The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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May 27, 2011

What are we looking for, when we visit?

From a wonderful, unexpected editorial in today's Boston Globe (and not only because it talks about one of my favorite places):

What are we looking for, when we visit a writer’s house? Sometimes it’s a landscape — the Brontes’ moors, Robert Frost’s New Hampshire pastures. Sometimes it’s a set of conditions (Jane Austen, writing her books in the midst of family life in those small rooms at Chawton). But often, what we want is indefinable and irrational. We’ve read the books and we’re still hungry — we want to get even closer to the writer. We want to see the beds the writers slept in, the tables where they ate, the desks where they wrote, and the windows they must have stared out of when the words didn’t come. But there is something futile about a visit to a writer’s house. The thing we’re looking for eludes us. Whatever happened there happened invisibly, in the terrain of the imagination. The house — even if it has seven gables — is just a house. ...

Still, the impact of The Mount, the Lenox home of novelist Edith Wharton, is nearly as gracious and powerful as “The Age of Innocence’’ or “Ethan Frome’’ or any of Wharton’s other great works — which makes sense, as the house is one of her works. ...

The Mount is both extroverted and introverted, expressing Wharton’s enjoyment of guests and her need for privacy as a writer. The house is huge but not overwhelming, its graceful flow of rooms bounded on one side by a long gallery and on the other by a long veranda looking out over formal Italianate gardens and distant hills. It is a place for leisurely house-parties like the ones described in “The House of Mirth,’’ which Wharton wrote at The Mount, in her bedroom, situated at the end of the hall off a small vestibule so that the servants could tidy her bathroom and boudoir without disturbing her.

But ... as exceptionally rich and interesting as The Mount may be, it shares the virtues and limitations of any writer’s house. It can evoke the writer, but its greatest gift is to fall short of the books, and to make you itch to read the books again. The Mount is worth a visit, but the place where Edith Wharton really lives is in “The House of Mirth.’’

-- from 'The Writer's House,' by Joan Wickersham

A good biography does this for me, too, but I would always want a house if I could have one. Do you like to visit writers' houses as much as I do? What draws you to them? 

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Lisa said...

Yes, I do want to visit authors' homes, for many of the reasons in the quotation. I was finally lucky enough to visit Chawton, which was on the top of my list. Even though I lived in Massachusetts for two years, I never got to Concord for Louisa May Alcott - that and the Little Town on the Prairie are now at the top of the list.

Vintage Reading said...

Great post. I've visited Austen's house at Chawton and the Bronte parsonage. I'd love to visit Red Cloud, Nebraska - Willa Cather's home. Unfortunately I have a fear of flying!

Thank you for visiting!

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