Over the years, quite a few trips have featured a visit to a literary landmark. For some, like Prince Edward Island or Mankato, MN, the destination was determined by the book. For others, like Orchard House and Hannibal, it was a pleasant (and necessary!) detour. Last week, an article called The Fantasy, and Folly, of the Home of a Dead Famous Writer with the teaser of “Inside our endless obsession. . .” made the rounds. Of course, I read it. After all, this article might be talking about me! And while I don’t completely disagree with author Sadie Graham’s points, I do think she’s missing something rather important.
To sum it up, she believes the primary reason we visit a writer’s home is to try to capture some of the “genius” in that space in the hopes that it might rub off. She writes: “Moreover, what sparks the imagination is not merely that something of the person and their work lingers, but that we can access it, commune with it, take some of it into ourselves and take it away with us when we leave.” Now, I will certainly admit to certain thrills as I gazed out the window at Edith Wharton’s house, knowing that was the view she had when she wrote. Or seeing Louisa May Alcott’s super tiny desk and wondering how she wrote so many words in such a small space. But that’s not really why I visit literary historic sites.
Reading is a solitary, intimate act. Sometimes, it feels like you’re having a conversation just between yourself and the author. Some books worm their way into your soul. So, visiting the home of a dead author is another way to try to learn more about this person that wrote the things that became a part of your life. It’s a way of connecting more deeply. Just like the excitement of going to a friend’s house for the first time, you’ll often discover another layer of a writer’s personality by touring their personal spaces. And in some cases, you’ll also discover new depths to the books you love. I visit literary historic sites because I want to better understand the author and their work.
But it’s probably even simpler than that. We’re fans. And if fans have an opportunity to visit a favorite author’s home, we’re going to take it. Because we are fans and have already read the books or seen the movie or bought the t-shirt.
As a child, most of my favorite writers had been dead for decades. It never crossed my mind to write fan mail to living authors. In this age of twitter, blogs, and massive book festivals, today’s young readers have a chance to meet a beloved author. For years, I’ve been involved in the North Texas Teen Book Festival–and the energy in that convention center is unreal. These kids get to “meet” their favorites, and sometimes, I am just a wee bit jealous.
Next week, I’ll be revisiting the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Mansfield, MO. My last visit was 11 years ago, and I’ll be interested to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. In the last decade, some key scholarship about Wilder has come out–the publishing of the unedited first draft of Pioneer Girl. The remarkable biography Prairie Fires. A great American Masters documentary. My understanding of Wilder has deepened. Has the interpretation at her home changed any? Is this more complex narrative reflected?
But I’m not detouring off my road trip in the hopes of snatching a bit of Wilder’s leftover genius. I’m going because I love that writer and appreciate her complicated legacy. Visiting her home is a way of honoring her life, and all that she’s given us over the years. I’m going because I’m a fan.