The Books that Built America

The United States was built on New England, and New England was built on literature.

The six states of New England – Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut – make up the country’s first and foremost region. It's where the Pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620, and it has produced a complex web of stories ever since. Some of them are starchy and prudish, others transcendentally spiritual, and still more are just a fun yarn. To really know America you need to know the best New England books. So start with these five titles.

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1851 Hawthorne is the author of The Scarlet Letter, his classic novel of sin and redemption, with the famous scarlet ‘A’ signifying adultery. It is perhaps America's most-assigned high school English book but House is more interesting because it’s just stranger, a complex ghost story that manages to touch on another New England obsession: real estate, specifically, clapboard homes and the secrets lying within those seemingly proper exteriors. Another New Englander, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, called it a “weird, wild book.”

To get the flavor: The House of the Seven Gables is set in Salem, Massachusetts, home to 17th-century witch trials and also Hawthorne’s hometown. Salem’s new 11-room boutique hotel The Merchant is set in a 200-year-old historic building, but decorated with modern panache.

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, 1956 This gossipy story about 1950s America is also the classic novel of New England small-mindedness. Incredibly, Metalious was a first-time novelist who struck it rich with a tale of class resentments, affairs, and dirty secrets, all set in a placid New Hampshire town. It spawned a movie and then a TV series—with early roles for Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal—not to mention a book sequel. Though Metalious was warning against superficial judgments, what people remember are the pot-boiler plot points.

To get the flavor: A mill-owning family figures prominently in the book, so staying at the Inn at Mill Falls, a 54-room hotel set in a 19th-century linen factory, makes sense. It’s in Meredith, New Hampshire, on the banks of one of the state’s scenic treasures, Lake Winnipesaukee.

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King, 1992 You have to have one book by Stephen King, the horror master and Maine native. A psychological thriller that doesn’t resort to ghosts or supernatural doings, as King often does, this best-seller by one of the most popular authors of all time gets at some of the dourness of the region with its tale of housekeeper wrongly accused of murder. (In the film version, Kathy Bates, who won an Oscar for the movie adaptation of King’s Misery, proves herself again as the lead.) Set on the rustic Maine coast, the story hinges on a solar eclipse, illustrating a central feature of the attitudes of flinty New Englanders: They can always find the darkness in any light situation.

To get the flavor: King hails from Portland, and the 110-room Press Hotel that opened there in 2015 in the former home of the state’s largest newspaper makes for a perfect place to contemplate writing in all its forms.

Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau, 1854 Before three-day weekends, yoga retreats and recycling bins were universal, Thoreau was all-in for Mother Nature. This is one of the essential American books, anticipating and defining environmentalism and spiritual questing in general. Thoreau, a native of Concord, Massachusetts, went to live on Walden Pond—on picturesque land owned by his friend and Transcendentalist pioneer, the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson—for more than two years. The book he wrote chronicles the transformation he underwent. He learned to live simply, with economy, and in tune with surroundings. But he wasn’t a hermit: He kept three chairs in case of visitors, and the cabin he built was only a 30-minute walk from his parent’s house. We’re still learning how to let go without completely losing touch.

To get the flavor: The pond itself can still be visited, a short drive outside of Boston. Walden Pond State Reservation offers swimming and boating in season, and there’s even a recreation of the famous cabin.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, 1868–69 Published in two parts, this novel is the fundamental girl’s story of the 19th century, detailing a cozy and wholesome New England home with three sisters, based on Alcott’s own childhood in Concord, Massachusetts. Though there’s drama, it managed to be kid-friendly, then and now. Alcott, who grew up in a home that was a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves, was a fierce moralist who fought for women’s right to vote. Though her characters usually married off, she remained happily single: Girls could and should do as they liked, in her estimation.

To get the flavor: Why not try one of the nearby Boston restaurants of pioneering female chef Barbara Lynch, especially No. 9 Park in swanky Beacon Hill? Lynch’s new memoir is called Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire. Alcott would approve.

Text: Ted Loos

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