Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Houses of Famous Writers

“Yea me. “  This is a phrase that my friend Neal said as he daubed his final paintings in the months before he died last July.  I have been thinking about his affirmative embrace of his life and his art a great deal as we travel the US.  Why did he have to wait until his last days to say to himself, “Yea me”?  Why do I wait?

Old Manse:  Home of Emerson and Hawthorne
So I am going to begin here:  “Yea me!”  If we were to gather the drafts for these blog posts together in a little manuscript, here three months into our adventure, we would have surpassed one hundred and fifty double spaced pages.  Pretty soon we will close in on 200.  I am kind of proud of that fact, especially given that there are about 15 possible posts that I haven’t yet written.  Waller Grant has seen so much; I have so much I could say.   Yea me.   I’m doing this:  seeing the US with my family and writing about it.
I am grateful for the readers I have, but I feel like Thoreau in describing his contributions to society:  “For a long time I was a reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains.  However, in this case my pains were their own reward.”   If you haven’t read it lately, dip into the first chapter of Walden.  Much of it is one big “Yea me” by Thoreau.
So, yes, indeed, I do feel my writing is rewarding . . . for me.  Do I sound like a crazy guy when I say that the chance to face each day with the opportunity to sit at a computer and to squeeze a few coherent sentences from my noggin is a gift from the universe and as close to a state of grace as I ever expect to experience.  So be it.  I like this trip and I like writing about it.  Yea me.

Mark Twain's Home in Hartford
Where I write and when I write can vary greatly.  Right now, for instance, it is a Friday night, 7:00, in a Laundromat in downtown Ossining, New York.  This afternoon, Knightsmama, the boys, and I travelled from Croton on the Hudson, where we have parked the monster for a week, to Nyack, where the ashes of my friend and mentor, William Owens, have been resting since 1990, when he died at age eight-five.  We all had a nice lunch at the Art Café, walked around town, visited the Columbarium at the Grace Episcopal Church, let Dr. J. drive us over the Tappan Zee back to the campground, deposited the boys in the trailer, gathered all our dirty clothes, and headed back out looking for a laundromat.
Now with the clothes in the machines, I set myself in a corner and attempt to deal with the topic I assigned myself this morning—the houses of famous writers.  But distractions abound.  Right in front of me, one young lady in a leopard skin spaghetti strap Tee and a pink brassiere is grabbing her three-year old and plopping him in a blue plastic chair, yelling, “No jumping.”  It’s good advice, I think, because he is an amazingly loud and rambunctious child.  Her friend is threatening to withhold cookies from her slightly older son and snapping a dirty shirt at him, delaying its entry into the washing machine.   I don’t think that this is what Thoreau meant when he said that he wanted to retreat from the world, live deliberately, and suck the marrow out of life.
So my daily attempts to find time, place, and fortitude for scribbling provides an odd counter-point to our goal of visiting as many dead writers’ homes as we can.  We began early, the fourth or fifth day of the trip, with a trip to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home in Southern Missouri.  Then we caught Hannibal and Samuel Clemen’s boyhood home.  Next, we negotiated a quick drive by of Vachel Lindsay’s home in Springfield, Illinois.  Tight schedules and lack of nerve (in driving the monster into towns) forced us to skip the homes of Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson.  In New England, for a brief period we found our legs for genuine literary genuflecting:  Longfellow’s childhood home in Portland; Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst; Wallace Stevens, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe in Hartford; Hawthorne in Salem; Alcott, Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow, and Hawthorne in Concord.  But we just couldn’t keep up with the constant kneeling   required to pay our respects to all the New England gods and goddesses.  Tight schedules and lack of nerve, again, necessitated skipping Frost, Bryant, Whittier, Charles Olsen, Herman Melville, E.B. White, Edith Wharton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Dr. Suess. 

Emily Dickinson's Home in Amherst
I am sorry I have not visited them all, and there is not one home I regret seeing.  Each one adds to the mental Lego pile by which we construct an understanding of an author, that author’s work, and of the world they constructed for us to see through them—their values, politics, interests, and thematic concerns.  At EmilyDickinson’s house, one can envision the beautiful landscape that extended toward the social life of Amherst, and one can imagine the bitter small town ambitions and family dramas that entertained them.  Twain’s house in Hartford complicates the understanding of an already complicated man—the great critic of human hypocrisy indulging in the greatest American hypocrisy, the happy home life of a self-made man in the most ostentatious house in the city.  And since I knew so very little about Longfellow—he was a verboten sentimentalist when I attended college—I truly appreciated the articulate and informed tour guide at the Longfellow House in Portland, Maine.  Longfellow was privileged and intelligent, independent while coping with a short familial/cultural leash, and too popular for his own good.  His life was also exceedingly tragic and cursed by flame.  I am very sorry I did not make it to his house in Cambridge.
The most enjoyable famous author home visit for my little nerdy family was Wallace’s Stevens’s.  We traveled there the long way, walking.  A group called the Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens has memorialized the two and a half mile walk that Stevens, who never learned to drive, took every day to work at the Hartford Insurance Company and back home to his affluent but far from excessive neighborhood.    Spaced along the way are thirteen granite blocks, each with a strophe from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  On a chilly mid-October Sunday, Knightsmama, Dr. J., Captain Crunch, and I strolled through the changing economic seasons of West Hartford from urban poverty to academic imperturbability to upper-middle class propriety.  Beginning on Asylum Street, in front of the Hartford, we danced, pranced, paused and sauntered our way past houses in need of repair, churches with outreach to gays and lesbians, fantastically large hospital, radio stations including Public Radio, repurposed high school, apple tree, chestnut tree, overgrown turgid river, posters for a hip hop performance, museum, university, beautiful city park, dramatic homes with Mercedes, quiet neighborhood with houses beginning to sprout pumpkins and decorative corn on their porches, and finally a respectable white home peering upon us, the family taking photographs of the granite marker across the street, with the ubiquitous imaginary blackbird flying overhead.

In front of the house
previously owned by Wallace Stevens
The entire adventure, counting the slow stroll to the Stevens’ house and the quicker hike back, occupied the family for most of the afternoon.  And it was free.  We like free.  I mean after awhile one has to begin to question the entire enterprise of literary tourism.  For my family of four, sometimes these visits and tours can cost up to $30 or $40.  If we lived here in New England, maybe we could visit three or four of these places a year, but if we do four or five in a month, all of a sudden we are spending a fairly hefty portion of the monthly budget.   I know that as an English teacher, a poet, and now a writer of a blog I am supposed to be either all swooney or rigid with respect.  Instead, my snarky back-of-the-classroom troublemaker raises his hand:  “Oh, look, that is the facsimile of the famous white dress that nutty Emily wore even when out of season!”  Or “My, this fake version of Thoreau’s cabin is really smaller (or larger) than I imagined.”  Or in a moment of sincerity, “Even though it is a little cramped, I really would have liked to live in Laura Ingall’s Wilder’s house, “or “Geez, good for Laura that she finally had a life without restless Pa always picking up and moving on. “
I think that what has happened is that in learning that I could not visit all the writers’ homes that I wish to visit, I have learned to question even the ones that I have visited.  Of course, I also experience them through my sons’ impatient eyes, and through their dispositions, which are less prone to fanboy enthusiasms and relic worship.   I know why I am standing in front of a house taking a photograph:  I admire this writer and I am paying respects to their skill and imagination.  I am also performing a bit of psychic chiropractory, readjusting my soul’s skeletal-muscular system by re-minding my-self of the writer’s words, ideas, and commitments.   These are good things, but do I need to fork out cold hard cash to experience them.  I could probably accomplish them with a nice cup of tea, a comfortable chair, and the writer’s books and biographies scattered at my feet, but I wouldn’t.  I find it more difficult to accomplish time travel while sitting in a comfortable chair in twenty-first century Austin.  But standing in front of Old Manse on a somewhat chilly misty afternoon after having walked the bridge where the Battle of Concord took place will pull me, however briefly, out of a world of quarrelling sons and expensive diesel and back into 1830’s Concord, Emerson staring out his window contemplating the next sentence in the first draft of his seminal essay, “Nature.”

Knightsmama on the back porch of
Laura Ingalls Wilder's home
Still I am, definitely, suffering from relic fatigue.  You know, so and so’s eye glasses while she wrote such and such, Mr. X’s pen knife with which he sharpened his pencils, this person’s writing desk, that person’s favorite cup and saucer, person A’s pipe, person B’s chamber pot.  And what really does any of it have to do with “Evangeline,” “The Birth-Mark,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Nature,” “Civil Disobedience,” “Little Women,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”  These works came from inside the writer, not from the house or the writing desk or the tooth brush.  The floor space inside the writer is really unknowable for us.  Maybe their best friends or spouses understood where the words came from.  Most likely, though, the writers didn’t even know where or why such language and imagination poured from them. 
So far I have learned the following lesson about writers:  Circumstance has little to do with whether a person will be a writer or not.  You probably need early on somebody to inspire you with books, but other than that you can be rich or poor, have supportive parents or distracted, cruel ones.  Being a writer requires only one thing—that you write.  You can write with chalk, pencil, pen, typewriter, computer.  You can write in a cozy room with a desk between widows facing north and east, at the kitchen table, in coffee shops, RV trailers, laundromats, or on your walk to work at an insurance company.  Emerson drafted “Nature” in one house, and completed it in another.  Dickinson never married; Longfellow and Twain survived the deaths of wives and daughters.  Alcott and Wilder left their childhood homes, one far and one not, but returned often in imagination. 

Louisa May Alcott's Home in Concord
        So I will continue to visit dead writers’ houses because when I do, I remember these writers and their words and the emotions I felt and the lessons about life I learned while reading their words.  If I feel I understand them or myself better because of the color of the wallpaper, I will let you know.  Until then I will keep writing when I can and where I can about what I am seeing and hearing and thinking and feeling while on this trip.  At this moment, it is a bright Saturday.  I am in the belly of the Caravan.  I look up from the computer screen and gaze out the window.  Through the tress—a truly astounding variety of rust, orange, rose, yellow, dark and light green—I see the calm, smooth shine of the Hudson River.  After I finish this cup of coffee, I am going to close the computer and take a little walk.  If you are a writer, I encourage you to do the same, write a little, live a little, over and over.  Yea Us.

Soundtrack.  Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young:  "Our House."


  1. living the dream, major dude. living the dream.

  2. Hi Friend,

    Yea you! Thanks for sharing.