A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses
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There are many ways to show our devotion to an author besides reading his or her works. Graves make for popular pilgrimage sites, but far more popular are writers' house museums. What is it we hope to accomplish by trekking to the home of a dead author? We may go in search of the point of inspiration, eager to stand on the very spot where our favorite literary characters first came to life—and find ourselves instead in the house where the author himself was conceived, or where she drew her last breath. Perhaps it is a place through which our writer passed only briefly, or maybe it really was a longtime home—now thoroughly remade as a decorator's show-house.
In A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses Anne Trubek takes a vexed, often funny, and always thoughtful tour of a goodly number of house museums across the nation. In Key West she visits the shamelessly ersatz shrine to a hard-living Ernest Hemingway, while meditating on his lost Cuban farm and the sterile Idaho house in which he committed suicide. In Hannibal, Missouri, she walks the fuzzy line between fact and fiction, as she visits the home of the young Samuel Clemens—and the purported haunts of Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and Injun' Joe. She hits literary pay-dirt in Concord, Massachusetts, the nineteenth-century mecca that gave home to Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau—and yet could not accommodate a surprisingly complex Louisa May Alcott. She takes us along the trail of residences that Edgar Allan Poe left behind in the wake of his many failures and to the burned-out shell of a California house with which Jack London staked his claim on posterity. In Dayton, Ohio, a charismatic guide brings Paul Laurence Dunbar to compelling life for those few visitors willing to listen; in Cleveland, Trubek finds a moving remembrance of Charles Chesnutt in a house that no longer stands.
Why is it that we visit writers' houses? Although admittedly skeptical about the stories these buildings tell us about their former inhabitants, Anne Trubek carries us along as she falls at least a little bit in love with each stop on her itinerary and finds in each some truth about literature, history, and contemporary America.
the morning we would be getting a free hot breakfast, according to the red plastic banner strung across the ﬁrst ﬂoor of the low, concrete motel, which sat smack up against the curb of a curving four-lane road. Inside we found the pool just a few steps from the registration desk. It was surrounded by a pale blue four-foot high concrete wall. We peered over it to see painted dolphins and ﬁsh cavorting in Day-Glo colors and a green hose limply ﬂoating inside a hot tub. The lobby was dark. The door
see the apothecary display, ﬁlled with dried herbs on branches and herbs ground up in a mortar and pestle. Coats of arms are displayed throughout the three-story house. Of course, we know less about this author than many who have come since, so it is harder to ﬁgure out exactly what to display, but still, the Casa The Concord Pilgrimage 45 di Dante is about as unsophisticated as a museum can be—it’s more like a fourth-grade history fair on medieval Florence. Fittingly, most of the visitors to
branch of the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women. Other founders were pro-suffragists who invoked Louisa May Alcott to prove the worthiness of their cause. Eventually, the founders of the Orchard House museum ﬁnessed the question of suffragism when they ofﬁcially opened, stating that they did not believe in suffrage but believed it to be inevitable, and thus women must prepare for its eventuality. But when, in May 1912, the house opened to the public,
after I am gone? For what will I be remembered? Who will do the remembering? Will anyone want to preserve my house? Similarly, the theory of writing as euphoria—a selﬂess ecstasy—only gets at part of why writers write. Another part is seemingly opposite and Best-Laid Plans at Jack London State Historic Park 105 embarrassingly crass: a desire for immortality. As a writer myself, I must admit to being somewhat confused by dancers and stage actors and chefs. All that work, I think, all that
ideas with a generous spirit, intellectual joie de vivre and humor, and I owe them great thanks. Jerry Singerman understood what this project was about when I could not yet articulate it, gave it a home, and stood tough when I faltered. Denise Grollmus and Nikhil Swaminathan improved drafts so expertly I was left humbled. James Rowell, Cody Wiedwandt, and Marten Frazier offered invaluable research assistance, thanks to grants from Oberlin College. The Furthermore Foundation provided a grant to