In the Valley of the Poets
Part I: The Historical Landscape. The Whittier Bridge connecting Amesbury and Newburyport. Kerouac Park in downtown Lowell. The Robert Frost Fountain on Campagnone Common in Lawrence. Across the Merrimack Valley, people walk, bike and drive past named places and structures that are only there because of the writers whose books are part of the American story.
Many of us know the Mount Rushmore-scale authors from our region who have gone from literary notables to historical figures. Former North Andover Poet Laureate Karen Kline promotes the area as the “Valley of the Poets.” There is a case to be made that our river valley is extraordinary, if not unique, among national locations with significant clusters of authors.
Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) is acknowledged as the first woman from the North American colonies to publish her poems and the first English-language American poet. Born Anne Dudley, Bradstreet and her husband, Simon, arrived in Massachusetts in 1630 and settled in what is now North Andover 16 years later, religious pioneers in the colony that was dominated by Puritans. Highly educated for an English woman of her time, the devoted spouse and mother of eight children was a committed writer whose poems were taken by her brother-in-law to London and published in the name of a “Gentlewoman from Those Parts” under the title “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America.” She wrote about her life and relations at home from a spiritual perspective. While her gravesite is not known, she is remembered by a marker in North Andover’s Old North Parish Burying Ground.
A chicken farmer in Derry, N.H., before people knew him for his poems, Robert Frost (1874-1963) wrote articles for farming magazines and taught school in the area like his mother did. A graduate of Lawrence High School, Frost touched down briefly in Methuen, Amesbury and Salem Depot, N.H. He had to take his family to England and publish a book of poems there to generate the first serious attention for his work. By the time he returned to New England after a few years he had established a name in the book world. Through the middle of the 20th century, Frost personified “poet” in the United States, winning four Pulitzer Prizes and reciting the inaugural poem for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. He remains one of the nation’s most identifiable poets. Some years ago, when visiting a school, I asked students to name a living American poet. “Robert Frost,” someone shouted. But he had died 25 years earlier.
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) retains the highest local visibility with two historical houses (Haverhill birthplace, Amesbury residence), an attractive blue bridge over the Merrimack River, a large mural portrait in downtown Amesbury, and a few buildings named in his memory. While not in vogue today, Whittier was a rock star in his time, selling so many copies of his long poem “Snow-Bound” about a family weathering a New England blizzard that he raked in $10,000 in royalties — about $158,000 in current dollars.
In the 1950s, Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) became a one-name celebrity like Elvis after the publication of the novel “On the Road,” a highway tale about two guys searching for the meaning of life in a society with atom bombs. Kerouac gave the name to the Beat Generation, whose ideas about liberation, love, spirituality and the pursuit of happiness would flower in the mid-1960s. As for being classified as a poet, Kerouac said he was, but that he wrote in paragraphs most of the time. Truth is, he wrote a lot of poems and invented some original American poetic forms to counter the sonnets and villanelles of old: blues, pops, tics, choruses.
In the next orbit outward, lesser known but substantially accomplished is Lucy Larcom (1824-1893), who moved from Beverly, Mass., to Lowell, where her mother ran a mill boarding house while young Lucy tended machines in a factory with other “mill girls” in the 1830s. Larcom wrote poems and the memoir “A New England Girlhood,” which was an early classic of the genre. She was active with writers at “The Lowell Offering” magazine, including Harriet Curtis and Harriet H. Robinson, both of whom were members of a women’s literary circle in Dracut in the 1840s.
Larcom ventured west to teach in Illinois before returning to Massachusetts, where she taught at Wheaton Female Seminary and worked as an editor of several publications. She was an ally of Whittier in the abolition movement and collaborated with him on publishing projects. Her poem “Weaving” expresses solidarity with enslaved black women harvesting cotton for shipment to Lowell’s profitable textile manufacturers. The unholy link between “the Lords of the Lash and Lords of the Loom” held fast until the Civil War ruptured the business partnerships.
Introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), President Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” After the enormously popular and consequential “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly” was published in 1852, Stowe moved to Andover the same year with her husband, the religious scholar Calvin Snow of the Andover Theological Seminary. In the 19th century, the only book to outsell her anti-slavery novel was the Bible. While in Andover, she continued to write both prose and poems, though she is not as well known for the latter. Nancy Lusignan Schultz of Salem State University is working on an edition of Stowe’s collected poems.
The mid-20th century was John P. Marquand’s time in the literary sun. With roots in Newburyport’s high-yield seafaring era, Marquand (1893-1960) graduated from Newburyport High School at a time when his extended family had fallen in social rank. After Harvard College, where he wrote for the “Lampoon,” and a stint of magazine articles, he won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Late George Apley” in 1938, a novel and sly memoir that makes sophisticated fun of Boston’s upper class. His Mr. Moto espionage stories, the basis of films starring Peter Lorre, gained him a wide readership. An industrious writer, Marquand’s oeuvre includes 22 novels and collections of short stories. He’s buried at Sawyer Hill Burial Ground close to Maudslay State Park.
Two of the most admired prose writers since World War II called this region home.
John Updike (1932-2009) lived in Georgetown, bordering the valley, from 1976 to 1982 and spent most of his adult life in northeast Massachusetts. His hometowns figured in his books. For example, “Rabbit Is Rich” represents Georgetown, where he would be seen running like the novel’s lead, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. The author was a familiar face in the region, collecting an honorary degree from UMass Lowell in 1980 and giving a talk sponsored by the local Kerouac group, which is interesting, given that Updike parodied Kerouac’s “On the Road” as naive in an essay titled “On the Sidewalk” for The New Yorker at the height of the Beat author’s newsmaking.
For too long, the books of Andre Dubus II (1936-1999) books were like delicious meals served at a 30-seat restaurant that foodies with inside knowledge enjoyed for themselves. His reputation grew as publisher David R. Godine of Boston issued one collection of stories after another, the work drawing accolades from Updike and other reviewers. Dubus’ fortitude paid off as the “writers’ writer” crested the literary hill into “readers’ writer” altitude. His stories are being reissued in handsome volumes by Godine with introductions by Ann Beattie, Richard Russo and Tobias Wolff.
In 1986, I wrote to Dubus to invite him to Lowell for a writers’ series I was organizing. He accepted gladly and read on April Fools’ Day in the national park auditorium, paired with Peggy Rambach, who read her own gritty local stories. My journal tells me he read his story “Townies” from the book “Finding a Girl in America,” and to this day my wife remembers the deep empathy in his reading of “The Fat Girl.” We adjourned to an Irish pub across the street, where we talked about trains, Raymond Carver, a triple murder in Hollywood and, of course, the Red Sox, with him reciting a suggested lineup for Opening Day. I wrote the next day: “He’s on the verge of breaking through to a huge audience, but for now he’s not out of reach and still among us.”
One of his sons, Andre III, who has risen to the top rank of writers (“House of Sand and Fog,” “Gone So Long”), appeared this spring at the Newburyport Literary Festival with author Peter Orner (“Am I Alone Here?,” “Esther Stories”), talking about the elder Dubus’ influence on other writers and themselves, as well as the place of his work in the American catalogue.
I have my worn yellow paperback of “Separate Flights” (1975) with blurbs on the back cover saying Dubus is the nation’s “most underrated writer” (Atlantic Monthly) and comparing him to Anton Chekhov (Los Angeles Times). How satisfying it is to see this author’s work flying gracefully through the wide blue sky of bookland today.
[This is the first of two articles about writers in the Merrimack Valley. In the September/October issue of mvm, Paul Marion will return to take a look at today’s writers of note.]