I'm a sucker for writers' houses. I love to see where they lived and worked. But all too often, they're disappointing.
Author Anne Trubek understands that. In her book, she visits several American authors' houses, with varying response. She notes that our impulse to preserve and visit these places is nothing new; back in the fourteenth century, the town of Arezzo preserved Petrarch's birthplace, even though he did not live there and didn't care about it.
That doesn't stop us, even if the results aren't always what we expect, or want: "For me, writers' houses are by definition melancholy...they aim to do the impossible: to make physical--to make real--acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer's house is a fool's errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses."
Worse, the pseudo-furnishings: "This is the site of creative genius, [the curators] tell us with a stragith face, as we stand in kitchens filled with period-appropriate cups and saucers, laid out as if the great man himself had just stepped out for a walk, while a German couple takes pictures of the table with their cell phones."
So why go?
"It has something to do with pilgrimage, the hushed aura of sacredness; it has to do with history; one life preserved. It has something to do with loss, and objects as compensation for loss. And it has something to do with the way literature works, with the longing created by the fact that words separate writers from readers yet create an ineluctable intimacy between the two, structured by marks on paper."
And with that, Trubek takes the reader along on her journeys to visit the homes of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Ernest Hemingway (including a visit to his home in Idaho, which is not open to the public, but is where he shot himself), and Langston Hughes, among others. In some cases the author lived in these "museums" only a short time; in some cases, what was a rural home became part of a city center, and often a poor one. Trubek details how one can track the abject poverty of Edgar Allen Poe by visiting a string of his former homes. She also describes, in heartbreaking detail, how Jack London's final legacy, something he planned so carefully, was destroyed before it could ever begin. She talks about the persistent work of Paul Laurence Dunbar's mother to preserve his literary legacy, even if the world in general was not as interested.
It turns out there's a great disparity among these homes, both in terms of literary value and historical accuracy. Rarely are they profitable, and always are they subject to the current literary darling of the moment. But it's not likely they'll go away, or people will stop trying to preserve more homes in this way. Is it worthwhile? Trubek leaves that open for debate.
For me--well, yeah, if I have a chance to see a writer's house, I will probably take it, even if I so often end up disappointed.
Side note: best author home I've ever visited is the Haworth Parsonage, home to the Bronte sisters. Unlike some museums that fill their room with period-appropriate furnishings or reproductions, the Parsonage is full of original materials. You don't see a sofa similar to the one the Brontes had; you see the sofa on which Emily died. It's the best one can hope for if you're trying to "see" or "feel" what these lives were like.