Saturday, July 17, 2010

Writers' Houses

The kitchen in the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, in Asheville, NC, where I visited last year and was able to take photographs. Preserved as the boarding house where Wolfe lived with his mother, it also inspired his novel, You Can't Go Home Again.
I am a consummate voyeur. I have enjoyed a too significant amount of reality programming since its inception and, yes, I have watched every season of Flipping Out and The Real Housewives of New York City on BravoTV. As well as some superior blogs, I even read a few inane ones, too––gossip sites and others––where I really shouldn't lurk at times [People of Walmart comes to mind], and where I even occasionally post, just because. I like a good bit of celebrity gossip. In more erudite moments, I read a lot of memoir and biography. Perhaps it is the architectural historian and writer in me, but whenever I travel I like to visit the literary homes of authors. I have on occasion, blogged about or have published articles about them. For a time, I even lived in a museum that belonged to a self-ascribed poet and his Boston Brahmin family.

Writer A.N. Devers shares this same passion as she has recently started a blog called Writers' Houses. It promises to be a wonderful journey into the homes of writers around the world [the criteria is that they be open to the public]. I learned about Devers' new blog today in my daily The Daily Beast email and just had to sit down and tell you all about it.

Writers and their homes are intricately fused. Where a writer lives can be as important as what they write about as it helps shape their outlook on the world. It is also a treat for a fan to be able to visit where a writer lived and sometimes wrote. My first such pilgrimage was to Haworth, England as a sixteen-year old exchange student. There the Brontë sisters lived and wrote at the Brontë Parsonage at the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Let me tell you that seeing the bleak landscape that inspired the wanderings of Heathcliff and Cathy made Wuthering Heights that more real for me.

As one who has worked in numerous house museums, I understand why these places are of interest to people. When you add a famous person or a writer to the equation, it can make the experience even more powerful. Tromps to writers' homes become more of a pilgrimage. There are also writers whose homes we wonder about––J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee come to mind (I have driven past Salinger's former home many times in Cornish, NH and have seen his mailbox and barn, at least!)––and others that are as open as, well, a book. Others are as secretive as their former occupants: the rather starkly furnished Emily Dickinson Museum comes to mind (where the pantry is now a storage closet for the museum shop, but where Emily was said to have written many poems in it while tending to her domestic chores in the kitchen). It helps when these places are left with their original contents, too.

The former chicken house at 'Shieling' was the location of early children's Story Hour times led by author Elizabeth Yates McGreal in the 1950s after she moved to Peterborough, New Hampshire. I was glad to see, a few years ago, that it was still as I remembered it on the property.

This new Writers' Houses blog is timely for me this week. The other day a woman contacted me who is now a caretaker in the former home of Newbery Award-winning children's author Elizabeth Yates McGreal. She wanted information on the original stencils in the house so that they could be restored. [I assumed they had been painted over by a former caretaker and it bothered me to think about it.] When Elizabeth left her 18th century Cape and its property in Peterborough, New Hampshire, known as "Shieling," to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, she likely hadn't included provisions for the preservation of her house. One of her books, Patterns on the Wall, was inspired by the restored stencils in the front room that were presumably painted by itinerant artist Moses Eaton. They are gone but her house, and barn––where her writer friends Elizabeth Gray Vining and Dorothy Canfield Fisher used to come and write at different times in the small apartment every summer––and beautiful property is still preserved, at least. I spent many Tuesdays in her home as a teenager, and later as a young adult home from college, reading aloud and having Lapsang Souchong tea and English biscuits. She was one of my early mentors and I am grateful for the friendship that we had.

It is always a great thing when a writer's home is as preserved as their literary legacy. I look forward to seeing what the blog Writers' Houses has to share in the coming years.


Sarah said...

I Am excited to go read this blog. I pick a few writers' homes to visit each summer. This summer we will visit Robert Frost's.

willow said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thank you Catherine!

Catherine said...

Willow, somehow I had a feeling that you might.

Sarah, I've enjoyed Robert Frost's Franconia, NH farm (now where they have writer/poet residencies: imagine living and writing there!) but have never been to any of his other places (in Derry, NH or Vermont). Have your girls been to Orchard House in Concord yet? Very well done museum/literary infusion there.

Anonymous said...

Oh Catherine:

You have no idea how much this post delighted me!

It is almost thirty years later, so I don't remember all of the details, (Sadly, I think that I took the opportunity for granted...) but as a young Jaffrey resident in her very early 20's, I had the pleasure of having tea with Elizabeth Yates. Just me and her! I don't remember how our meeting came to be, but it was wonderful! I was memsmorized by her gentle, strong and quiet ways. Living on Dublin Road in those days, I walked to the Amos Fortune Forum, held at the Meetinghouse, every Friday night, guided home by the light of my trusty flashlight. A few years later I would become the secretary of the treasurer for the Forum and it fell to me to count and deposit the Forum's donations every Monday morning. Thank you for taking me back to a wonderful time in my life.

We have visited the Frost Farm in Derry, which is really neat, (I so loved homeschooling my child in New England. Oh the fun we had ... the places we went and the things we saw...) but my all-time favorite way to spend a day is in Concord, MA and Orchard House is my favorite out of all of the houses to visit. I grew up in a house of daughters, (Even our dog Patches - Patch for short - was a girl!)and it delighted my mother to think of us as her very own little women. My fascination with Louisa May and reading in general began when my mother gave me a box set of her hardcover books as a sixth grader. Even though I've visited the house more than two dozen times, over the years, I never tire of it and visiting is still a priority whenever I make it home. Even my 17 year old son still enjoys the Pilgramage to Concord especially if it includes a visit to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where the Alcotts as well as several other notables including Hawthorne, Thoreau and Emerson are buried.

Tonight, finds me sitting in my hot house outside of Atlanta checking blogs. My husband and I went into the city for an early dinner at a jazz club and while we enjoyed the meal and ourselves, somewhere on the I-20 drive home I said, "New England is beautiful." for no particular reason at all. This girl was homesick!

How wonderful it was to come home to your post. Thank you for it...

PS We haven't been to Monroeville yet, but we did visit Helen Keller's birthplace "Ivy Green" in Tuscumbia, Alabama a few years ago. It was awesome!


Anonymous said...

So sorry for the double post... Destiny

Catherine said...

Destiny! Have we met? I am almost 50 and grew up in Jaffrey (Conant Class of 1980), attended many Forums and was active in Jaffrey historic district stuff from 1988-1995 before getting married and moving to Hancock. I think we might have a lot to talk about. Feel free to email me: ~

In the meantime, I really enjoyed your post here tonight. Elizabeth was a dear friend of mine, and my family, and I think of her often. She is one of several older mentors in my life who inspired me to write and I will be forever grateful.

All best to you and thanks for visiting here ~


molly said...

Today I was thinking how nice it would be to visit Elizabeth Yates's home again in Peterborough. I was there in the summer of 1987, and she served dinner to me and my husband and two young sons. I had read her book, ONE WRITER'S WAY, a few years before, and had begun a lovely correspondence with her. In 1986 -- 87 my family and I lived on the coast of Maine, and driving back to Texas, we stopped at her house, walked the grounds, chatted wonderfully. The next day I went back alone and she and I continued our chat, and I read her some of my work. She was so very encouraging and kind. What a glorious person she was!

I googled her today, thinking that perhaps her home is now open to the public, and found your blog and your words and memories of her -- a sweet surprise.

A few years after our initial visit, and after she had moved to Concord, we visited her again. We continued to correspond, and when my husband fell ill and died, she sent me lovely messages and her last book, Open the Door, which I came across a few months ago (tucked away somewhere), but which now resides on my bedside table.

It's very sweet to have her back in my life again.

Thank-you! -- Molly

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