A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses

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There are many ways to show our devotion to an author besides reading his or her works. Graves make for popular pilgrimage sites, but far more popular are writers' house museums. What is it we hope to accomplish by trekking to the home of a dead author? We may go in search of the point of inspiration, eager to stand on the very spot where our favorite literary characters first came to life—and find ourselves instead in the house where the author himself was conceived, or where she drew her last breath. Perhaps it is a place through which our writer passed only briefly, or maybe it really was a longtime home—now thoroughly remade as a decorator's show-house.

In A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses Anne Trubek takes a vexed, often funny, and always thoughtful tour of a goodly number of house museums across the nation. In Key West she visits the shamelessly ersatz shrine to a hard-living Ernest Hemingway, while meditating on his lost Cuban farm and the sterile Idaho house in which he committed suicide. In Hannibal, Missouri, she walks the fuzzy line between fact and fiction, as she visits the home of the young Samuel Clemens—and the purported haunts of Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and Injun' Joe. She hits literary pay-dirt in Concord, Massachusetts, the nineteenth-century mecca that gave home to Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau—and yet could not accommodate a surprisingly complex Louisa May Alcott. She takes us along the trail of residences that Edgar Allan Poe left behind in the wake of his many failures and to the burned-out shell of a California house with which Jack London staked his claim on posterity. In Dayton, Ohio, a charismatic guide brings Paul Laurence Dunbar to compelling life for those few visitors willing to listen; in Cleveland, Trubek finds a moving remembrance of Charles Chesnutt in a house that no longer stands.

Why is it that we visit writers' houses? Although admittedly skeptical about the stories these buildings tell us about their former inhabitants, Anne Trubek carries us along as she falls at least a little bit in love with each stop on her itinerary and finds in each some truth about literature, history, and contemporary America.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The phenomenon of visiting writers' houses as a form of literary homage has existed for centuries, as literary enthusiasts have toured the homes of Shakespeare and countless other writers to connect, become inspired, or pay tribute. Trubek (Writing Material) offers an amusingly jaundiced eye towards this notion by visiting the homes of several writers, from of Louisa May Alcott to Hemingway to Poe, in an attempt to discover what draws people in and what connection they might be able to experience from this much remove. The end result is an interesting jaunt through American literature and the American preoccupation with fashioning (and profiting from) sacred spaces, coupled with genuinely fascinating little-known biographical information about iconic authors. Trubek is brutally honest (and occasionally funny) about what does and does not feel meaningful, and her travelogue is well-written and quick. While she does seem to harp on the same themes again and again, occasional moments of genuine emotion make it worth the trip. Trubek does a great job of following a succinct formula and readers in search of an objective look at writers' houses worth visiting will find this a useful guide.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
Named one of the seven best small-press books of the decade in a column in the Huffington Post

"Why do people visit writer's homes? What are they looking for and what do they hope to take away that isn't sold in the gift shop? This memoir-travelogue takes you from Thoreau's Concord to Hemingway's Key West, exploring the tracks authors and their fans have laid down over the years. Trubek is a sharp-eyed observer, and you'll wish you could have been her travel companion."—Lev Raphael, Huffington Post

"A remarkable book: part travelogue, part rant, part memoir, part literary analysis and urban history, it is like nothing else I've ever read. In wondering why we look to writers' houses for inspiration when we could be looking to the writers' work, Trubek has—with humor, with self-deprecation, even with occasional anger and sadness—reminded us why we need literature in the first place."—Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

"An antic and intelligent antitravel guide, A Skeptic's Guide to Writer's Houses explores places that have served as pilgrimage sites, tokens of local pride and color, and zones that confound the canons of literary and historical interpretation. With a gimlet eye and indefatigable curiosity, Anne Trubek peers through the veil of domestic veneration that surrounds canonized authors and neglected masters alike. In the course of her skeptical odyssey, she discerns the curious ways in which we turn authors into household gods."—Matthew Battles, author of Library: An Unquiet History

Library Journal
By her own admission, Trubek (rhetoric & composition of English, Oberlin Coll.) is not a fan of writers' houses and affirms that this is not a travel guide to them. "I often find the experiences of visiting these houses deadening, so I kept asking others why they seek them out," she writes. "The truth is, I am addicted to these stories of spiritual fulfillment, the hushed performances of empathy, and the acts of supplication to the aura of creative genius I have found at the twenty or so writers' houses I have visited." Of those, she covers the haunts of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Jack London, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Chesnutt, and Langston Hughes. VERDICT The book, true to its title, starts off snarkily enough. A bit of a spoilsport for those of us who like to go to writers' houses, Trubek redeems herself by the end. Recommended for readers who enjoy American literature or historical preservation.—Lee Arnold, Historical Soc. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812242928
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/4/2010
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 1,227,030
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Anne Trubek's writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the Christian Science Monitor, Mother Jones, American Prospect, and Salon.com. She is Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and English at Oberlin College.

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Table of Contents

1 The Irrational Allure of Writers' Houses 1

2 Trying to Find Whitman in Camden 15

3 Never the Twain Shall Meet 27

4 The Concord Pilgrimage 43

5 Hemingway's Breadcrumb Trail 67

6 Not That Tom Wolfe 89

7 Best-Laid Plans at Jack London State Historic Park 103

8 The Compensation of Paul Laurence Dunbar 113

9 Poe Houses and Arrested Decay 125

10 At Home with Charles Chesnutt and Langston Hughes 137

American Writers' Houses Open to the Public 149

Notes 157

Acknowledgments 167

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 20, 2011

    Not sure why this book was written

    Well, the title is surely a warning - a skeptic's guide. The tone of the book is very depressed, very cynical. The American writers are not so much honored as mocked. And we learn more about the people hanging around the homes than the famous writer who lived there. Do we need to emphasize that Poe was poor, that Hemingway was restless, that Emerson was generous, that Alcott liked privacy? Nope. So nothing new added, just a long, drawn out critique of the people who lead tours of the houses and try to maintain them. After being so nasty about the houses, and questioning why anyone goes there, why then offer a list of famous American writer homes at the end, as if to say, hey, it's not something I enjoyed, but here's some places to be miserable too. So I'm not sure why this book was written or published, it fails big time to really help the reader. Don't bother with it, just use other sources and the Internet to research writer's homes.

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