Who Cares Where Writers Live?
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Home sweet whorehouse?
Faulkner once said that brothels make the best homes for writers. “In my opinion it’s the perfect milieu for an artist to work in,” he told the Paris Review in The Art of Fiction no. 12. “The place is quiet during the morning hours, which is the best time of the day to work. There’s enough social life in the evening, if he wishes to participate, to keep him from being bored.” The truth is, the private lives of most writers are pretty domestic, making tours of their homes rather humdrum.
Poe House in the poor house
While the Mark Twain House has enough money that $1 million has been embezzled since 2002, the Edgar Allen Poe House in Baltimore has been facing different troubles. Perhaps if Poe had been more of a John, his former home (which is in danger of closing) wouldn’t have so much trouble attracting crowds and funding. Although, perhaps the trouble is that other Poe houses are in competition for the broods of brooding pilgrims.
But what draws us to Writers’ Houses? It’s one thing to cherish their libraries and preserve their letters, but is enshrining their bookshelves worthy of the cost of maintenance and the price of admission?
It’s not a house it’s a home
I once visited Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s house in Cuba, where I spent most of the time spying through the windows for a glimpse at Papa’s typewriter (due to a string of thefts, the public wasn’t allowed to cross the threshold). I remained outside until a security guard alerted me to the secret price of secret admission. For a few dollars, a few of us were sneaked indoors, where the guard snatched up my camera, snapped our photograph, and promptly kicked us out.
Looking at that photograph, in which my sister, a friend, and I stand slack-jawed amid Hemingway’s taxidermied trophies, it’s clear that although I made it only as far as his foyer, I was thrilled. But why?
Is genius contagious? Would touching the pixie dust settled atop the keys of Hemingway’s typewriter transform me into a better writer?
In The New York Review of Books, poet April Bernhard addresses the issue in her essay for “Here’s What I Hate About Writers’ Houses.” Bernhard says: “Here’s what I hate about Writers’ Houses: the basic mistakes. That art can be understood by examining the chewed pencils of the writer. That visiting such a house can substitute for reading the work. That real estate, including our own envious attachments to houses that are better, or cuter, or more inspiring than our own, is a worthy preoccupation. That writers can or should be sanctified. That private life, even of the dead, is ours to plunder.” Bernhard makes some fine points, and I now share her mixed feelings of “exasperation and fascination” that can make a visit to a writer’s former haunts feel like an intolerable grade school field trip.
Certainly a writer’s true legacy resides in the work they’ve left behind, not in the homes they once occupied. But we go to readings to see the real-life writers, to be in their presence, to experience the person behind the page; perhaps visiting a dead writer’s home is the closest connection we can make. And although we can read about their lives and living situations in biographies, standing in their home offers a certain depth of experience, an immersion in their lives.
In his new column for The Outlet, Kristopher Jansma wrote about his pilgrimage to the Gutenberg Bible, saying that although its online version is more accessible, more searchable, and more useful, nothing compares to the genuine article. “Being there with the Gutenberg Bible, I had revelations I would not have had looking at the digital facsimile,” Jansma says. “It’s the difference between studying the Grand Canyon on Google Earth, and standing on its rim.”
In the case of Writers’ Houses, perhaps it’s the difference between reading Black Beauty and a visit to the Mustang Ranch.