New England is blessed with the surviving homes of many writers whose names we all recognize, and I've visited my share of them. But sometimes I wonder, what do people do that? What do visitors hope to find when they contemplate the desk where Louisa May Alcott penned Little Women in Orchard House in Concord, or the view from Emily Dickinson's window in Amherst?
I suppose one could argue that we learn something about social class for each of the writers, which in turn must inform their writing. We know from other sources that Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May, was, to put it kindly, an idealist but hardly a practical man, which left it to the rest of the family to make ends meet. His wife turned to taking in laundry; his daughter to writing. Dad must have recognized and taken pride in his daughter's literary achievements, if the Orchard House docent is to be believed: he constructed an interesting built-in writing desk in Louisa May's room. What's more, the writer based the house in Little Women on that house.
Visiting the house shows clearly how close to the other great minds of Concord the Alcotts lived—Ralph Waldo Emerson had a grand house just up the street, with Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond not far away, and both Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne occupied the Manse near the famous bridge for a time, a mile or two in the opposite direction. The website for the Manse bills it as "the center of Concord’s political, literary, and social revolutions." Do you think some of the heady discussions that took place there soaked into the walls?
As a final note, the Alcotts, Hawthornes, Emersons and Thoreaus are all buried in close proximity to each other in nearby Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. People visit the graves and leave little gifts on the tombstones. Do you think the late literati commune from grave to grave?
The house Emily Dickinson occupied much of her life is clearly more upscale, and she had a pretty, pleasant bedroom with multiple windows upstairs facing the street. However, the back of the house faces the cemetery where she was ultimately buried.
I will confess that my daughter and I made an odd pilgrimage to visit the houses where Sylvia Plath attempted suicide (the first time, unsuccessfully) and went on to write about it in The Bell Jar. It is only a few miles from the house where Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton accomplished what Sylvia had failed to do. Both are rather nondescript and forgettable modern homes.
I must say that visiting Mark Twain's house in Hartford, Connecticut, was eye-opening. Twain married a woman with money, and the house they built in Hartford took every advantage of that (they hired Louis Comfort Tiffany's firm to decorate it). If you're ever in the area, it is well worth seeing. It is the most magnificent example of high Victorian interior decoration I have ever encountered—and they won't even let you take pictures. I am still obsessing over one upholstered chair…
But what is most interesting is that Twain chose to write on the third floor, at the top of the house. It's a large and comfortable space, but it is far less ornate than the rest of the house. I would guess it was also more peaceful. That's where he wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and perhaps his most famous work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
My own work environment is small and chaotic, between desperate spurts of sorting and filing the piles of paper I accumulate. But I do find I like visual reminders of what I'm working on—pictures, maps and talismans that I hang on a corkboard in front of me.
If you're a writer, what works best for you?