Friday, June 8, 2012


John Singer Sargent's portrait of Annie Fields
 I recently acquired a biography of James T. Fields, the Boston publisher who printed the works of most of America’s great writers of the 19th Century. The fly-leaf of the book states that his second wife, Annie Adams Fields, was Boston’s greatest hostess of the day.

It occurred to me that perhaps the currently popular “Mrs. Fields’ Cookies” might have originated from this famous hostess (after all, Dolley Madison has cakes named after her because of her renown as a hostess, so this idea wasn’t so far-fetched). I looked it up, but there is no relation. The “Mrs. Fields” of cookie fame is a contemporary American woman by the name of Fields, who started her chocolate-chip cookie business in 1977.

But the 19th Century Mrs. Fields is an interesting person in her own right. Born in Boston on June 6, 1834, she married James Thomas Fields, a widower, in 1854. The match was quite suitable – she had literary interests and skills to match those of her husband, whose firm – Ticknor and Fields – was the most distinguished publisher’s imprint in America. Fields consulted with his wife about the selection of works that he was considering for publication; he valued her judgment and was concerned with her point of view, as representative of that of the American woman. A deep love and respect grew between Annie and her romantic “Jamie.”

James T. Fields
James, who was also editor of The Atlantic Monthly for some time, wooed authors from all over the country, and Annie entertained them in their home. Annie not only nurtured these literary figures for intellectual benefit, but she also provided considerable support to those with talent. Her encouragement meant much to those who received it.

James, whose firm associated with Boston’s Old Corner Bookstore which came to be known by its patrons as “Parnassus Corner,” established close business relationships with the likes of Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Emerson, Thoreau, Julia Ward Howe, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Bret Harte. Business is often sealed with bonhomie, and these people regularly engaged in social intercourse at the Fields’ home on Charles Street, known for the finest in hospitality.

Ticknor and Fields also published internationally famous authors, and these writers attended Annie’s soirees and salons as well. Among them were Tennyson, Browning, Kingsley, Charles Reade, Thackeray, and Dickens.

A party at the Fields’ house must have been quite an affair. Imagine a parlor game of charades with the likes of Dickens and Hawthorne!

Old Corner Bookstore in Boston
Annie’s ability was not limited to hospitality. She was interested in women’s issues. She was a writer, a philanthropist, and a social reformer. She supported abolition and the women’s right to vote movement. She held that “women’s emancipation” could be achieved in a context of traditional women’s roles and cultural femininity. She compiled a biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe despite the controversy over the “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great [civil] war” (as Lincoln greeted Stowe in 1862). She founded the Holly Tree Inns, coffeehouses which served affordable, nutritious meals, and the Lincoln Street Home which provided safe, inexpensive lodging for single working women. 

Of her writing: she wrote poetry and plays, and edited collections of letters and diaries.  She is currently best known for her short biographical sketches, considered sharp and decisive portraits, of leading literary figures from both sides of the Atlantic.

After James died in 1881, Annie remained active in the literary world. During her husband’s life, she had become good friends with Sarah Orne Jewett of South Berwick, Maine, whose works James had published. Jewett had become her closest friend, and the two of them lived together until Sarah’s death in 1909.

Annie Adams Fields died on January 5, 1915.

“Parnassus Corner: A Life of James T. Fields, Publisher to the Victorians,” W. S. Tryon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company) 1963.

Wikipedia: Annie Adams Fields

Matt & Andrei Koymasky: The Living Room: Biographies

American Literary Blog: Birth of Annie Adams Fields

Painting of Annie Adams Fields by John Singer Sargent, Boston Athenaeum Fine Arts Collection

Old Corner Bookstore, location of Ticknor & Fields, courtesy of Wikipedia