Medford and me: Steve Coronella on the unique appeal of a hometown literary pilgrimage

The birthplace of the best-selling travel writer, novelist, and short-story writer Paul Theroux

Before I ever set out, I knew this particular literary pilgrimage would never feature in any travel guide. Part of the reason – evident to me since my earliest schooldays – is that my hometown of Medford, Massachusetts, a nondescript suburb six miles north of Boston, is hesitant about publicising its colourful history.

For instance, I wonder how many people are aware that Medford provides the setting for the wintry sleigh rides celebrated in the jaunty Yuletide standard “Jingle Bells”?

Or that renowned aviator Amelia Earhart lived briefly in the city with her mother and sister before becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932?

In other words, there’s a lot to discover about Medford, from its Colonial era past to the present day, both seemly and unsavoury. (In the latter department – you can look it up – Medford was the site in 1989 of the first successful wiretap of a Mafia initiation ceremony, a ritual observed by countless movie-goers but never before monitored by law enforcement agents.)


But one historical truth remains especially well-guarded and unspoken: Medford is the birthplace of the best-selling travel writer, novelist, and short story writer Paul Theroux. (Perhaps this bit of municipal history has been kept under wraps because Theroux once remarked in a 1979 New York Times essay: “Medford was not a bad place, but a place you want to leave, to escape from.”)

Being of a literary bent myself from an early age, I was informed of this hometown link by my high school English teacher, who had instructed Theroux’s younger and more precocious sibling Peter.

At the time, Theroux was gaining prominence and racking up sales as the author of The Great Railway Bazaar (1975). When I picked up a copy to see what all the fuss was about, I wasn’t disappointed. Instead, I was inspired in a shrug-of-the-shoulders teenage kind of way. If a guy from Medford was being taken seriously as a writer – and was being rewarded handsomely for his efforts – maybe there was hope for me too. (Of course, I was blissfully unaware back then of the grinding effort and sometimes shattering rejection involved in a writerly pursuit.)

Over the next few years, I kept tabs on Theroux as I progressed from high school to college, with recurring spells as an Ireland-based backpacker stretching my UMass-Boston undergrad journey out to seven years. I eagerly awaited the publication of Theroux’s successive travel tales, but I also came around to his talents as a novelist in such books as The Mosquito Coast and Millroy the Magician.

So when, only recently, I read an old New York Times profile of Theroux and his family, which contained the precise address and an accompanying photo of his boyhood home, I knew I had to seek it out – especially since the house in question was just two miles from my one and only family home in Medford, occupied today by my sister and her family.

Coincidentally, I’d been dipping into two books involving spiritual quests – Off the Road by Jack Hitt and A Pilgrimage to Eternity by Timothy Egan – which lent a certain cast of mind to my endeavour. I wasn’t exactly undertaking an odyssey that Hitt and Egan might admire – they’d travelled the Camino de Santiago and the lesser-known Canterbury to Rome pilgrim’s route, respectively – but I had a somewhat similar goal.

By any objective measure, of course, I was going on a simple excursion, a pleasant outing that would see me home in under three hours, allowing for periodic stretching and a relaxing coffee.

Still, I can’t deny there was a deeper significance to this particular walk that tapped into my hometown’s history and my personal backstory, all wrapped around my slender connection with Paul Theroux.

After coming down Main and crossing Medford Square – thank you, Interstate Route 93 and your noisy and ugly tributaries, for permanently scarring my hometown – I proceeded up Forest Street and found my way to the intersection where Fulton Street is anchored by St Francis Church.

Then I began my gradual ascent to the Heights.

The sun was shining, with temperatures cresting at 20 degrees, so I broke out in a light sweat and some deep rhythmic breathing was required.

I found the house, a dark-shingled commodious dwelling on Belle Avenue, anonymous to all but me, I imagined. Medford was a much different place when Theroux and his six siblings lived there.

I mouthed a simple expression of gratitude for the encouragement this fellow Medford author had given me, unknowingly, all those years ago, and then I was on my way.