I just finished reading A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a tour of the homes of writers ranging from Hemingway to Poe to Langston Hughes by writer and English professor Anne Trubek. In this funny and very insightful book, Trubek examines the lure of writers’ homes for readers and for herself. And a big draw it is; she says there are about seventy-three writers houses open to the public in the U.S. and hundred of thousands of people visit them annually, 60,000 a year to Mark Twain’s house in Hartford alone. But, such pilgrimages aren’t always very satisfying. She says
Writers’ house museums 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 precise, generative, “Aha!” But we can never get there….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.”
But A Skeptic’s Guide is entertaining precisely because, for Trubek the houses always come up short, which she describes in a pleasantly un-snarky way. For example, visitors and tour guides often seem to confuse the idea that a house was where the writer lived and not where the fictional characters like Huck Finn or Jo in Little Women lived. The furniture, papers and other items in the houses are often not those that belonged to the writer, but are things the curator added willy-nilly. Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, is decorated as a modern-day show house, computer and all. Most houses seem to have the same array of merchandise in the gift shop.
I agree with her. I’ve never really seen the lure of an author’s homes as some way to commune with the departed genius or magically attain the writer’s magic for my own use. However, I’m fascinated with the sense of place that literature creates. When I read about Huck Finn, it makes me want to not visit Twain’s Hannibal home but rather to hop in a boat and travel down the Mississippi. For a Yankee like me, it’s exciting to visit the Carolina lowcountry I’ve read about in books such as Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides or The Water is Wide. I get a better understanding of the real people who live there as well as their history and the geography that has shaped it.
Ultimately, the essence of the writer isn’t in the house, it’s in the words. Trubeck concludes, “[Langston] Hughes knew that …the world of the imagination would offer him more than the city, more than a house.”