book (not counting Your Turn, Mr. Moto, 1935) The Late George Apley, which is as Bostonian as it gets. There are, of course, worlds within worlds in the topic of Literary Boston, or Literary New England, if you begin to break things down into smaller sections–it’s easy enough to start with Salem and Concord, for instance.

This is the point where I’ll pick up my personal narrative. I started reviving the Literary Boston category because I’m going to be spending a significant chunk of time there this summer, and I wanted to get in the mood and find some fresh curiosities. Apley and Marquand proved to be a good starting point, I think, and my first wayward glance at Marquand’s wiki bio was a quick one, giving me just enough vague info to do a fair amount of sloppy, minor damage. Soon enough I was looking at the actual places where I will be landing and hanging out in Boston–and this is where it gets more interesting. Our gang will be spending a lot of time at a big, nondescript warehouse in Haverhill, as it turns out. So I spent an hour last week on Google maps, zooming in and out of the near environs, looking at Andover and Lowell (both of which at least sound very familiar), before heading east. In my last Boston trip I hung out in Essex and did Cape Ann, getting up to Ipswich (Updikeville, and this was not long after his death). But I was discovering now that I had left a large gap between Ipswich (which I didn’t really explore, although I managed to develop a decent sense of the layout of the “Gold Coast”) and South Berwick 50 miles north in Maine, the home place of Sarah Orne Jewett. It all seemed pretty standard New England semi-coastal stuff, nothing I had previously paid any attention to. Newburyport began to stand out, slowly at first. The gears in my brain did start grinding, but it was still a long time, possibly days, before I finally said, wait a second–isn’t Newburyport the Marquand place?

Yes. Marquand’s “first important book” is Lord Timothy Dexter (1925), “an exploration of the life and legend of eighteenth century Newburyport eccentric Timothy Dexter (1763-1806).” Point of No Return (1949) apparently satirizes W. Lloyd Warner’s anthropological study of Newburyport–and Marquand lands a solid punch in Warner’s wiki bio. Getting ahead of myself and starting up Millicent Bell’s John P. Marquand: An American Life, but at least correcting things rather than continuing to fire potshots, shows how deeply embedded Marquand was in the town, both physically and psychologically. More on this topic and book at a later date, but on page 16 Bell mentions “an early series of connected stories which were published together as Haven’s End,” where Marquand “mingled romantic invention with true history.” “The spectacle of Newburyport history in Joseph Marquand’s time (b. 1748) absorbed the twentieth-century novelist, who wrote and spoke of it throughout his life.” As I said, more on Bell’s book as I go along, but for now my note is that Bell’s biography will clearly serve as an excellent literary guide to John P. Marquand and Newburyport.


  1. Newburyport, no kidding. Between Warner and Stephen Thernstrom’s book the town has this almost bizarre importance in American social history. How interesting.

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