Travel Through the Pages: New England
Growing up in New England, I always took it for granted that I lived in one of the greatest literary and historical hubs in the United States. I often spent time in my teenage years slowly sipping coffee around the corner from the Paul Revere house, or browsing the collection of literature on display at the Concord Bookshop in Massachusetts. I lived in Salem and frequently walked past the graves of the women and men who were killed during the Witch Trials. When my boyfriend and I went for leisurely walks along the trails in Lexington, we passed numerous sites where men fought during the Revolution. When you grow up outside of Boston, these things are part of you in a way that feels as fundamental as the circulatory system. It never occurred to me that wading in the water of Walden Pond or walking past the gravestone of Louisa May Alcott were instances of privilege.
There have always been so many things to love about the city of Boston, my home, and New England as a whole. Crisp autumn days where the leaves are brilliant hues of red, gold, and orange. Summer evenings spent eating ice cream while staring out at the ocean in New Hampshire and Maine. Lazy Saturday afternoons strolling through the Boston Public Library or early Sunday mornings spent hiking mountains in Vermont. I love few things in this world more than the upper floor of the Shake Shack in Cambridge where I can always grab a window seat overlooking a small square near John F. Kennedy Street. New England is home to some of the most prestigious colleges, has reared past presidents and poet laureates, and it has served as inspiration for some of the most notable films and novels of all time.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I’m taking yet another opportunity to discuss this novel. The Secret History is my absolute favorite book—a book that I love so much, I quite literally had to take a break from reading after the first time I finished it because I knew I would never love another book this much ever again. Set at the fictional Hampden College (based on Tartt’s alma mater, Bennington College) in Vermont, The Secret History follows a group of six classics students who blur the lines between murder and morality. A thousand dark academia Tumblr mood boards were launched in the wake of this beautifully written, hauntingly moving novel. Get lost in pages full of scenic New England descriptions that will leave the tip of your nose cold and will make you reach for a pair of thick rimmed glasses and a well-loved sweater.
Little WomeN, Louisa May Alcott
(Novel, 1868. Film adaptations: 1918, 1933, 1949, 1994, 2019)
Arguably one of the most popular novels ever written, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is about the lives of the lovable March sisters. The story is set in a Massachusetts town inspired by Alcott’s own home in Concord and the characters are largely considered to be depictions of Alcott’s sisters. Little Women is the quintessential New England novel and has been adapted for the screen—both silver and small—numerous times over the years. The most recent adaptation is spearheaded by Greta Gerwig, and features a knock-out cast including Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, and James Norton. The 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder is a personal favorite.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
While portions of the book unfold in New York City, The Bell Jar includes scenes in Massachusetts where the main character, Esther, is from. Plath herself was born in Boston and The Bell Jar is considered a somewhat autobiographical account of Plath’s descent into depression. The novel follows Esther as she struggles to find her footing in the world, jumping from a magazine internship in the Big Apple to psychotherapy sessions back home in Massachusetts. If you have yet to introduce yourself to Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar is the perfect place to start.
The Truro Bear and Other Adventures, Mary Oliver
(Poems and essays, 2008)
Mary Oliver was born in Ohio but spent most of her adult life living in Provincetown, Massachusetts with her partner, Molly Malone Cook. Many of Mary Oliver’s famous poems are inspired by the New England landscape, but The Truro Bear features several references to the vibrancy of Cape Cod living. This is the perfect collection to read as the summer slips silently into the next season.
Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant
There will never be a better movie set in Boston. The film follows titular character Will Hunting, played brilliantly by Matt Damon, as he struggles to reconcile the two conflicting parts of his personality. Considered a genius after he solves a difficult math equation while working as a janitor at MIT, Will Hunting embarks on a journey of self-discovery that will alternately make you laugh and cry in equal measure. The beloved Robin Williams plays Hunting’s therapist Sean Maguire, and their friendship is the most enjoyable part of the movie. Filmed around the city of Boston, Good Will Hunting is full of picturesque shots of Harvard University, Harvard Square, and the Boston Public Garden.
Dead Poets Society, Peter Weir
Another New England film starring Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society takes place at the fictional Welton Academy in Vermont. Williams plays an inspired English teacher who seeks to change the lives of his students through a love of the written word. This is the perfect film to watch at the cusp of autumn, as it features golden sunsets, changing leaves, and stunning hardwood floors. Dead Poets Society is peak academic aesthetic, though I must say I was ultimately disappointed in the ending.
Mona Lisa Smile, Mike Newell
If you have ever thought to yourself, “Does the perfect film exist?” the answer is yes, and that movie is Mona Lisa Smile. Led by the ever-wonderful Julia Roberts, the film follows her character Katherine Watson as she attempts to teach art history to the lively female students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. There are themes of romance and independence, beautiful plaid coats, and valuable lessons about what it means to follow your dreams as a woman living in a world designed to work against you.
Katherine Porter, Maud Morgan, and Emma Lewis Coleman
(Artists and photographers)
While New England is primarily regarded for its historical and literary significance, several notable artists and photographers launched their careers within the borders of these states. One of the most compelling examples of artistic precedence in New England can be found in the body of work produced by Katherine Porter. Though born in Iowa, Porter attended Boston University and has spent her most productive years in Maine. Even as she moved to new places and went on exciting adventures across the globe, Porter continued to exhibit her art in New England. Her paintings are often described as contemporary, though Porter herself resists the compulsion to define her own work.
Maud Morgan was a modernist painter who had her work featured in exhibits alongside pieces by Jackson Pollock. Known for her vibrant social life, which consisted of travelling throughout Europe with James Joyce, Morgan thought that living in Andover, Massachusetts had stifled her career. She had relocated to the small New England town with her husband and felt as though it was this move from the art epicenter of New York City that caused her to fall into general obscurity in relation to her male counterparts. Despite this feeling of resentment toward Massachusetts, Maud Morgan lived in the state until her death in 1999 at the age of 99. Her work has been exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Boston Public Library, and the Addison Gallery in Andover.
Emma Lewis Coleman was a photographer, multimedia artist, and a writer who worked primarily in York, Maine and Deerfield, Massachusetts. She focused on capturing images of rural life in New England, and many of her most popular photographs depict small coastal towns, rolling hills, and historic buildings. Coleman’s photographs were often staged as she enjoyed inviting friends up from Boston to recreate different farming practices. She is known for providing illustrations for the book Deephaven, which was written by fellow New England artist Sarah Orne Jewett.
Other Literary Notables
The list of famous writers who were born, lived in, or wrote in New England is seemingly endless. An entire article could be written about each of them, but I wanted to take a moment to supply a short list here for those who are unfamiliar with the area. New England has served as inspiration for Edith Wharton, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Sexton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Stephen King, and H.P. Lovecraft. To name a few.
And because I can never resist the urge to recommend more novels, movies, and television shows based in New England, the following are a few of my personal favorites:
The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
It by Stephen King
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
In The Heart of the Sea
The Family Stone
Sabrina, the Teenage Witch
Sam Cohen is a writer and editor based in New England. She lives with her wonderful partner Caleb, and enjoys learning new languages, drinking lattes, and spending time with her loved ones. Sam is an avid reader who practices yoga and tries to laugh as often as possible.