Power of Place

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the unique magic of literary places.  Not that this is something I never think of (see previous posts here and here), but it’s really come to the forefront based on a few very different things.

First, a unique opportunity has arisen for the Betsy-Tacy Society.  Tib’s House is for sale!  But it’s a scary time for any non-profit to think about expanding.  There has been much conversation amongst the BT-list serv about which place in the Betsy-Tacy canon are most important.  If we have Betsy’s house, do we really need Tacy’s house?  And if we had to pick between Tacy and Tib, which one would we choose?

Because I am of the “proceed with extreme caution” school of thought (especially when it comes to historic sites), my gut says we should really hope that a loving family buys Tib’s house, takes care of it, and occasionally lets us crazy Betsy-Tacy fans inside to take a look.

But all of this flurry got me thinking again about Mark Twain’s home in Hartford.  Back in 2003, they expanded dramatically–opening a beautiful visitor’s center, featuring programming space, exhibit space and a spacious store.  The project went over-budget, and the attendance projections did not come true.  They were drowning in debt.  A few years ago, there was a lot in the news (well, museum news. . .) about how close they were to bankruptcy.  Somehow, they’ve survived, though in a quick search, I’m not seeing any updates about their current financial state. 

And finally, I just finished reading Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, an odd little book set in Concord–home to Alcott, Emerson and Thoreau.  I have long been fascinated with this town–ever since my survey of American Lit class in college in which I realized there had to have been something in the water.  So the book intrigued me–and Langton certainly used the location to her advantage.  Lots of references to transcendentalists and all the famous authors.  They visit Walden Pond (and it’s set before the reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin was added), and the little girl manages to find Joanna, Jo’s poor doll that Beth saves (seriously?).  It’s a story that couldn’t really have worked anywhere else. 

I’ve visited Concord twice now–I had to see Orchard House both times, but have also made it to Walden Pond, Emerson’s House and Hawthornes/Margaret Sidney’s House.  Wayside (Hawthorne’s home) is a National Park Service site, and Walden Pond is a state park.  Orchard House is a private, non-profit that I know has suffered in recent years–though they were also a beneficiary of a large Save America’s Treasures grant (a program that is currently under huge threat in the current budget )  I know less about Emerson’s house, but based on my visit, they need some help.  Some very different sites, with very different institutional models, and yet they’re all in the same community–a community that banks on heritage tourism.

So where does all of this get us to?  I’m not really sure, except this: what would we, the readers, be missing if these places didn’t exist?  If Mark Twain’s home closed tomorrow and became a private residence (this historic preservationist will not consider that it would be torn down!), what is lost?  If the Betsy-Tacy Society folded, would future readers of the series miss out on something?  How does the place add to our reading experience?  And how does it add to our historic experience?

I have a feeling that most of my blog readers agree with me on this.  A lot would be lost–for us dedicated readers, but something would also be lost in our historic fabric.  With the current economic crisis, there are many, many historic sites that are on the brink (if they haven’t already gone over the edge).  And our historic fabric is being torn.

But what about all the non-readers?  The Betsy-Tacy books struggle with a limited audience; consequently, the Society also struggles.  After all, the pool of support is only so deep.  Thus, when I look at the struggles of a place like Mark Twain’s home or Edith Wharton’s home (in Massachusetts), I really wonder how sustainable some of these smaller literary historic sites are.  As I said to the Betsy-Tacy list, “If Mark Twain’s house can’t make it, we’re doomed.”  After all, a heck of a lot more people have heard of Mark Twain than Maud Hart Lovelace!  As our cultural literacy continues to change, will these sites still matter to the next generation?  Will my future children’s friends care about any of this?  (My kids will, of course.  Because they will be my children.)

These literary sites are special–they are places that live in our imaginations, but that we can also physically visit.  I can never visit Hogwarts (thought I know the folks in Orlando think differently about this), but I can see so many sites from my favorite books.  Soon, I’ll be planning my next literary pilgrimage–to Mansfield, Missouri and the home in which Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her famous books.  I sincerely hope these places will survive their current challenges and serve generations to come.  I hope that the historic sites and organizations that are on the brink are able to reform themselves into something sustainable.  But still, I worry.

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2 thoughts on “Power of Place

  1. Funny reading your post when I have just spent the last three days immersed in Lincoln; the preservation of the Lincolns’ home, and part of their neighborhood, is really quite marvelous. I most like to see buildings preserved, so people can see them, even if the inside is not historically accurate, or the inside is not open to the public (like, as you said, if another nice family buys Tib’s house to live in). It is just great to be able to walk down a street and see something of what it was like when an author or other famous historical person lived there. I am interested to hear what you think of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site when you visit Springfield.

  2. I love reading books that are so well written they make the time and place come alive . Maud Hart Lovelace does this with the Besty-Tacy( Tib) books. Robert McCloskey also succeeds here . I have loved being in and admiring from the outside ( almost as much, honestly ) first Tacy’s House, and now Betsy’s House in Mankato, MN.
    I had almost the same joy just driving down East Maine , seeing a highway sign proclaiming Eggamoggin Reach and kayaking among the islands of coastal Maine, knowing it was the Robert McCloskey country we were seeking.
    Do we need the actual buildings to love and adore Little Women or Heaven to Betsy? No. Does it make life sweeter? Yes.

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