Make Way for Literary Tourism

"Poe-Boy Sandwich," anyone? Boston's newly inaugurated "Literary District" is the latest and most concerted attempt by a city to make a vacation destination out of dead authors' haunts.

Like many Americans, I take the subway to work, and like a growing portion of Americans, I take in a bit of poetry on my way. Reading the last stanza of Walt Whitman’s poem “The Wound-Dresser” has become a fixture of my morning commute in Washington, D.C., because its words are engraved into the wall of Dupont Circle Station at the exact eye line of commuters stuck on its endless escalator. Those words are so unmissable that one day I had to look them up—and thus learned that my daily dose of culture was inspired by a sobering period in the transcendentalist poet’s life when, as part of his search for his wounded brother George, he worked as a nurse treating Civil War soldiers arriving in the District.

These days, such unwitting literary lessons are quite common for city commuters. Thanks to the success of the Poetry in Motion program on New York City transportation, the practice of replacing ads with verse has expanded to more than 20 cities nationwide. Little Free Libraries, which began in 2009, enjoys an even greater audience, having branched out to 50 states and 70 countries. And then there are the localized initiatives: Here in D.C. we have poetry benches, New York has Haiku traffic signs, and Detroit is giving away houses for free to writers.

Now the city of Boston is embracing the spirit behind these sly literary popups, but in a new way. This past week, the city inaugurated the nation's first “Literary District,” a bookish spin on the state’s “Cultural District” initiative, with a website consolidating information on the neighborhood’s literary cred and a calendar of events. (Those include such delights as impromptu Writers Booths, conversations with local bloggers, tours of the hotel where Ho Chi Minh was a baker and Malcolm X a busboy, and themed cuisine such as the “Mel-Ville Chowder” and “Poe-Boy Sandwich.”) All will take place within the district’s perimeters, the tourist-friendly area that extends from Back Bay East through Beacon Hill and ends at the southernmost tip of the Financial District.

The one-time homes of Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Robert Lowell, Henry James, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes are within the perimeter, as are the former offices of The Colored American Magazine, The Woman’s Journal, and, yours truly, The Atlantic. The district’s goal is to make this rich intellectual history more “visible,” according to Literary District Coordinator Larry Lindner. He’s planning to eventually add honorary plaques and verse in store windows, then map all, virtually, in several themed tour apps, according to Boston Magazine. Phase One began on Sunday with the unveiling of a new statue of Edgar Allan Poe.

The state stands to benefit financially by attracting bookish tourists to bookish places. Boston, of course, already has plenty such places: In addition to the historic delights of literary homes and monuments of maritime historians, there are hotels and restaurants that fit into the theme, too. Visitors to the former home of John Updike can also stay in the Taj Boston (where Tennessee Williams revised A Streetcar Named Desire), support the Dartmouth Bookstall (which famously defied the censorship of Erskine Caldwell’s 1944 novel Tragic Ground), and, per the official press release, promote business and job growth and enhance property values in their own eclectic, well-educated way.

Literary theme park? Not quite, according to Lindner. Tourists who buy the complete package (or, at least, patronize the places suggested on the website) are the district's “sweet spot,” but organizers are hoping that locals who don’t consider themselves big readers will get something out of the experience, too. Lindner's more interested in the effect that the events—spontaneous readings, festivals, and poetry slams—could have on unsuspecting passers-by. He wants appearances by big, bestselling names like the Boston-bred Dennis Lehane to attract people who wouldn’t otherwise put lectures on their agenda.

“Then it’s not just people walking down the street with shopping bags and Starbucks cups," he says, "it’s people being exposed to poetry in a really cool way.”

The trick is distracting the visitors from the cool diversions that are already there, like Copley Plaza, the Old City Hall, and that bar from Cheers. (In 1896, Edward Bellamy stood in a location marked on the district’s map and predicted that by the year 2000, when his Boston novel Looking Backward is set, the city would be “Stores! Stores! Stores! Miles of stores!”—a description that looks remarkably prescient today.)

Boston’s plans have drawn criticism from some actual writers, who complain that the makeover only underscores the fact that most living, breathing artists of their craft could never actually afford to live there. That’s not something Lindner’s kidding himself about: “I’m a writer myself so I’m not speaking just theoretically,” he says. “When you decide on the writer’s life, you know you’re not going to start out living on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Arlington Street.”  (Though eventually, with great success, you could: David McCullough and Robin Cook both live within the boundaries of the district.)

Writers might have to get used to the idea that their craft is also an appealing decorative theme. Literary tourism is a niche business, but more cities are partaking in it: Alice Munro’s hometown Wingham, Ontario recently release a Request for Proposal to pursue “new and innovative economic opportunities” after the author won her Nobel Prize in 2013 (no word as to whether she signed off on the idea). And last year, Harper Lee sued a museum in her hometown Monroeville, Alabama, for failing to compensate her for the proceeds they had reaped from To Kill a Mockingbird-themed souvenirs and setting up shop in a courthouse significant to the book's plot. Both parties settled earlier this year.

For those who plan their travels around the books they read, the experience can be more immersive and fulfilling than your standard vacation. The media-tourism project Locating Imagination's Nicky van Es, a Ph.D. candidate at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, researches tourists like the ones Boston wants to attract. He has visited London, Los Angeles, and Stockholm to study crime-fiction tourism, and he's learned that people who follow in the footsteps of Lisbeth Salander and Sherlock Holmes tend to feel glad that they’ve avoided typical tourists traps. They’re motivated to visit the settings of gruesome books, he says, “from a desire to get a more full and more ‘real’ experience of a city.” Whether or not they’re getting the authentic experience by visiting these cities’ fictional underbellies, tourism agencies claim that such vacationers tend to stay longer and spend more. As Nigel Beale, the founder and editor of Literary Tourist, pointed out to me, his organization's studies show cultural tourists have proven to be a very lucrative and well-heeled set.

Whether non-enthusiasts will embrace Boston’s bookish offerings is less certain. It’s possible that laypeople will partake in the plethora of free events offered in the district’s calendar, but purchase themed items without being at all aware of their significance to the city’s literary culture (pumpkin pie, for instance, is always excellent in fall, regardless of the fact that it was the only thing Edgar Allan Poe liked about his hometown). But perhaps some will end up more educated—those, like myself, who pass the plaques and monuments so often that one day they finally decide to pull out their phones and give themselves a lesson.