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The Long Path

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Tremont St
Boston, MA 02111 United States

“Will you take the long path with me?”

Those words were immortalized by the Autocrat of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.’s 1858 collection of essays, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. They are spoken to the schoolmistress, who quickly agrees.

“—Think, —I said, —before you answer: if you take the long path with me now, I shall interpret it that we are to part no more! —The schoolmistress stepped back with a sudden movement, as if an arrow had struck her… —Pray, sit down, —I said. —No, no, she answered, softly, —I will walk the long path with you!”

Holmes, born in Cambridge and schooled at Harvard, was referring to the longest north-south path across the Common, which he describes in his essay:

“The mall, or boulevard of our Common, you know, has various branches leading from it in different directions. One of these runs down from opposite Joy Street southwards across the whole length of the Common to Boylston Street. We called it the long path, and we were fond of it.”

Of course, he uses the literal long path only as a metaphor for his proposal to the schoolmistress (and she accepts).

The Common, considered the starting point of the Emerald Necklace of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, has a long history dating back to the Puritan settlers of Boston. It has been the site of cow pastures, public hangings, riots, and visits from the President, the Pope, Martin Luther King Jr., and Judy Garland. Though perhaps the most romantic example, Holmes is not the only literary figure with connections to the Common. Edgar Allan Poe called his longtime rivals, the transcendentalists, “frogpondians” after the frog pond abutting the long path. Ralph Waldo Emerson grazed his family’s cows there as a child. The “Banker Poet of Boston,” Charles Sprague, is buried in the Common’s Central Burying Ground. Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott are both said to have walked in the Common, perhaps taking the “long path,” as Holmes did.


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Did You Know?

Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.