Mark Twain's house is on this literary road trip.
Summer is prime season for road trips. In the next few months, thousands of families and individuals will explore the highways and byways of North America, many of them setting out to complete trips through national parks or along coastlines. But as incredible as these classic journeys are, you don’t have to confine yourself to a traditional road trip. Why not let your imagination run wild? With so many amazing sights and so many miles of roads meandering across the continent, the possibilities are endless for crafting journeys to fit almost any imaginable interest.
For instance, do you have a passion for literature? Then why not plan a trip that takes you past the homes of some famous North American authors? To get your creative travel juices flowing, I’ve outlined here a literary road trip through New England that would bring you to the towns of ten authors, from Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau to Jack Kerouac and Robert Frost.
All of these sites are within a few hours of each other, but you'll probably want to allow at least four days for this trip in order to fully experience the stops along the way. At the bottom of the article is a link to a Google Map with driving directions.
Let’s get started.
The Hartford of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe
We’re going to begin this particular journey in Hartford, Connecticut, about two hours northeast of New York City. Hartford today may be known as the “Insurance City,” but in the late 1800’s it was home to two of America’s most beloved authors.
Mark Twain spent his childhood on the banks of the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri, but he penned some of his most famous works while living in Connecticut. The Mark Twain House and Museum is in a 19-room manor that was home to Twain and his family from 1874 to 1891. It was here that he wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi and other works. In addition to house tours, the museum offers exhibitions and frequent lectures and performances.
Around the corner from Twain’s house is the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, in the home where she lived from 1873 to 1896. Stowe wrote 30 books, but she is most famous for the 1852 publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the anti-slavery novel that became an international bestseller. Visitors will learn not only about her life, but also about issues relating to African-American and women’s history.
Emily Dickinson's Amherst
From Hartford, drive an hour north on I-91 to the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, where you can sample the educational vibe as well as the life of one of the country’s greatest poets.
Emily Dickinson was a supremely talented but reclusive poet who rarely left home. Although she wrote nearly 1,800 poems, her work was virtually unknown before her death in 1886. The Emily Dickinson Museum comprises the Homestead home where she lived for much of her life, as well as The Evergreens house next door that was occupied by her brother and sister-in-law. You can visit both sites as you explore her poetry.
The literati of Concord – Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott, Hawthorne
From Amherst, you’ll head to Concord, Massachusetts, which is a one-and-a-half hour trip along scenic Route 2. There, you’ll find one of the world’s most surprising literary hot spots.
It’s sometimes difficult to believe that so many famous authors once walked the streets of this small and quintessentially New England town – and all at the same time. The city’s most famous writer is perhaps Henry David Thoreau, who is renowned for his book Walden. The manuscript details his extended retreat at Walden Pond, which is now a state park and home to a replica of Thoreau’s cabin.
Thoreau in turn was part of the Transcendentalist circle that gathered around Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most famous American writers and lecturers of the 19th century and the author of such essays as Nature and Self-Reliance. You can visit the Emerson House, where he lived much of his adult life.
Just down the road is Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott when she wrote Little Women, a story that is also set at this location. The home known as the Wayside was also once owned by the Alcott family – until they sold it to Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter and other works. Hawthorne also lived for a time in the Old Manse.
While you're in Concord, you might want to visit the Old North Bridge, where the first shots were fired in the American Revolutionary War. At the very least, you can’t leave town without making a pilgrimage to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and its famed Author’s Ridge. There, you’ll find the graves of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and the Alcotts, keeping each other company for eternity atop a picturesque hill.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Cambridge
It’s only about a 20-minute jaunt from Concord down Route 2 to Cambridge, where there is another college town and the home of another poet.
At the Longfellow National Historic Site you’ll visit the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was considered the preeminent American poet of his time. Remarkably, this building is also famous because George Washington stayed here when he took command of the Continental Army during the Siege of Boston in 1775-76. After your tour, you can walk five minutes down the street and tour the campus of Harvard University, have a bite to eat in eclectic Harvard Square and relax for a bit by the banks of the Charles River.
Salem's House of Seven Gables
From Cambridge, it’s a 45-minute drive to the coastal town of Salem, Massachusetts, where mysteries await. Although you just saw where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived while he was in Concord, you can now see the building that inspired him to write The House of Seven Gables. Built in 1688, this is the oldest surviving 17th century wooden mansion in New England. After touring the house and its famous secret staircase, stroll over to the home where Hawthorne was born in 1804. This building was moved from a few blocks away so it could share the grounds of the Seven Gables mansion.
Before leaving town, you might want to visit the Salem Witch Museum to explore the witchcraft panic that gripped the area in 1692. You can also visit the historic Old Town of neighboring Marblehead. Then it’s back "on the road." Literally. You’ll see why after a 45-minute drive to northern Massachusetts and the industrial town of Lowell, Massachusetts.
Jack Kerouac’s Lowell
The iconic author of On the Road is closely identified with his hometown of Lowell. There is a Jack Kerouac Commemorative in Kerouac Park on Bridge Street and the author is buried in the town’s Edson Cemetery. Perhaps the best way to learn about the writer who popularized the Beat Generation, though, is to take a walking tour of Kerouac’s Lowell, where you can learn about some of the places that influenced his life.
New Hampshire, Vermont and Robert Frost
Finally, it’s time to head into southern New Hampshire and Vermont. There you'll pay tribute to Robert Frost, the prototypical New England poet. Derry, New Hampshire, is across the border from Massachusetts and Frost had a 30-acre farm there from 1900 to 1911. He worked as a farmer and a teacher while in his spare time he tried to perfect his writing. At the Robert Frost Farm, visitors can tour the farm house, walk along the Hyla Brook nature-poetry trail, or attend a summer lecture series.
If you want to commune more with Frost it will take a drive of about three more hours. But it's a lovely trip through southern Vermont, the town of Brattleboro, and the Green Mountain National Forest. Then, at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in South Shaftsbury, you will not only see where Frost lived from 1920 to 1929, but also where he composed some of his most famous poems, including Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Along the way, you can visit Frost’s grave in nearby Bennington, where he and his wife are buried in the Old Bennington Cemetery.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’ve managed to explore the lives and homes of ten of the greatest authors to ever live in New England and you’ve encountered some of the prettiest landscapes in the region along the way. To get back to your starting point in Hartford, it's about a two-hour trip and the first leg is a wonderful drive through the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Or, you can head off in another direction and on any other journey that you choose.
Map and directions
Here is a map of this road trip. If you click on the "Literary New England" link, it will take you to a larger map and more detailed information about the journey.
View Literary New England in a larger map
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