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A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses

A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses - Anne Trubek The author starts with an opening essay on the "irrational allure of writers' houses," and then highlights visits to a number of writers' houses (although there's usually more to each chapter than writer named in the chapter). There's a list of writers' houses open to the public at the end, and footnotes, but no index. So skim and skip around, even if you don't think a particular chapter is interesting to you. "For me, writers' houses are by definition melancholy. They are often obscure, undervisited, quiet and dark. They remind me of death. And 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; we can't join Huck on the rat or experience Faulkner's stream of consciousness. We can walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves. The curators at writers' house museums rarely seem to get this. They are often astoundingly sincere, prompting in a knee-jerk cynicism. This is the site of creative genius, they tell us with a straight 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." p.5-6"This book is an account of my vexed journey across America visiting writers' houses, a long trip taken in order to figure out their allure. I first conceived of it long ago as a reverse travel guide, a guide to places you shouldn't bother to visit, to misdirected spiritual quests and middlebrow, wrongheaded approaches to reading and writing. It is not coincidental that I came up with this idea of skewering writers' houses while a graduate student in English, studying American literature under the tutelage of post-modernism. Just as we can read a literary work any way we chose, regardless of authorial intention. I decided we could go to house museums with any attitude we desire, reverent or snide. My premise was that we need not honor them, or consider them holy and unassailable. We can read them, as I do in this book, against the grain. And yet while I found some houses so sincere they seem lifted from Fitzgerald's "An Author House," at each house I also fell a little bit in love, if not with airbrushed stories some museums tell. Looking in the corners for dust bunnies or down the block at the neighborhood or deep in the biographies or letters of the authors, I found stories that told me something about literature, politics, history, and contemporary America." p. 12-13"I chose to tell stories that revealed to me something beyond biography or author-worship, be it about the literary canon and its discontents, the futility of planning one's posthumous life, or economic development in postindustrial cities. I have found these narratives among the childhood anecdotes and descriptions of furniture - the attic of Victorian fiction, as Fitzgerald put it. Infusing each chapter is the question of how we imagine the writers behind the pages we read, the necessary but vexed relationship between author and reader." p. 14Whitman's house in run-down Camden -- who would have imagined him there? The Twain houses -- In Hannibal, where they try to create the fictional Tom Sawyer's world. The sadness of the Hartford where he declared bankruptcy and his daughter died, sending him into a depression. Concord. Emerson. Thoreau. The Alcotts. Hawthorne. Harriet Lothrop (the 5 little peppers). Hemingway's houses in Key West (focus on conversation with the tour guide) and Idaho (and the story of how no house museum is there and how most of the locals do not think Hemingway died by suicide there) and also the house in Cuba. Tom Wolfe -- Fairfax, VA. You can't go home again, Look homeward, Angel. Often now confused and eclipsed by the Tom Wolfe of the Bonfire of the Vanities, etc. How literary reputations change over time. She meets a "gusher" there (someone who loves Wolfe's work fiercely) and tells a bit about their encounter. Jack London State Historic Park. London tried to build his legacy as a sustainable farmer -- still remembered as an author, but maybe that will change over time? Another story I did not know.. . Paul Laurence Dunbar. This is a particularly touching chapter. Trubek tells the story of buying a used copy of Dunbar's The Uncalled and finding a nameplate and a number of newspaper clippings pasted in it by the previous owner, R.R. Gilbert. "It was obvious that R.R. loved Dunbar, and Dayton [Ohio], something fierce. When I finally drove the 4 hours south from my home to Dayton in order to visit the Paul Laurence Dunbar House, I went with the feeling that I owed it to R.R. to go with the same reverence I found manifest between the pages of our copy of The Uncalled." At the house, she finds a dynamic docent (sci) who brings the story of Paul and his mother to life."I love the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio. I love it because it is full of just the longing that I am seeking in these small museums. It was preserved by his mother in a stubborn, lonely vigil to have her son's reputation restored -- so he would get one of those callbacks that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., talks about. Mother Dunbar outlived her son by three decades, an unimaginable length of time to a mother. I can trace a direct line from the house to Matilda Dunbar, ex-slave, through R.R. Gilbert and Sci. Because of this and because so few visit the house, because literary history has not been kind to Dunbar nor history to Dayton -- for all these reasons I want to praise Dunbar, extol his house, sing his songs." p. 123Poe houses (and arrested decay). Bronx and Baltimore (and also a fair amount about Flannery O'Connors's house in Savannah). "The O'Connor house is privately owned and has benefitted from Savannah become a tourist-friendly spot. That explains their success, modest though it is. One could mark American demographic changes by the houses that are doing well, traffic-wise. Not the ones in the Rust Belt, but Jack London's house in California is thriving, as is O'Connor's. That was not the case when the authors were alive, of course: Glen Ellen and Savannah were far less glamorous then they are now. What remains constant are impoverished American cities. A visit to the Poe houses, particularly the one in Baltimore near the Poe Houses public housing project, drives that point home, again and again and again." p.136Charles Chesnutt and Langston Hughes. There are no house museums for them, and Trubek closes the book by musing about that. "What was it that I was looking for all those years after all? Why did I go? I was seeking the place of literature in America today -- not just way back when, when the author was alone, or when the houses were preserved, but also here and now. And I wanted to find a place for myself in it where I could live comfortably. p.147