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Thursday, July 29, 2010

American writers’ homes and how to find them

Right: Edith Wharton's library at The Mount, from American Writers at Home. (Copyright Erica Lennard)

Literary travelers have two new aids to help develop travel itineraries. A. N. Devers recently launched Writers’ Houses as a labor of love dedicated to her lifelong passion of exploring homes of authors.
The impulse to create a site dedicated to documenting writers’ houses came from a growing obsession, since childhood, with books, travel, and making connections between a writer’s work and place. It also came from a realization that there wasn’t a comprehensive resource online, or in print, that helped literary pilgrims find their way.
Writers’ Houses currently features links and listings to 34 houses of American writers but aims “to document all writers’ houses open to the public in the world.” The entries range from street views of buildings not open to the public (Dashiel Hammett’s San Francisco apartment building) to links to 16 images of the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx, NY. Madeline Schwartz’s recent post in The New Yorker about Writers’ Houses includes a slideshow of six homes.

More like a “comprehensive resource online” is the work-in-progress site being developed by Thomas R. Hummel, author of A Journey Through Literary America. Literary Destinations currently includes listings for some 145 houses and museums related to 125 American authors. Each entry includes a helpful Google Map with directions. Some authors’ homes of course appear on both sites—Robert Frost, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau—but for dozens of others—John Burroughs, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zane Grey, John Muir, and many more—Literary Destinations is a convenient central location to find information about them.

So what do we get from visiting a writer’s home? How does turning a writer’s home into a museum affect the surrounding community? These are among the many questions Ann Trubek has been exploring in several recent pieces on the homes of Thomas Wolfe, Langston Hughes, and the many Edgar Allan Poe houses.
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial does not move us to think about the creative spirit so much as it moves us to think about everyday life. Cleave it from its ties to literary celebrity and it becomes replete in and of itself: Come see how, in a certain place at a certain time, some people lived, and some made a living.
Similar trenchant musings are no doubt in store when her new book, A Skeptic’s Guide to Literary Homes, is published this fall. For a contrasting view, read the two recent posts on Writers’ Houses by Ivy Pochoda as she describes living in poet James Merrill’s former home.
To sit at Merrill’s desk, my journal and computer situated between his to-do list, his dry cleaning receipts, and notes and doodles, to eat in the dining room among the token objects of his poems, or to watch the sunset from the solarium is to hope for a visit from some spirit, familiar or otherwise.
This may be closer to what literary travelers yearn to experience during visits to writers’ haunts.

Related LOA works: The website for The Library of America volume American Writers at Home includes links to the 21 houses featured in the book.

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