Friday, February 8, 2013

Famous Homes

by Sheila Connolly

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?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

In keeping with my post yesterday on this blog, as one of today's women writers I have it better than Emily Dickinson or Jane Austen. In both my city apartment and my little country house, I occupy the living room and therefore, in effect, the whole house. In the city, I sit with my back to the window, with a bobble-head Poe and finger puppets of Poe, Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott next to my computer monitor; on the wall I face are a portrait of my mother in her youth and a calendar photo of my granddaughters. In the country, I look out the back to the birdfeeders and the garden.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I have no trouble with the images--all bright and clear.

Seeing a writer's home does make me feel that I understand his or her work a little better. Since I can't travel as much as I'd like, I especially enjoy the occasional photo book of writers at work. I have a favorite picture of Eudora Welty at her typewriter. Perhaps it's the solitariness of our work that pushes us to find others and to see how they coped with it.

Nice post and traveloque.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Oops--travelogue, not traveloque.

Sheila Connolly said...

If there weren't always other people around, I'd be tempted to sit down in any of those places and see if I could tune into the writers (I know, kind of woo-woo). It's easier in the cemeteries--less crowded. I do keep wishing I could transport myself back to 19th-century Concord and eavesdrop.

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, I loved our group visit to the Poe House in Baltimore several years ago. I had never before understood the dire conditions in which Poe lived and wrote, at least during his years in Baltimore. Climbing those steep, narrow steps to the cramped upper room where he worked, I felt I finally had a complete picture of the man behind the words.

Fear of Beauty said...

A beautiful post, and this was something we did often with my son to the homes of Dickinson, Twain and others.

Reminds me that I should keep hunting for these ...

And my writing place: I have move the desk and computer to a new room, new window, new angle every so often.

JJM said...

"But sometimes I wonder, what do people do that? What do visitors hope to find ...?"

Just to put the writers in context -- the context of their time, and of their physical surroundings. Both are likely to give one more insight into their writing, their minds, and their lives.--Mario R.

Diane said...

I think that for many, the reason is to get a feel for the writers themselves. Their times, how they lived is a window - albeit a small one - into their lives. Simple or elegant, their surroundings do say something about them. Something about the conditions that helped form what was in their minds.

And, Sheila, I finished 'Buried in a Bog' last night. I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to more. I also put a review up on Amazon. It's 5 stars up there all the way. No one has posted fewer.

Kath Marsh said...

i've visited the Twain house. Amazing.

Some years ago I visited the very humble Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home in rural central Florida. That was at least as fascinating as the Clemens home. Not the least of which was that she was quite the rebel to live there alone, a woman and a northerner in a strange land.

Debbie L said...

Don't forget Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain's boyhood home.

Síle Post said...

Since you asked!

Before turning to novel writing myself, I spent my previous life—as a literature professor & academic writer—studying the contexts of some of our classic American novels. I found that visiting the homes, the studies, and the desks where our most cherished authors wrote provided tremendous insights into—and ever-deeping respect for—the nature of their creativity. While writing a book on Herman Melville, for example, I visited his house in the Berkshires, to see where he wrote Moby-Dick (forgive the lack of italics!)

Gazing out through the terribly small window overlooking endless grassy pastures, I understood why he compared ocean waves to billowing grasses! Suddenly, the vast world of Moby-Dick made even more sense in setting it into its writing context!

This is why, dear friends and readers, I (& many other writers) have based our author websites in our writing rooms (in my case, my barn cupola, see

Thank you, Sheila, for shedding creative light on the famous bedroom location of Emily Dickinson's
poetry! And let's not forget she is a writer who encouraged us to consider the home context when she wrote of creativity and possibility:
I dwell in Possiblity—
a fairer House than Prose,
more numerous of Windows...
For Occupation, —This—. . .
(from poem 466)

So, Sheila, don't be surprised when a bus full of reading fans turns up at your door. . .