"The North Shore Literary Trail" by Kristin Bierfelt will tell readers everything they want to know about Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Olson, Jack Kerouac and all the other writers, well- or barely known, who have lived in this region.

All the sites where they lived and worked, that inspired them and appeared in their writings, are described and presented in photos.

But Bierfelt's guide should especially benefit local readers for whom familiarity might have bred indifference to this history.

That is almost understandable in Essex County, with its abundant literary heritage. But driving past the sign for John Greenleaf Whittier's house on Interstate 495 once a day shouldn't substitute for reading his poetry.

If the Whittier Homestead in Haverhill can seem like a tourist trap, that is in part because literary history has erected its own, misleading sign in front of this poet's work.

As Bierfelt points out, Whittier has always been lumped together with Holmes, Longfellow, Bryant and Lowell "as the Fireside Poets, in part because their traditionally styled verses were easy to memorize and share around the hearth."

In other words, so the name implies, they could put you to sleep. The work of The Fireside Poets, Bierfelt continues, "has strong moral themes, and dealt with mythology and legend, as well as American politics." This has usually meant that reading them is like being lectured to by old graybeards.

This reaction is especially true for modern readers, who tend to separate the aesthetic from the moral in literature, to focus on the effect of language at the expense of what it says.

Whittier's poetry is a rebuke to this attitude. Its political commitments started with the abolition of slavery and extended to other causes and issues of his day. His radicalism, in addressing events like the Haitian revolution, is all the more intense for being honed by formal control.

Far from sententious, Whittier is sensational. Small wonder, as Bierfelt says, that crowds pelted him with eggs for the views he expressed in poetry.

Rediscovering a writer's works, then, which Bierfelt's book encourages readers to do, is the best vantage from which to understand the history that contains them, and to appreciate the region in which they lived.

Beyond Whittier, Robert Frost and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bierfelt introduces us to Jones Very of Salem, who wrote "intensely pious Shakespearean sonnets that fascinated the Transcendentalists in the 1830s and '40s."

We also meet John Marquand of Newburyport, who satirized Boston's upper classes in "The Late George Apley" and wrote detective novels that were turned into movies starring Peter Lorre.

A local might quibble that Bierfelt missed the fact that T.S. Eliot spent his summers in Gloucester and wrote one of his "Four Quartets," called "The Dry Salvages," about those rocks off Rockport. Or that her directions to Anne Bradstreet's grave site apparently confuse Andover with North Andover.

But these are more than made up for with gratitude on learning about Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, who wrote young adult literature in the 19th century, and her daughter Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, who wrote a wide variety of fiction under her mother's name.

One is especially surprised to find that, all this time, the house where they lived in Andover is less than a quarter-mile from one's own.

Book signings

What: Kristin Bierfelt, author's presentation of "The North Shore Literary Trail" (The History Press, 2009, $18.99)

Where and When: Cornerstone Books, Wednesday, May 20, 7 p.m., 45 Lafayette St., Salem; The Andover Book Store, Thursday, May 21, 7 p.m., 89 Main St. rear, Andover; Barnes & Noble, Saturday, June 6, 1 to 3 p.m., behind Northshore Mall, Peabody.

Trending Video

Recommended for you