House Hunters

How can we trust what we see when we visit an author’s home?

By A.N. Devers

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, Key West, Florida, 2006. Photograph by Andreas Lamecker.

This past August, I bought, for two dollars, a small plastic jar of dirt from the gift shop located inside Flannery O’Connor’s house in Milledgeville, Georgia. For the same price I also bought a jar of pond water. At some point, the dirt and pond water had been procured from the grounds of Andalusia, the O’Connor family’s 544-acre farm. On my way to the car after my tour, I picked up a small feather from a peafowl. The Andalusia Foundation recently acquired three peafowl: two peahens and a peacock, no doubt because their visitors were clamoring for them. The peafowl are not descendants of O’Connor’s original forty to fifty birds. Even though I knew this, I placed the feather on my car’s dashboard. Andalusia was the sixth of fourteen writers’ houses I visited on a ten-day road trip across the American South. At some point during the trip, the feather blew out of the car window. I regretted not being more careful with it.

Before I raided the gift shop, I stood behind a rope looking into Flannery’s first-floor bedroom, which was also her writing room. Her crutches were the first things I saw—they are the first things the visitor is meant to see. It is an evocative tableau: her desk and typewriter are situated close to the window, her crutches propped up against a wardrobe behind the desk. But unlike much of the decor in the house, the desk and the typewriter weren’t Flannery’s. I only know this because earlier that day I had seen the real artifacts down the highway a few miles in an exhibit room at her alma mater, Georgia College & State University. It didn’t matter much to me that the desk and typewriter weren’t authentic. Perhaps I didn’t care because I had already seen them. But more likely it’s because I’ve grown used to the reproduction furniture and other anachronisms of the houses of dead writers open to the public. I suppose in that way I am a sympathetic literary pilgrim.

I recognize that visiting a deceased writer’s house is a curious endeavor. We hope for proximity and epiphany. We absorb trivia and biographical data. We attempt to pull images from our memory of favorite novels, stories, and poems and match them to rooms and objects. We ask questions about the furniture. We try and separate fact from myth—myth that is repeated every time a tour guide presents an interpretation of the author and the space. But Virginia Woolf declared, “It is better to read Carlyle in your own study chair than to visit the sound-proof room and pore over the manuscripts at Chelsea….The curiosity is only legitimate when the house of a great writer or the country in which it is set adds something to our understanding of his books.” Woolf is suggesting that a writer’s own words are more authentic than whatever is to be found in the remains of a writer’s house. She’s right: writers’ houses are never just as the author left them. The items and objects in them, in all likelihood, have not remained in situ, but instead have been curated and catalogued, sometimes bought at auction or donated back to the house only to be placed next to period furniture that never belonged to the author. How can we trust what we see when we visit an author’s home?

The simple fact is that we often can’t. The most popular writers’ house in America, for example, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, plays fast and loose with stories and anecdotes from Hemingway’s life. The house is a privately owned and operated business that has brilliantly capitalized on three things in the following order: people love cats, people love Ernest Hemingway, and Ernest Hemingway loved cats. The story goes like this: the scores of cats that have lived over the decades on the property in Key West are direct descendants of Hemingway’s original cats, including Snowball, a six-toed cat who was given to Hemingway as a gift from a sea captain. When I visited in 2008, the Key West guide showed off a picture of Hemingway’s young son Patrick, holding a snow-white kitten in the yard. But in a 1972 Los Angeles Times article by Charles Hillinger, Ernest Hemingway’s last wife and widow, Mary Hemingway, states, “Ernest…never kept animals at the Key West house during the last twenty years of his life. He never stayed at Key West long enough to bother with animals after his divorce from Pauline.” In a 1994 interview with the Miami Herald, Patrick Hemingway stated the cats in the picture were his neighbors’ who wrote in to the paper to confirm. The cat myth began with Bernice Dickson, who bought the Hemingway house in 1964 and opened the estate as a tourist attraction. At some point she started breeding and selling six-toed cats, even sending them through the mail, and claming, “they are a special Asiatic breed that Mr. Hemingway had when he was here.”

I first read about the cat dispute from a book by Carlene Fredericka Brennan called Hemingway’s Cats before my own trip to Key West. Strangely enough, the Hemingway Home & Museum sells the book, which essentially debunks their operation, in the gift shop. When I asked my tour guide about the cats and pointed to the book’s thesis, he was immediately defensive. Hemingway’s family had sour grapes because they’d failed to keep the lucrative property. He said letters prove Hemingway wrote home from abroad asking about the cats. Hemingway did in fact write in his letters at one point about the animals on his Key West property—but it turns out Hemingway kept peacocks like O’Connor.

What’s so strange about this fifty-year-long cat tale is that Hemingway’s biography is fascinating on its own—he doesn’t need fictional cats to support his legacy. An old friend of Hemingway’s pointed out in the Times article, “There’s nothing wrong with letting people see the house. It’s a marvelous place. But why phony up something about a man like Ernest Hemingway?”

It’s arguable that all writers’ houses engage in this kind of mythologizing to one degree or another, even houses supported by public funds. The success of a writer’s house as a place of pilgrimage is inexorably linked to the status of an author’s celebrity, and houses benefit from finding ways of attaching the house to the author in audience-friendly ways. At Faulkner’s stunning home, Rowan Oak, the University of Mississippi has kept the rooms and their decor orderly, but there are also empty liquor bottles on shelves, including a prominently displayed bottle of Jack Daniel’s in a hallway display case. These objects are presented with little or no context. Perhaps this wouldn’t be distracting if there was a heightened focus on Faulkner’s work or how his drinking affected his work. But the empty bottles in some way, for me, overshadowed the novel outline that Faulkner wrote out by hand on his bedroom wall.

Here’s the conundrum: celebrity often brings tourists to dead authors’ houses, but tourists might visit a writer’s house for a multitude of other reasons: because it’s historic, architecturally notable, advertised well—or just because it’s there. Tourists may have never read a word by the writer whose living room they are standing in. They can be placated with ghost stories and reproduction furnishings. (In fact, the Mark Twain House and Museum, the James Thurber House, Edith Wharton’s home The Mount, and many others are capitalizing on their potential hauntedness by appearing on the cable show Ghost Hunters and giving seasonal Halloween ghost tours.) Unlike tourists, literary pilgrims are seeking an experience that may lead to personal revelation or heightened understanding of the author because they have read the author’s work and the experience of reading the book lingers. It must be a difficult task for writers’ houses to cater to both camps.

In many cases, as soon as an authentic moment presents itself at a writer’s house it is immediately taken away. When I visited the Emily Dickinson home with two friends, the tour guide declared as we climbed the main staircase, “And now what you’ve all been waiting for.” I, for one, didn’t know what we were waiting for. But we all sucked in air on cue. We reached the top of the staircase just as she exclaimed, “The dress of Emily Dickinson.” And there it was. Emily’s famous white dress floating in mid air, encased in a large vitrine, its form filled out by an invisible mannequin. It was haunting. The tour guide continued, “Of course, that’s not the real dress of Emily Dickinson. It’s a reproduction.” And the ghostly illusion was broken instantaneously. She went on to explain that the dress was laboriously reproduced using fabric and trimmings from the same London companies. This extreme pursuit of authenticity would have to suffice. The real dress, we were told, is protected in a climate-controlled archive.

Pilgrimage has long been defined, interpreted, studied, and appreciated as a spiritual and religious journey. In ancient Greece, pilgrims traveled to oracles like Delphi where they could ask a question to the god Apollo through The Pythia, a young priestess from the village. And in the fifth century, Herodotus wrote about an annual Egyptian festival that brought some 700,000 pilgrims to a wine festival in honor of the cat goddess Bastet. But it wasn’t until today’s major world religions first emerged that pilgrimage gained its foothold internationally. Anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner wrote the formative scholarship on pilgrimage in their book Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. They propose that the characteristics of a religious pilgrimage have much in common with a rite of passage. Pilgrims leave home, cross through liminal thresholds into an “in-between” space that allows them to experiencecommunitas with their fellow pilgrims, and perhaps gain a sense of the sacred. Essentially, a religious pilgrimage may lead to the extraordinary: “All sites of pilgrimage have this in common: they are believed to be places where miracles once happened, still happen, and may happen again. Even where the time of miraculous healings is reluctantly conceded to the past, believers firmly hold that faith is strengthened and salvation better secured by personal exposure to the beneficent unseen presence of the Blessed Virgin or the local saint, mediated through a cherished image or painting.”

But what about literary pilgrimage? To date it’s a little-studied phenomenon. Pilgrimages to secular locations have not, until recently, been given much focus in academia—they are the stuff of travel guides and tourist memoirs. In addition, secular pilgrimages are often viewed as a contemporary trend, a result of our increasingly secular age. Now, instead of finding comfort in the Holy Spirit in front of a shrine or tomb, a secular pilgrimage can offer rekindling of memory and nostalgia. It isn’t the relics of the home that always matter, it’s the space itself. There are several authors’ houses that are empty and yet visitors come to stand in them and take in whatever half-life or residual memory that they perceive. But it isn’t just hocus-pocus or “author-worship” that happens at these sites. Houses are structures that hold history, and it follows that writers’ houses hold literary history. We leave much behind, this is why archaeologists excavate the ground. Why would the preservation of writers’ houses be any less valid than the preservation of other historic homes?

In any case, there seems little reason to worry about a decline in secular pilgrimage—instead of trips to saints’ tombs we now are more likely to visit places like Graceland or Mark Twain’s house—but it’s also true that readers have been seeking out writers’ houses for centuries, perhaps millennia. InWriters’ Houses and the Making of Memory, Harald Hendrix proposes that literary pilgrimage to writers’ tombs and houses gained ground in the sixteenth century due to an exceedingly popular edition of Petrarch’s lyrical poetry. The book, Il Petrarcha, includes a short biography about Petrarch’s love affair with a woman named Laura. It also includes a map of significant locations near Avignon related to their relationship. Pilgrims came from faraway lands to carve graffiti on the fireplace in the poet’s bedroom, and the house is now the oldest existing museum dedicated to a western poet. Two hundred years earlier, Petrarch himself had heralded the concept of literary pilgrimage and visited sites related to his Roman predecessors. He also performed re-enactments of ancient rituals honoring literary men. After he was crowned poet laureate, Petrarch quoted his favorite author Cicero: “Our emotions are somehow stirred in those places in which the feet of those whom we love and admire have trodden.”

Cicero’s quotation is significant because it suggests that literary pilgrimage may have developed alongside religious pilgrimage as an independent experience, although it’s not clear when. Travel was expensive and dangerous in antiquity and would most likely have been reserved for receiving critical advice from oracles. Still, there is evidence in Ancient Greece of the inklings of literary pilgrimage: many different islands and towns have claimed over the millennia to be the birthplace of Homer. And when Alexander the Great sacked Thebes in 335 BC, he made sure that Pindar’s house was kept intact.

Pindar is one of the first major authors of posthumous celebrity—he died over a century before Alexander’s house-saving act—whatever the conqueror’s motives were for sparing it, the house became one of the few landmarks of Thebes. Almost everything else was destroyed. It was the house that helped secure a longer legacy for Pindar—three hundred years after his death, the priests at Apollo’s temple at Delphi met the evening with this proclamation, “Let Pindar the poet join the gods at supper.” And according to Pausanias, a traveler in the second century who visited Apollo’s temple, the priests preserved the chair that Pindar supposedly sat on to sing his poems to Apollo. This object associated with the poet had become a treasured possession, not unlike the saintly objects surrounding religious pilgrimages. Even these brief anecdotes suggest to me that ever since there has been such a thing as literary celebrity, there has been an interest in writers’ possessions and houses.

In his eccentric mid-twentieth century epistemology The Poetics of Space, French physicist-turned-philosopher Gaston Bachelard argues that memory and imagination—the indispensable tools of writers—are stored inside the walls of our homes. He suggests that by analyzing the house and its contents we can come to a better understanding of poetry, of reading, of our thoughts and dreams, but most importantly, of the human condition. And yet, “…our adult life is so dispossessed of the essential benefits, its anthropocosmic ties have become so slack, that we do not feel their first attachment in the universe of the house.” If Bachelard’s hypothesis holds any weight, then a writer is a kind of archaeologist whose primary method of composition is the excavation and interpretation of personal space.

Bachelard’s theory might also help explain why writers’ houses are preserved in far greater numbers than any other dead artists’ homes. There are hundreds of houses open to the public in Europe, nearly three hundred in France alone, and at least sixty in the United States. China, Japan, and the Middle Eastern all have tombs, shrines, or writers’ houses in healthy number. South Africa and New Zealand, among many other countries, have literary heritage trails for pilgrims to follow. In the United States, with some notable exceptions, our cultural pilgrimages to artists’ homes are primarily to writers’ houses (Elvis’s Graceland and Jackson Pollock’s cottage come quickly to mind as exceptions). Why don’t we preserve artists’ or musicians’ houses in the same way? I was stuck on this question for a long time. Then, as I was reading a new book, I remembered something simple: reading is a solitary endeavor. We experience the books we read, almost always, alone. Unless you’re a young child being read to, or analyzing a passage of something in class, you read by yourself and have to process what you read by yourself. But we are almost never alone when we view art. We are in a museum or gallery with other people who are doing the same thing. There is something deeply comforting about seeing other people absorbed in a museum’s artwork. And while we often listen to music alone, we can also easily go to hear it performed live with other fans. Perhaps this is why many dedicated readers go to author readings or join book clubs. Perhaps I have always visited writers’ houses seeking communitas. Even though I didn’t realize it before, I must want to feel less alone with the book I’ve read and loved.

I have taken literary pilgrimages since my earliest days as a reader, but I don’t think I fully understood the impulse until I visited Edgar Allan Poe’s Philadelphia home several years ago. The house is a romantic ruin, a shell where imagination is not only useful, but also absolutely necessary in order to have much of an experience at all. At the end of my tour, the guide led me and my husband to the cellar door and sent us down the stairs alone. Before we did, he explained that the room evokes the end of Poe’s “Black Cat,” in which the narrator kills his wife and bricks her up behind a false chimney in the cellar wall. The narrator in Poe’s piece describes the cellar this way:

Its walls were loosely constructed, and had lately been plastered throughout with a rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from hardening. Moreover, in one of the walls was a projection, caused by a false chimney, or fireplace, that had been filled up and made to resemble the rest of the cellar. I made no doubt that I could readily displace the bricks at this point, insert the corpse, and wall the hole up as before, so that no eye could detect anything suspicious.

It’s just as Poe describes. Depending on your disposition, I would imagine, this is either wonderful or terrifying. For me, it was both. It would be easy to say that the experience allowed me to feel closer to Poe—communing with the spirit of the author, after all, its the reason so many give for visiting writers’ houses. But what I experienced on this particular pilgrimage, however uncanny it felt, wasn’t spiritual. Instead, I had a deep realization about Poe’s life and work based on the remains he left behind. Standing in Poe’s cellar I understood that Poe needed his houses to be empty so that he could furnish them in his mind. Poe had a lifelong wanderlust, he moved from state to state and house to house. I had to visit Poe’s houses to discover that he was never home anywhere—he was forever passing through.