The Washington Post
American Writers at Homeby J. D. McClatchy, Erica Lennard
As he wrote Moby Dick, Herman Melville imagined that his study had become a whaling ship's cabin. In pencil tracings still visible today, William Faulkner plotted the intricate webs of his fiction on his bedroom walls. In these and myriad other ways, the imaginations of the twenty-one writers profiled in this book transformed their surroundings, even as those surroundings shaped the character and context of their classic works. The photographic and literary portraits in this elegant and engaging book reveal as never before how important place - a sense of home - has been in the creation of out greatest writing.
Ranging from Big Sur to coastal Maine, and including writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Frederick Douglass, and Louisa May Alcott, American Writers at Home takes readers on a tour of the American literary heritage that is at once grand and intimate. We ramble through the turn-of-the-century estates of Edith Wharton and Mark Twain and nestle in the humbler homes of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. We are admitted into private - and in most cases remarkably unchanged - spaces that bore witness to genius, where Edna St. Vincent Millay's dresses still hang in the closet and Nathaniel Hawthorne's thoughts remain inscribed on the windowpane in his study. Throughout, we see how the personal passions, creative idiosyncrasies, and often profound sorrows of these writers have shaped the books we love most. Brilliantly literate and stunningly evocative, this extraordinary book will be a keepsake that every American reader will cherish.
The Washington Post
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American Writers at Home
By J. D. McClatchy
THE LIBRARY OF AMERICACopyright © 2004 J. D. McClatchy
All right reserved.
IntroductionMyself, I live in what might be called a literary village. Stonington, Connecticut, has had a long history. It was settled in 1752, and we still call our mayor and town councilmen the warden and burgesses. There was famous battle in the War of 1812 fought here, but Stonington in its day was an important center for shipbuilding, sealing and fishing. (On one voyage to explore new seal-hunting grounds, a young Stonington captain, Nathaniel Palmer, discovered Antarctica.) Before there was a direct rail line between Boston and New York, trains from the north stopped in Stonington and passengers continued on to Manhattan by boat. Still, it is a tiny place-half fishing fleet, half Yankee clapboard-just two streets wide, a finger of granite sticking out into Long Island Sound. One wag said the place, with its library at one end of town and its lighthouse at the other, reminded him of ancient Alexandria. But the cozy routines of village life prevail here. It may be some combination of seaside traditions and picturesque calm that has drawn writers for decades now. Stephen Vincent Benet grew up on Main Street (in the house where the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, with his mother, lived as a child), and poet James Merrill lived on Water Street for forty years. Mary McCarthy honeymooned here, and Truman Capote summered here. Elizabeth Bowen and Yukio Mishima came for weekends. So did William Faulkner and Gore Vidal and John Updike. Writers are drawn to the village as well because there are other writers around. A few years ago, our library threw a benefit party for itself on the town green, honoring the local Literary Lions. Quite a pride of them showed up. Like other professionals, writers like shop talk and gossip over drinks. They like company-but only at certain times. What they like less but need more is solitude.
America has always been a nation of isolatos, solitaries striking out on their own. Thornton Wilder once said that Americans are people who have outgrown their fathers. As in Walt Whitman's poems, Wilder's Americans work alone. They are energetic, inventive, and restless, but disciplined. They are responsible but detached. They are one with the cold moonlight that falls equally on corpse and cradle, apple and ocean. Europeans could never understand why we didn't stay close to clan, why we headed off into the unfamiliar, why we built our cabins on the pond's edge. In part, our cramped origins in the Old World and the vastness of the new land sprang us all loose. I had a good friend, only recently dead now, whose grandfather had been born in the eighteenth-century, when John Adams was president. Our history is abrupt and extraordinary, almost an octave one hand can span. Floods of people have washed up here, and poured over the land, all of them struggling to make up a history of their own. They move towards the wilderness and the West, towards opportunities in the anonymous city, towards the promise of freedom up North, towards a homestead on the prairie, each man and woman striking out to erase a past and create a future. Each day, Americans begin all over again. In that, they resemble the writer, who each morning sits down to a blank piece of paper. But few writers are as adventurous as the true pioneers whose spiritual descendants they are. Writers need solitude, but it must be a protected privacy ... a shelter in which to dream ... a home.
This is not a book about writers, or about houses, or about America. It is a book about where and why and how American writers made a home for themselves-a place to live, yes, but above all a place to work-in a restless, rugged country. And given the immense scope of American writing, some decisions were in order. Celebrated authors of our day are often visited at home by magazine and television profilers. It seemed better to travel back, to look into places where our literary heritage was born. We decided too that we wanted to concentrate on homes where books-many of them now our classics, the touchstones of our national greatness-were actually written, to visit the rooms where Moby-Dick, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Light in August, or Long Day's Journey into Night were, line by line, page by page, put together. These homes are often quite humble, sometimes eccentric. America rarely offers its writers any grandeur, which is why the luxuriousness of Edith Wharton's house in Massachusetts or Mark Twain's in Connecticut stand out. Most authors could not afford, and even more would not want, the sumptuous scale of Wharton's The Mount or the custom-made detail of Twain's interiors, because the larger the home, the greater the distractions. In any case, whatever it cost those two writers to build the house of their dreams, both stories ended in sorrow. Houses have their own stories, of course, no matter who lives in them.
Homes are hostages to circumstance. War or bankruptcy, a windfall or a disease-things rush at us all unexpectedly and force a change. Indeed, on second thought it can seem remarkable that many of these homes can be visited at all. When houses pass into new hands, those hands are not always interested in holding on to the past. Only the passion of those individuals-some in government service, some with a private fervor-who have cherished the work of these writers and sensed its value for generations to come have helped save them. And not just save the houses, but preserve the homes. This has meant keeping them as they were, or restoring them to their original condition, meticulously using old records or vintage photographs to ensure that things are exactly right. Through their efforts, we can capture for ourselves the daily lives-where they slept and ate and walked-of men and women who sought in their work always to be elsewhere. When you look at one of Erica Lennard's photographs-say, of the hallway in Robert Frost's old farm in New Hampshire-it's difficult not to imagine the poet about to come in the door. The palpable presence of the author is something felt throughout this book. How a writer lives day by day, after all, is one key to his or her imagination.
The decision to focus on houses where writers actually wrote has meant that many interesting and valuable sites had to be ignored. All across the country, for instance, the birthplaces of famous writers are preserved, or at least landmarked. But Willa Cather never wrote anything in Red Cloud, Nebraska, nor Sinclair Lewis in Sauk Center, Minnesota. The Midwest has often been the nursery of genius, but rarely its home. The fact that writers born in the Midwest-from William Dean Howells to F. Scott Fitzgerald-so often hurried East as soon as they could, both to learn and to write, has meant that we have passed them up. They wrote about Back Home, but they had long since left it to do so, and we have wanted to capture the look and atmosphere of the working writer's home. On the other hand, writers who lived in our big cities have been subject to other forces-urban renewal, say, or the real estate market. In cities, houses over time are torn down or re-rented: landlords and new owners aren't soft-hearted. The apartment in Brooklyn where Hart Crane wrote The Bridge? Demolished. The house in Salinas where John Steinbeck grew up? Now a restaurant. And the house in Monte Sereno where he wrote The Grapes of Wrath? The new owner wasn't impressed: "I bought the house because I liked it. When they said it was John Steinbeck's, I said, 'So What?'" And when the city wouldn't let him make significant renovations to the house, he got himself elected to city council in order to help repeal its preservation laws. Four members of the Monte Sereno historic commission resigned in disgust. From coast to coast, there are sadder stories of our cultural heritage bought and sold, destroyed or ignored. That sorry fact only makes the work of preservationists more precious and heartening. The houses they saved and restored are a crucial part of our national archive, and the scope of this book, from the rocky cliffs of California to the bayous of Louisiana, is a vivid testimony to the varied landscape of our literature.
"Home is where one starts from," said T. S. Eliot. But that is the home lodged in the heart and constantly remodeled in memory. The new homes writers make for themselves and their families contain those old memories, to be sure, but are meant to be more refuge than reminder. A house is a dwelling. A home is a house and everything in and around it: landscape and neighbors, children and animals, the scale, the light, the lore, the love. The old saying has it that "God setteth the solitary in families," but that can seem a mixed blessing. Writers tend to be picky individuals, sometimes even neurotic, when it comes to the part of a home reserved for work. It's not just that they are creatures of habit, though Hemingway, say, would sharpen twenty pencils before he began writing in the morning, and Mark Twain would play a game of billiards. It's more the fact that writing is a ritual and requires its ceremonies. A certain time of day, a certain chair, a certain brand of paper and type of pen, a pipe and a cup of tea-writers can be like the dog circling and circling a specific spot on the hearth rug before he'll finally lie down on it. The rites guarantee a kind of continuity, and are meant to invoke the weary muse. But above all, they must be enacted in and devoted to a necessary privacy. To that extent, the writer may seem selfish or pampered, until one recalls that he or she is usually the family's source of income. Until the early decades of the twentieth century, nearly every middle-class home had servants, though houses were often fuller of family. The result, for the writer, was less privacy but more freedom. Modern writers are more likely to have quiet rooms of their own, but have to dry the dishes. Modern writers have halogen lamps and computers, while older writers had flickering wicks and sputtering nibs-and it is hard to say which arrangement offers more frustrations. Unheated rooms, bad light and foul air, a bawling baby downstairs-everywhere lurk distractions. This is what those rituals for concentration are meant to guard against. Robert Frost liked to write in an upright wooden chair with a wooden board on his lap. Other authors wrote in bed-Edith Wharton because she preferred it, Sarah Orne Jewett because of illness. Bed or chair, the place of dreams or daydreams ... each author's "study" is a private arrangement. It is not surprising that when an author-Nathaniel Hawthorne, say, or Robinson Jeffers-has an alluring view out the window of his writing room, he turns his desk to the wall. That way, the view is inward.
Likewise, it should not surprise readers that home is so often the writer's subject. This has been true from the very beginning: Homer's Odysseus is driven in his wandering adventures by "nostalgia," a term that has grown sentimental in English but in ancient Greek was more primitive and means an ache-for-home. From Huck Finn fleeing home to Faulkner's heroes building their mansions, from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women to Robert Frost's "Home Burial," American literature has returned again and again to the idea of home-as a place that obsesses or frightens us, shelters or suffocates us. Behind such feelings, in part, has been the very precariousness of living in America. Good intentions have been thwarted by harsh climates or a scarcity of materials. If clapboard and homespun are the rule, then out of everyday necessities extraordinary books have been fabricated. And if we watch for secret signs, it is possible to see how a writer's room is projected onto the story being written. While writing Moby-Dick, for instance, Melville felt his room had become a ship's cabin.
Erica Lennard's photographs allow us an intimate view of authors at home-the tables they wrote at, the beds they slept in, the halls they paced. Her use of natural lighting renders the actual tone of the life in each house, and her composition of details or her haunting perspectives are masterful evocations distant times and quiet moments. Books devoted to the homes of writers have always fascinated readers. Homes of American Authors, for example, was published as early as 1853. The texts are by several hands, and each chapter includes woodcuts or engravings of the author and house, plus a sample page of manuscript in reproduction. There are seventeen authors "visited," and they include Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But here too are James K. Paulding, William Gilmore Simms, and Miss C. M. Sedgwick-reputations not carried forward by history. The book had a chauvinist purpose, it turns out, and a decided inferiority complex. The introduction notes that "we feel a degree of pride in showing our countrymen how comfortably housed many of their favorite authors are, in spite of the imputed neglect with which native talent has been treated." A later book too, Little Journeys to the Homes of American Authors, which first appeared serially in 1896, shows the early and enduring popularity of these excursions to important national shrines. There have been many such guides since, but never before have these homes been matched in a book with such exquisite photographs or extensive commentary.
We revere our writers because they have helped make each us into the people we are. Washington Irving, Louisa May Alcott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow fired our childhood imaginations. Later in our reading lives, Hemingway's heroes are mandatory rites of passage. Later still, we return to certain authors read early on-Mark Twain, perhaps, or Hawthorne-and discover not only new depths in their books but unsuspected feelings in our own hearts. Today, our shelves have these writers side by side. The Library of America, in its extraordinary enterprise over many years now to publish in elegant editions the classics of our national literature, made the writers gathered here the cornerstone of its pantheon. History, too, has often put them side by side. The chain of associations in our literary history is telling: Washington Irving encouraged the young Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who, when he was an old man, helped Edith Wharton publish her first story. Longfellow and Hawthorne were college classmates. Edna St. Vincent Millay visited Robinson Jeffers in his California fortress, and kept a photograph of him by her reading chair in rural New York. William Faulkner encouraged the fledgling Eudora Welty, who in her turn helped a young writer named Flannery O'Connor. The long links continue. As a freshman in college, I went to a reading by Flannery O'Connor, not six months before her death. I remember shyly approaching her afterward, her crutches tucked into a flaring skirt, and gushing my admiration.
In each house you'll see and read about in this book, such meetings occurred, whether in person or in books.
Excerpted from American Writers at Home by J. D. McClatchy Copyright © 2004 by J. D. McClatchy. Excerpted by permission.
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