I spent a week in Bloomsbury in August of 1993 while researching Confederate naval intrigues in England and its colonies. I selected my hotel mainly for its proximity to the British Library but partly for the nearby buildings Confederate agents and emissaries had frequented in the 1860s. The intellectual history of Bloomsbury exerted no influence on my choice: I had little interest in the literary emanations of the Bloomsbury Group and even less in the more unconventional tendency of its extracurricular excesses.
Bloomsbury seemed far too crowded and noisy for the satisfactory indulgence of creative pursuits, which could explain my tepid enthusiasm for the artistic output of its more renowned residents. Visual arts may be less vulnerable to the distractions of street sounds and chattering neighbors, but assembling words in a pleasing and persuasive fashion requires long periods of silence — first for reflection, and then for expression. That maxim was continually reinforced during my years in a newsroom, where there was no door to close against the din of competing discussions.
Even before electronic appliances and the internal combustion engine began extinguishing silence, the clamor of family life impeded those who tried to scrawl thoughts on paper. A writer’s worst enemy, after all, is the intruder knocking at the door, literally or figuratively, and would-be authors of yesteryear often had the misfortune to be saddled with numerous, persistently inquisitive siblings. The garret hideaway became emblematic of literary ambition precisely because it interjected an empty floor between the writer and the center of daytime activity, and because it took longer for anyone to think of looking there. Eventually, though, someone seeking the missing family member would come clumping up to the attic, and the scrivener’s secret was gone forever.
For all her depictions of close-knit Victorian families, pestering interruptions from her sisters and her maundering idealist of a father sent Louisa May Alcott looking for occasional solitude in isolated farmhouses. In the summer of 1874, she chose Danforth Atherton’s farm in South Conway, probably having heard of its secluded location and inspiring views from the Concord kin of Atherton’s first wife. She was working that summer on the novel she would call “Eight Cousins,” and with no one to bother her she must have made good headway, because the book was advertised for serial publication the following January. Descriptions in it hint that the abandoned church and the defunct Goshen Seminary provided her with subject matter, and perhaps with periodic refuge for composition.
North Conway drew tourists in search of scenery, or socialites who wanted to be seen at one of their era’s more popular resorts. South Conway appealed to those who did not want to be seen at all — who could appreciate the mountains from a distance.
In 1890, Joseph Nesmith, a Harvard classmate of Theodore Roosevelt’s, started buying parts of decaying farms along South Conway’s border with Eaton, building a hideaway where he could paint the scenery on the far side of Walker’s Pond. Some of that land found its way into the hands of other painters, but writers were more prominent along Nesmith’s stretch of Potter Road.
In the 1920s, Francis Westbrook took ownership of the Davidson farm, at the intersection of Potter Road and the McQuade Road, where he wrote books and articles on electrical and mechanical engineering. Westbrook divorced his wife while living there, taking up with one of Joe Nesmith’s daughters. When the two of them decamped for Vermont, they sold the place to Ira Glackens. During 25 years or more at the old house, Glackens wrote a book about his father, William Glackens, and the other artists in the Ashcan Group — as well as biographies of soprano Lillian Nordica and the reputed ninth-century female pontiff, Pope Joan. He also wrote a Civil War novel set in a fictionalized South Conway.
The most prolific author in that sector bought a rural sanctum on the town line in 1937, a few weeks after graduating from Harvard University. Edmund S. Morgan taught at Yale for decades, earning academic acclaim in that vanished era when universities evaluated professors on their erudition, rather than by the degree of servility with which they embrace progressive orthodoxy. For three-quarters of a century, Morgan’s summer home on Potter Road provided the tranquil surroundings that helped him produce more than a dozen books and an endless stream of scholarly articles.
I read Morgan’s book on John Winthrop in college. His last book was on my nightstand when he died in 2013, but I was still unaware that during my entire lifetime he had been so near a neighbor in this little backwater. That nevertheless made sense. Serious writers don’t choose the country for the society, after all, but for the solitude.
William Marvel is a resident of South Conway.