Road trip inspiration

Over the years, I’ve built a few vacations around visiting favorite literary sites.  There was the Prince Edward Island Trip in 2002.  Mankato in 2009 (which led to the genesis of this blog).  Mansfield and Hannibal in 2010.  Monterey in 2012 and 2013.

So, I’m very intrigued by the newish website, Placing Literature.  It’s a crowd-sourced project, inviting readers to place books on a map.  Right now, the map isn’t very full, and there aren’t a lot of likes on their facebook page yet (just over 150).  But what a fun, fascinating idea.  How great would it be to plot a road trip using this map?  And the books to read along your road trip?

I’ve written more than once about how much the power of place can add to the reading experience.  Looks like there are a few other folks that believe in the power of place.  Best wishes to them, and here’s hoping the project (and the map!) begins to grow rapidly.

Place Matters

If I had unlimited vacation time and funds, I could have quite the kidlit history summer.  The bi-annual L. M. Montgomery conference just wrapped up on Prince Edward Island.  Way back in 2002, my dear friend Amber and I made it to the conference, and it was a trip of a life time.  In a few weeks, Laurapalooza starts in Mankato.  I’ve never been to a Laura gathering, but it’s on the list.  And then, there’s the Betsy-Tacy Convention.  It was a random thought during that convention in 2009 that led to the creation of this blog.  I was all set to do the Betsy thing again this year and then reason prevailed.  Silly budgets.

But that doesn’t mean that this year is bereft of literary adventures.  John Steinbeck isn’t exactly kidlit history, but  most folks are introduced to him in high school.  So, that works, right?  Besides, it’s my blog anyway.

As part of the peer review program for the American Association of Museums, I journeyed to the Salinas Valley of California.  Since someone else was paying for my plane ticket, I added a few days to explore on my own.  As I was getting ready for my trip, I realized that the only Steinbeck I could remember reading was Of Mice and Men, back in high school. In the last year or two, I’ve watched the movie versions of East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath.  But as a good former English major, I knew that didn’t quite count.  So, before I left, I read Cannery Row.

Salinas Valley and Steinbeck are intertwined.  In my conversations with museum staff and volunteers, Steinbeck came up, even though the tiny town I was in was only a peripheral part of Steinbeck’s work.  On  Thursday night, I headed down  to Cannery Row.  I know it’s nothing like what Steinbeck knew (and perhaps he would be horrified at the various sorts of tourist traps), but I was fascinated by how Steinbeck was everywhere.  There were these banners on the light poles:

And they didn’t just highlight Steinbeck–it seems there were even some for Doc Ricketts.  And of course, there were the historic cannery buildings.

Granted, there was plenty of cheese–like this rather scary wax museum (if this is what’s outside, what’s inside?)

But honestly, I’m just happy that so much of the historic fabric is still in place in Monterey, even if there are a few things that don’t quite suit Steinbeck’s work.

I also spent some time in Salinas at the National Steinbeck Center.  It’s a well done museum that spends more time on the work than the author, which I actually rather liked.  They had some really neat comparisons between the novels, the movies and the plays.  My favorite artifact was the camper Steinbeck drove in Travels with Charley.  Alas, my picture didn’t turn out.  I picked up a copy of East of Eden in the museum store.

But the highlight of the Steinbeck portion of my trip was lunch.  A few blocks down from the museum is Steinbeck’s birthplace, which was turned into a restaurant years ago.  It’s almost completely run by volunteers.

Years ago (before my time), my museum had a restaurant staffed by volunteers.  They had these calico aprons that still occasionally pop up.  So, when I sat down and my waitress was wearing a very similar calico apron, I felt like I was in some sort of time warp.  There aren’t many places like this left in the country.  But that whole famous author thing really helps keep them in business!  It was also fun to chat with the volunteers at length–they have such hometown pride for Steinbeck.  He’s “their” guy.

It may have been the height of nerdiness, but I totally cracked open East of Eden while I was eating lunch.  Have you ever read an author’s work while sitting in their birthplace?  Me neither.  Now that I’m in the middle of East of Eden, I’m so glad that I chose to wait to read this one until after my visit.  The landscape is so important to this novel, and though his descriptions are wonderful, there’s something to be said for experiencing the place itself.

Museum folks spend a lot of time talking about the value of the “real” artifact.  Will people still want to see the “real thing” when everything can be digitized?  In what’s probably no big surprise, I tend to lean towards the idea that “real” will always be important.  With books, I’ve traveled all over the world.  Armchair traveling is wonderful and important (and generally much cheaper!).  And yet, I wouldn’t trade my visits to Prince Edward Island, Mansfield, MO, Oxford, MS, Mankato and Walnut Grove, MN, and now Salinas, CA, for anything.  Those books, so intricately entwined with those places, have a whole new layer of enjoyment to them.  Place matters, even in fiction.

Could the real Mark Twain please stand up?

If there was one unifying theme to my touristy destinations (besides museums and friends), it might just be “small towns capitalizing on famous former residents.”  In Springfield, IL there are more statues of Abraham Lincoln than should be legal for any one community to have.  Independence, MO is complete with signs of Truman walking confidently along its main thoroughfares.  And as you read previously, there’s very, very little in Mansfield, MO besides Laura and Almanzo’s home.  But all of that kitsch pales in comparison to what you find in Hannibal, MO.

Frankly, I was fairly undecided about visiting Hannibal.  I knew it was on the way from Springfield to Kansas City.  But I had visited there in my early teens and thought it was more than a little strange then.  And that was before being a museum professional corrupted me from fully enjoying more than one small museum.  But Wendy and I had a day to play, and I felt like I had done everything I needed to do in Springfield.  So I made the decision: if Hannibal was less than two hours from Springfield, we would go.  According to mapquest, it was 1 hour, 50 minutes, so off we went.

As you might expect, Hannibal is right on the river–and in some ways, this is the best part of Hannibal.  It’s such a powerful, historic river and for some reason I almost always get a slight thrill down my spine when I stand on its banks.  But you can never get away from the popular imagery of Twain or his characters–and I don’t think I ever got a real emotional connection with the author or his works.

Of course, on the other hand, we were awfully busy being goofy.  The place just asks for it!  Here I am, encouraging Wendy to whitewash the fence, as she’s showing that her pockets are empty.  In a brilliant piece of fundraising, we could have paid $10 for the privilege to write on the fence.  I only read a few of the scrawls and most of them were something on the level of “hey Mark, thanks for the books.”

And maybe this is the time to share what they’re doing right, rather than just talk about the weirdness.  In the last 15 years or so, the Mark Twain Home Foundation has opened gallery space in downtown with some fairly nifty exhibits.  They’re currently restoring Becky Thatcher’s house and will be adding an exhibit about 19th century childhood.  2010 has been declared the year of Mark Twain (100th anniversary of his death), and they’re working hard to raise $10 million for their endowment (insert round of applause for a museum thinking of endowments!).  The exhibits in the Visitor’s Center, next to the Boyhood Home, are also pretty good.  Enough clever ideas that I took a few photos to add to my exhibit idea file. 

But then we began to tour the Boyhood Home.  I don’t even know how to explain how weird it was.  Here–we’ll start with a picture.

Yes, that’s a statue of Mark Twain.  Playing with paper dolls.  Of his own characters.  The room is completely framed with plexiglass.  The only interpretation is that chalkboard in the back, featuring quotes from his autobiography.  Every single room had a statue and a chalkboard.  Almost every quote had something to do with him revisiting his childhood or how important Hannibal was to him.    The more you saw, the creepier they became.

 Yep, I’m pretty sure that’s cardboard cutout is Tom Sawyer.  Running away from his creator.  Or maybe I’m just becoming increasingly bitter at how these exhibits are assuming that visitors have no imagination at all.

In one of the last rooms, you just see Twain’s back.  I thought this was incredibly odd, until we got outside and looked up.  That’s when I realized what they were trying to do with that particular arrangement.

 It’s the ghost of Mark Twain, looking out at his beloved Hannibal.  Personally, I found this creepy and disrespectful and Just Not Right.  But perhaps I am an intellectual snob.

Here’s the thing: Mark Twain was all about making a buck.  He certainly did plenty during his career to capitalize on his success.  And yet, so much about this place is so wrong.  The line between fiction and history simply doesn’t exist.  Visitors aren’t challenged.  It’s fluff and popular culture and not much else.  Twain was one of the most important writers in the 19th century.  His books are still powerful, controversial and important.  And this place is none of that.  I visit literary historic sites to connect with the books I love.  I want to get a deeper sense of who the writer was and where those stories came from.  My Hannibal experience was the antithesis of my Mansfield experience.  But in some ways, maybe it all worked. I did leave with a deep desire to revisit Twain–to read his autobiography, revisit Tom and Huck, and maybe explore some of his other works as well.  I need to get back in touch with the real, after being surrounded by the fake.

For Twain fans, I highly recommend skipping Hannibal and getting to his home in Hartford, CT.  Unless you truly enjoy the tacky.

Here are a few more shots from our visit:

It’s a rotating root beer mug!  Where else?

 This sign about Mark Twain impersonators begs the question: how often is this a problem?

They don’t make it easy to have your photo taken with Tom and Huck.  Which seems very backwards compared to the rest of the place.

Meeting Laura

So, guess where I went today?

Today, I went to the source.  I walked the same rooms that Laura, Almanzo and Rose walked.  Interior photos weren’t permitted, but let me just say this: it’s one of my favorite historic houses ever.  It had so many wonderful personal touches, and their lives just oozed through the walls.  And can I just say here and now that I would love to have a man like Almanzo in my life?  He has got to be one of the handiest literary husbands ever (much preferable to Ewan MacDonald, L. M. Montgomery’s husband).  Laura was tiny, just 4’11”, so he built the counters so they would be comfortable for her.  She didn’t like to knead bread, so she requested he set the breadmaking counter between two windows, so she could gaze at the beautiful Missouri hills.  When they added to the house, he decided that she was taking too many steps between the kitchen and dining room, so created this great pass-through.  Can you tell I loved her kitchen especially?  She also had the most awesome wood stove EVER.

The house is a real hodge-podge, with rooms added gradually over the years.  You could definitely tell when they got to be a bit more successful, because the front room is gorgeous–and much nicer than the first part of the house.  They even have a little library nook!  There are such little details throughout–Almanzo’s collection of canes (that he made), his various lamps and nightstands made out of funky branches.  The lamp shades and needlework that Laura made.  Everything in the home was owned by the Wilder family.  The provenance and the collection (gotta get some museum nerd stuff in here somewhere!) is amazing.

She did some of her writing at this home and some at the rock house at the back of the property.  Her little desk is just charming, not too big, but lots of slots and such for notes and paper.  The first four books were actually written at the Rock House, built by Rose for her parents.  But her parents ended up moving back to the farm house in which they had put so much love and work.

But in some ways, the Rock House was my favorite.  First, there’s the view.

Then there’s all the wonderful 1920s touches–wonderful closets, light fixtures, and tile.  And I just love the door.  I’ve been looking for a porch light for my house, and I could totally picture their light at my house.

I ended my time at the Mansfield cemetery.  For a cemetery, it was actually kinda disappointing.  No big fabulous monuments or even any trees.  But it is where Laura, Almanzo and Rose rest.  And I will admit I got a bit choked up as I stood in front of Laura’s grave.

Laura, and after I visited her home, I do feel like I should call her Laura, lived a remarkable life.  She came from virtually nothing and created indelible images of the frontier experience.  There are two things we hear over and over at the museum, especially when kids are near our log cabins.  They either say “Look, it’s Abraham Lincoln’s cabin!”  (we will ignore how illogical this is.  They’re 8.  And we all know how great Texas is with Social Studies curriculum. . .). Or, they say “It’s just like Little House.”  Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

This is a place I have wanted to vist for many, many years.  It wasn’t quite the thrill that Prince Edward Island was, but it’s right up there.  These books have been a part of my life since I was very, very small.  My grandmother read them to me.  They were the first chapter books I read all by myself.  Today, I have all kinds of issues with these books, and they are no longer my favorites.  And yet, when it comes to kidlit history, they will always be first in my heart.

More pictures from my visit.

Front of the house--the final addition

The rocks of the chimney all came from their farm

Check out the mortar--all of it has some decorative element added to it

Anticipation. . .

In less than 48 hours, I’ll be in the same room with Pa’s fiddle, Ma’ china shepherdess, and Laura’s desk.  I’ll be in Mansfield, MO, the place where Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the Little House books.  It’s a literary pilgrimage I’ve long wanted to take.  A college friend lives less than 2 hours from Mansfield, so it always seemed like an easy enough trip, even though I’ve never done it.  But after visiting Mankato and Walnut Grove, I knew it was time to add Mansfield to my list of literary landmarks.

Though Mansfield is never featured in Wilder’s famous books, I’ve always been as interested in the places where authors create.  Edith Wharton did almost all of her writing in bed, gazing out the window at the Berkshires.  I might have taken an illegal photo of that view.  Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women at a tiny, half moon desk in her room.  So tiny that I can’t imagine how she fit paper and herself at that desk.  William Faulkner wrote at a typewriter in his antebellum home in Oxford, Mississippi.  All of these places gave me a unique thrill–one I’m pretty sure I’m going to get again on Sunday.

This particular trip isn’t about just the one pilgrimage.  I’ll be communing with Lincoln in Springfield.  And I’ll be reconnecting with dear college friends in Kansas City. 

I am on the fence (freshly whitewashed, of course) about stopping in Hannibal.  My parents and I went there when I was around 14, and I thought it was a strange place then.  Becky Thatcher’s house?  But she was never real. . .  Somehow, I have a feeling it may be even odder to me now.  I’ll probably stop, but it remains to be seen if I’ll find it all amusing or horrifying.

Any of you planning any literary pilgrimages this summer?

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.

More on literary pilgrimages

Just spotted this article: Jo March Was Born Here, all about literary historic sites.  It also includes a slide show (though I was unable to read the complete captions-not sure if that was the website or my computer).  Some favorites of kidlit history are mentioned: Laura Ingalls, Jo March, Anne Shirley (though not in the slide show), Betsy-Tacy and Ramona Quimby (who I need to revisit).

However, I do have to respectfully disagree with the following statement: Do we know Anne Shirley better if we see her Green Gables with our own eyes? Does the building that occupies 221B Baker St. today say anything about the character of Sherlock Holmes? The easy answer: Of course not! If fiction is about imagination, these places are at their most authentic first in the minds of the writers who elevated them and then of readers who keep them alive. The pedestrian gables and attics and apartments themselves—in Prince Edward Island and London, respectively—are just a shell. To think they have any greater meaning is tragically middlebrow.   She later goes on to mention that she took a trip that included visits to several sites related to her childhood reading, concluding: The experience was alternatively transportive and underwhelming.

I’ll never forget the chill than ran up my spine when my friend Amber and I first glimpsed Prince Edward Island.  I’ll never forget gazing in amazement at the tiny desk Alcott used to write Little Women.  And I’ll never forget the day I dipped my toes in both Murmuring Lake and Plum Creek. 

Could I have continued to love these books without visiting these key places?  Absolutely!  Does the “real” thing not always match up with what’s in my own imagination?  Sure.  Have I ever been disappointed in any of these pilgrimages?  Absolutely not.  Does something in the book change after the visit?  Yes, but in a very good way.    I know these characters and their creators better after walking the land and halls that they walked.  It’s too bad the author of this slide show doesn’t feel the same way. 

Are you a fan of literary pilgrimages?  Or would you rather stick to the book world?