The Evidence of Things Unseen
Writers’ house museums are melancholy places, scattered across the literary map of the U.S.A. I’ve been to a dozen: Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Connecticut; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Hartford, Connecticut; Walt Whitman’s house in Camden, New Jersey; Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts; Herman Melville’s house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; Edith Wharton’s house in Lenox, Massachusetts; Jack London’s house in Glen Ellen, California; Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, Florida; Paul Laurence Dunbar’s house in Dayton, Ohio; William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi; Thomas Wolfe’s house in Asheville, North Carolina; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house in Concord, Massachusetts.
I have thirty-eight more to go.
Writers’ houses are by definition glum. They are often obscure, undervisited, quiet, and dark. They remind us 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 raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.
These sleepy museums tucked into residential streets expose the heartbreaking gap between writers and readers. Part of the pull of a writer’s house is the desire to get as close as possible to the moment of creation, to the precise, generative, original “Aha!” But we can never get there. The houses become theaters of Zeno’s Paradoxes: writers and readers are always separated, and the act of reading is always severed from the act of writing. That is why Socrates feared its invention. Unlike speech, writing is inanimate, divorced from the living intelligence that produced it. It is silent in the face of questioning, has no one to protect it, and, if you ask it a question, it “preserves a solemn silence.”
Writers’ houses are like writing: at once themselves (marks on paper; a desk) and something else (emotions; a site of literary creativity). They are teases: they ignite and continually frustrate our desire to fuse the material with the immaterial, the writer with the reader.
So why do I go? Because, writer and reader both, I want to close those gaps. I want to perform the ritual of taking smaller and smaller steps, knowing I will never reach the line. Like any other frustrated desire, getting closer creates greater longing. Melancholy is the price of admission.
Walt Whitman knew this desire and its impossibility well. His poetry revolves around the search for a connection between things and spirit, readers and writers. In his autobiography, Specimen Days & Collect, written in his modest row house in Camden, New Jersey, Whitman claimed that “the most profound theme that can occupy the mind of man… is doubtless involved in the query: What is the fusing explanation and tie—what the relation between the (radical, democratic) Me, the human identity of understanding, emotions, spirit, on the one side, of and with the (conservative) Not Me, the whole of the material objective universe and laws…on the other side?”
Whitman longed to overcome the gap of representation, the deadness of the written word, by infusing it with spirit, to have his poems be him, not represent his thoughts:
Camerado! This is no book;
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? Are we here
It is I you hold, and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth…
I love you, I depart from
I am as one disembodied,
You would think visiting the Walt Whitman house might help fuse and tie Mes and Not Mes—to be with the poet’s things, to stand where he wrote, to capture him as he springs from the pages into our arms. But he has, indeed, departed from materials. Inside the Walt Whitman house, I felt no spirit, no ghosts, no aura. I could not conjure up any lines, imagine him composing on the right armrest of his rocking chair, or even speculate upon American indifference to its native voices, then or now. The house smelled of dust and decay. The heater blasted. I wondered about rats. It made me sleepy, like all museums do, and I wished I were home.
Part of the problem is that the house tries too hard. It’s set up to fool us into thinking we’d stopped by just after Walt had left for a walk. The curators lay cups and saucers and spoons for two on the small kitchen table and half-finished needlework by the sewing machine. They are trying to compress Whitman’s life into a snapshot of a typical day. Time stands still: shoes next to the bed, a book open on a desk.
You see this eerie attempt to capture a single lost day at most houses. In their quest for authenticity, some curators sneak in objects the author once owned, even if they were not there when the author last lived there. For instance, Rowan Oak was not Faulkner’s final residence; he split his final years between Oxford and Charlottesville, Virginia, taking many of his possessions with him. But Rowan Oak is strewn with items seemingly in use: a half-smoked pipe, a pair of muddy boots, several rumpled shirts.
Because temporality is the enemy of origination—because we’ll never get the house exactly right—Edith Wharton’s The Mount may be the most authentic writer’s house in America. The curators have chosen to furnish the house “as if the Whartons were living here today.” Thus, there’s a black laptop computer in the study, and leopard-skin print rugs run up the stairs. These contemporary interpretations infuriate many visitors, who often get irate while touring the house. “This isn’t historically accurate!” they yell at put-upon docents. Others, however, approach the tour as a shopping trip of sorts, asking about china patterns or table dimensions. “We hear a lot of ‘Oh, honey, I like that color. Wouldn’t it look nice in our living room?’” one guide told me. The Mount makes it easy to follow up on consumer interest; business cards advertising china are displayed in the pantry and, in the catalog visitors receive with their $16 admission charge, the paint company Benjamin Moore markets the colors on the Whartons’ walls.
No amount of historic reconstruction will bring back the large chunk of Edith Wharton’s library shipped to England only to be lost in the Blitz, or capture her odd habit of writing in bed every morning, and throwing completed manuscript pages to the ground for her maid to collect and collate. The Mount relieves us of the burden of trying to capture the pastness of the past.
Better that than to try and fail. At the Whitman house, a lot of the past is wrong. In the poet’s second floor bedroom-cum-study are random pieces of paper strewn across the floor, the curator’s attempt to recreate Whitman’s sloppy writing habits. But the papers don’t look right. I asked the curator, Leo Blake, where he got them. He told me he picked them up at Ben Franklin’s museum. They have a press there, and they make reproductions of Poor Richard’s Almanac. But Franklin predates Whitman by a century.
I asked some more questions. Blake bought the quill pen from a stationery shop. He put the compositor stick, a device letterpress printers used to set type, on the mantel because he thought it was cool.
It does not bother me that Blake failed to get Whitman’s writing materials right, because even if he had tried harder he would have failed. It literalizes the problem inherent in writers’ houses. It is as if the closer we get to the reason for a house’s existence—that the former denizen wrote there—a centrifugal force sets in, and the objects spin out of historical control. Even Whitman failed to control the posthumous objects he hoped would preserve his legacy. While he paid only $1,750 for his house in Camden, he paid $4,000 for an imposing tombstone to be erected in the nearby Harleigh Cemetery. The carvers got the dates wrong, so they took both the birth and death dates off. And in his will, he left his brain to the American Anthropometric Society, to be studied by phrenologists. The brain was delivered, but shortly thereafter a lab worker dropped it on the floor.
For those who want to contemplate the folly of preserving one’s own past, visit Jack London’s Wolf House. At the end of a footpath through redwoods at the Jack London State Historic Park are the ruins of London’s own audacious museum to himself. London built Wolf House to make his posthumous mark: “My house will be standing, act of God permitting, for a thousand years.”
The act of God came brutally quick. The building was put on floating concrete slabs to protect it from an earthquake; London mined local materials and chopped redwoods down two years in advance, and left them in the woods to season; he built a dining room that could accommodate fifty, a writing studio in a tower, and a pond stocked with local fish. But the day he was scheduled to move in, a fire destroyed the house.
“It looks like something out of Jane Eyre,” said a fellow tour-goer upon viewing the remains. Wolf House is a latter-day ruin, the burned stones providing ballast for ground cover and a hide out for rattlesnakes.
Better to trust the immaterial, that which provides the evidence of things unseen. The lyricism of Leaves of Grass and heroism of Call of the Wild remain intact. Our materials, our things—gravestones, walls, historically reconstructed objects, even our brains—elude.
To be considered a writer’s house, typically the residence must have been home to the author at some point, but there are no restrictions on when in the writer’s life this should have happened, or on what transpired under the roof. For instance, several museums are childhood homes that, fictionalized, figure in the author’s works, such as The Willa Cather Childhood Home in Red Cloud, Nebraska (My Ántonia) or the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, North Carolina (Look Homeward, Angel). Others are sites in which great works were penned, such as Eugene O’Neill’s Tao House in Danville, California (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) or the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (“The Fall of the House of Usher”). But others are simply birthplaces (Walt Whitman Birthplace: West Hills, New York; Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace: Salem, Massachusetts), from which one could only squeeze the most tenuous nurture argument.
The first writer’s house established in America was Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, which opened to the public in 1912. A group of upper-class women gathered into a volunteer organization to honor the author of Little Women. The group was strongly anti-suffragist, however, whereas Alcott was a staunch supporter of a woman’s right to vote. Two factions formed around how to frame the story of the house to the public: should it be curated into a sentimental tableau of the basis for the March family house, or as the inspirational abode of a woman who was a pioneering political reformer?
Some famous authors have no house museums dedicated to them, even if their old manses remain standing. These non-acts of preservation highlight what matters are at stake in the houses that are open: the reputation of an author, the community in which the house stands, and the politics of cultural heritage. For example, there has been no effort to preserve T. S. Eliot’s house in St. Louis (in fact, there is no memorial whatsoever to Eliot in St. Louis). Some argue this is because Eliot cared little for the place, choosing to live as an expatriate for so much of his life. Others finger provincial Midwesterners who find his poetry too obscure.
I tried to create a formula to account for why some houses attract more visitors than others, and by extension, which were the most beloved American writers. But I cannot crunch the numbers into any discernible pattern. According to curator and tour-guide estimates, about half of the visitors to the Whitman house come because of their interest in the author (the rest are interested in American history, and have come after going to the Civil War battleship nearby); 10 percent of the visitors to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial come directly for the author (the majority just like to visit historic houses); as do fifty percent of visitors to Hemingway’s house in Key West (the other half come to see the cats).
Poets do not draw more visitors than novelists. Women writers host no more visitors than men. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers are roughly equal. The location of the house and the wealth of the author contribute slightly. Most people who visit the lavish Mount in tourist-friendly Lenox, Massachusetts, do so because they have tickets to Tanglewood that night and they have some time to kill; only about one tenth of the people who visit the Mount make it to the nearby Melville house. It’s in depressed, industrial Pittsfield, and it’s a small, rather ordinary house.
I have, however, been able to deduce that the American writers with the most devoted fans are Ernest Hemingway and Emily Dickinson—strange bedfellows. Emily Dickinson’s The Homestead might just be the No. 1 literary pilgrimage site in the United States. The curator showed me a drawer filled with anonymous gifts and offerings that have been left in the house over the years, discovered at closing time, such as a silhouette found rolled up and hidden behind the radiator in the back parlor. Some people send the poet mail. On her birthday, the mailman delivers envelopes addressed to Emily Dickinson. One year, a greeting card arrived at the house, although it was addressed to Emily Dickinson’s grave site. Inside the card, bearing the words “A Belated Birthday Wish,” was a handwritten poem:
My well-wishes are a century-and-ten too late;
I look forward to the day
When I may—in person—lay
A bouquet upon your grave.
I find these homages fascinating but incomprehensible. Who goes to the drugstore and scans the selection of Hallmark cards, trying to decide which would be best to send to a graveyard?
Friends and family and curators and visitors continually tell me how moving they find these houses. They’ll tell me a story about how they were transfixed by the sight of Jack London’s typewriter behind glass in a diorama of his study. A curator at Melville’s Arrowhead tells me she regularly sees “crusty old men” tear up when they stand in the doorway of the writer’s second-floor study overlooking Mount Greylock, the double-humped mountain that inspired a white whale.
Since I find the experiences of visiting these houses deadening, I keep asking others why they seek them out. My friend Ellen, a historian, offers me her reasons: “We know the thing isn’t really there, but we want a touchstone to imagine with, we want to know that others also come here to imagine the same thing, we want some sort of material connection with the thing that is gone and irrecoverable.”
But that’s the rub: it is gone and irrecoverable.
Clearly, though, I am protesting too much. After all, I keep going.
The houses are so earnest that they tempt me to poke fun, and I want to take a wry, Baudrillardian approach. I love a kitschy roadside attraction as much as the next aging hipster, and I’ve made detours to Pedro’s South of the Border, Roadside America, and the largest Paul Bunyan statue in the world. But it is too easy to adopt an underlying attitude of derision, the observer pointing out errors and oddities, the whole faux simulated Americanness of it all.
The truth is, I am addicted to these stories of spiritual fulfillment, the hushed performances of empathy, the acts of supplication to the aura of creative genius. I may not cry when I stand in Melville’s study, but I do when I stand behind those old men tearing up in his study, or holding the cards people send to “Emily.” I am humbled by the humility of others.
This emotion earned only at the cost of being once removed makes me even sadder.
If you want to indulge the impulse towards snarkiness, though, visit the Hemingway house in Key West, home to approximately sixty descendants of the many cats who lived on the property during Hem’s time on the southernmost point in the United States. It is one of the most famous writers’ houses in America.
Hemingway’s house is the only private, for-profit writer’s house museum. It doesn’t even put up a façade of historical authenticity, reveling in kitsch: the gift shop sells Hemingway cookies, floating-cat pens, snow domes, cat rocks (“because cats rock!”). For $25.49 you can get a Hemingway Home faux-porcelain collector’s plate made in England.
The Hemingway house is hot. Oppressive, soupy, mid-August, Carl Hiaasen–Florida hot. I walk up to the porch where the tour guides sit on benches awaiting their next tours.
Greg, who’s been working as a tour guide for eight months, tells me that the answer to my question—why do people come here?—is simple: “They just want to walk where he walked. But they don’t want to hear the bad. New England types get offended by the urinal—you know, where the water for the cats is? I don’t know why.”
I ask him what people do when they get upset.
“They walk off the tour, call the office, complain. Lots of people wait their whole life to come here. They don’t like to hear dirt. They want a little bit of the bad, but not too much. You can see a reverence. The writing studio? You know, up where his typewriter is? That’s like Mecca for these people.”
The Hemingway guides are wizened middle-aged men wearing Hawaiian shirts and fisherman’s caps and facial hair. They sit on benches between tours, heads down between splayed legs, smoking, hung-over. They don’t pay me much mind.
I ask Loren Case—I know that’s his name because he’s wearing a name tag that states his name and hometown (“The Sea”)—my question:
“Why do you think people come here? What are they looking to find?”
“I don’t think they know what they’re looking for. But people leave here happy.”
Loren worked for thirty-five years as a lineman in Missouri, and his voice has the mellow drawl of the mid-South, only more attenuated since being struck four years ago by the “Keys Disease”: “My wife and I came down here for two weeks four years ago.” They’re planning to move south again soon, to Central America, maybe the Dominican Republic, once his boat is ready. He’s the most Papa-ish of all the guides, with a crisp gray Cuban shirt, harsh blue eyes, and just the right gray, scraggly beard. He’s handsome—sinewy, taut—and he knows he weaves a good tale. The other guides consider his the best tour to take.
I ask Loren if he’s a Hemingway fan. He isn’t. I ask him if he understands the many people who wait their whole lives to visit the house of their favorite writer.
“I was that way about Mark Twain.”
“Really?” I say, startled by this response.
“Oh yeah. I’ve read just about all of Twain, excepting a few letters I guess. He could stack the truth right in your face and make you laugh. I love the little pieces. There’s a chapter in Roughing It, ‘Lost in the Desert.’ Cracks me up every time I read it. I can just visualize all of it. But his best stuff is from the lecture circuit. He and Will Rogers both, they just took on those pointy-headed politicians.”
“So why did you go to Twain’s house? What were you looking to find?” I ask.
“Hard to figure why I went. I went hoping to learn something I didn’t know before.”
“Did you find it?”
“Nope. But I had a good weekend in Hannibal.”
Loren wanders off, bums a cigarette, and tells Greg that he’ll buy a pack after he gets some tips on his next tour. Archibald MacLeish, a gray-and-white spotted cat, scoots under his legs.
Later, after the tour, I ask Loren where he thinks I should have lunch. He raves about the place across the street, says they have the best cheeseburgers in town. I feel honored by this tip. But when I get to the empty hotel restaurant, I realize he’s sent me there to get a kickback. I told him I’d be back that afternoon to talk more, but I never return. I do, however, buy a Hemingway Home and Museum snow globe.
The number of visitors are way down at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, North Carolina, and Chris Morton, Historic Interpreter of the site, cannot figure out why. The house was partially burned down a few years ago, a victim of arson (the culprit never found). They kept the visitor’s center open all the years the house was closed for renovations, and maybe five to six thousand people came each year. Last year, for the reopening, there was an expected surge in visits. But this year they’ve only had about nine-thousand visitors, roughly a quarter of the people who visited before the fire.
The staff is puzzled by this. It may be because a writer’s house, once restored, loses some of its allure, along with its pretense at approximating the original site of production. But given that we are only becoming more adept at historic preservation, the restored Wolfe house, like many other recent house renovations, is “more original” than previous incarnations. All over the country, curators are discovering how better to study old wallpaper samples to make more exact reproductions, or find new photographs that show exactly where the living-room furniture was placed during the author’s lifetime.
The Wolfe staff have heard that numbers at the nearby Biltmore Estate are down, too, but that other tourist sites are doing fine, if not better. They are thinking about how they might change their marketing to attract people. But they are not sure how to do it. Morton is jealous but good-naturedly derisive of the Biltmore pitch: “Come See America’s Largest Home.”
“I mean, anyone can say, ‘Let’s load the kids up and see America’s largest house, honey.’ And it worked! They get people there all year long, even for the Festival of Flowers, which takes place in March when there really aren’t that many flowers in bloom.”
Other than in Key West, literary heritage tourism is no easy sell. But given that Thomas Wolfe, once a major literary figure, is only more forgotten with each passing year (people used to link “Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe” together; now most just think that You Can’t Go Home Again, the title of Wolfe’s once-famous novel is a truism, a cliché, maybe a biblical phrase). The house has a particularly uphill battle.
After my visit to Wolfe’s house, I find myself wondering who still cares about Wolfe since his spectacular fall off the literary map. I go to Malaprop’s, Asheville’s excellent independent bookstore. I decide to search for Wolfeans on the internet—those who might send Thomas a card, or leave him an offering.
I have my laptop with me so I start Googling. The man sitting next to me asks how I got onto the internet. I explain to him the wi-fi rules of Malaprop’s. We get to talking.
Turns out he’s the man I was trying to find on the internet. Thomas Wolfe changed his life.
Tom Mahon is a businessman from Saratoga Springs. He’s a noticeable guy, the kind who looks vaguely famous but you’re not sure where you’ve seen him before: lean, lined face; shocking white hair; blue eyes so intense you can’t look into them. He’s traveling through Asheville, on a long trip without an itinerary, after which he will relocate to New York City to try to make his living as an actor.
Tom becomes my literary guide, explaining to me Wolfe’s genius, and his own devotion to the writer.
“He was excessive, that’s one of the grandest things about him. Wolfe records things the way Hemingway never did. I love his bombosity, voluptuousness. He’s embedded in a culture, embedded in people. He had the tempo of the blood. There’s something Wolfean about him.”
We talk for two hours. Or rather, he talks, narrating in precise language, combined with encompassing associative asides, Wolfe’s place within twentieth-century literature and the story of his life. I listen, transfixed.
“He writes about the wonder of being alive, people to love, people to hate, all these things. He was much more interested in Hugo, Goethe, and that whole sweep. Wolfe took the whole, that Whitman maxim, you know, just go along, first thing to do is to get it down and then go through it all. Wolfe had an intangible no other writer had. Fitzgerald didn’t have it. Hemingway didn’t have it.”
Tom discovered Wolfe in college. “A friend of mine was mentioning Dylan Thomas and I got a copy of his poems and I couldn’t believe, as Dylan says, the goings on on paper. I was like, What the heck? And the way they’re using language was to me fascinating. And then the same friend recommended Wolfe. It’s a misnomer to call it falling in love. It’s more like a rising in love. The more I read, the more I saw how daring you could be in language. I couldn’t believe how great it was.”
Mahon left college for Vietnam. He took Look Homeward, Angel with him, reading it late into the night, then getting up at 4 a.m. to keep reading. He read passages to the soldiers in his company, but none of his army buddies were turned on.
I ask Tom if he’s gone to the house. No, he says. I ask him if he would, and let me know what he thinks. Six months later, I get an email from him:
I didn’t get to the house, but no regrets. I had an up-and-down excursion in Asheville. So did Wolfe. I imagined he was looking down and feeling he’d accomplished something after all, and probably laughed when I did, and caught his breath when I did, and his eyes moistened when mine did.
Tom’s account of reading You Can’t Go Home Again in his tent, alone, at night, is Whitman’s wish fulfilled: “Is it night? Are we here together alone?” The writer, embodied, joins the reader, Socrates’ absent author finally present. The Mes and Not Mes fused.