Quotation marks are safe inclosures for words in danger of losing their place. The words at the head of this paper have been dragged relentlessly from one American city to another, and have before them a prospect of endless migration. Their meaning, too, is subject to indefinite change. The centre may be that of the writing, the printing, or the reading of books. A courageous confidence is needed to say that this, that, or the other place is or will be the "literary centre of America." It is the fortune of the present writer to be dealing with what has been, and the assertion that Boston was the literary centre—without quotation marks—during the period in which American literature acquired a shelf of its own in the library of the race is hardly open to dispute. The production of books possessing something like permanence is perhaps the most characteristic mark of a centre to which the term literary, in its true meaning of "related to literature," may be applied. Name the American writers whose work has stood the test of half a century, and with a few notable exceptions they belong to Boston and its neighborhood. All this is thrice familiar. The record of it, in outline or in detail, is a story which has been told by many tongues and many pens. If we look rather at the significance of the story, and try to give it its place in the longer story of Boston, the more immediate purpose will be served.
Amongst the many fields of activity into which Boston has made an early or the earliest entry, the field of creative writing—not for instruction or argument—can hardly be counted. It is to other places that we must look for the first important contributions to what is called American literature. Yet in Philadelphia and New York the first comers, Charles Brockden Brown, Irving, and Cooper, each enjoyed some of the distinction of the solitary. Brown has become a mere name in literary history; the others live. But when they made their appearance, it was rather as detached luminaries than as planets or fixed stars belonging to a system. The life of the communities in which they lived had not reached the organic state demanding expression in literature, and finding it at the hands of a body, however small, which could be called a literary class. In Boston, at this early period, the condition was much the same with the two differences that the individual writers of distinction were yet appear, and that influences were at work, perhaps more powerfully than anywhere else in America, toward making a definite expression through literature at some later time almost a necessity. These influences called into being the Anthology Club, the Athenaeum, and the North American Review. The unremitting influence of Harvard College, sending its sons year by year into the pulpits, counting-houses, and professional offices of Boston, had also to be reckoned with. For the devotion of any considerable number of these or other men to the pursuit of literature, the time was not yet ripe. Questions of politics laid claim to much the best thought of the best thinkers. As before the Revolution, so in the active days of the Federalist party, the newspaper press abounded in contributions, frequently over classic pseudonyms, from the ablest men in the community. Thus the place which the Federalist, farther South, won for itself in the early literature of the country was not wholly with out its counterpart in the current productions of Boston writers. It was Boston editor, by the way, who is said to have coined the phrase, "The era of good feeling," adopted with unanimity by historians of the United States. The influences of journalistic writing, however, being those which Boston shared with her sister towns, are not of present concern.
Mr. Howells has spoken of the "Augustan Age" of literature in Boston as "the Unitarian harvest-time of the old Puritanic seedtime." It is a good definition; but in the seed-time should surely be included the earlier years of the nineteenth century, when Unitarianism was making its way. One who reads not a separate paper on the "Unitarian controversy," but also the writings of the leaders in the new movement, cannot fail to be impressed with the mere literary skill of these writers. Besides having ideas which they wished to urge, they knew how to urge them. Their grace and cogency of style implied both an effective training in the use of the writer's tools and the existence of an audience capable of appreciating such use. Butterflies are not deliberately brought to a wheel for breaking. The very nature of a controversy which meant much to so large a portion of the community bespoke the presence of a class to which the things of the mind and the spirit were of high importance—from which the evolution of a smaller "literary class" was easily possible.
Of the rise of the Transcendental Movement the Unitarian body as such would have held itself innocent. A shrewd observer of the intellectual life of Boston, the Rev. Dr. O. B. Frothingham, once wrote of his native town, "It was always remarkable for explosions of mind." By the conservative element Transcendentalism was frankly regarded as one of these explosions. Of its practical value, as a moral agency, Father Taylor, the Methodist missionary to sailors, probably spoke for many of his contemporaries when he said of a Transcendental discourse he had just heard: "It would take as many sermons like that to convert a human soul as it would quarts of skimmed milk to make a man drunk." In looking back upon Transcendentalism, however, and upon the influences surrounding its birth, the spirit which animated the Unitarian Movement, if not Unitarianism itself, stands forth conspicuous. As the later religious thought of Theodore Parker carried to its conclusion one tendency of Unitarian thinking, so the philosophic thought of Transcendentalism seized upon and carried out another. The dropping of many was the best preparation for that omitting of all traditions from the mind, which Emerson considered the essence of the new philosophy.