The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Literary House Hunting

Ernest Hemingway's study in Key West, Florida. Photo by A.N. Devers

My freshman year dorm was nothing special. It was old and musty (moldy might actually be a better word), and I lived in a too-small space with two other girls. But there was one feature that mitigated every annoyance, and imbued the must and dust with a sense of magic: before it was converted to a dormitory, Mark Twain supposedly once lived in the building. In my mind, this bit of literary lore made my dorm the most enviable building on campus. But why? What is it about writers' residences---sanctuaries of personal space and domestic habits---that we find so intriguing?

A.N. Devers has given this question a lot of thought. A writer living in Brooklyn, Devers is behind the website WritersHouses.com. For armchair travelers, the site profiles authors' houses; for those plotting a literary pilgrimage of their own, the site's database contains addresses and visiting information for dozens of historic literary homes. Devers answered a few questions by e-mail about her travels, as well as the influence a few Big Read authors have had on her life and work.

NEA: Why do think WritersHouses.com is an important resource for us to have?

DEVERS: I came up with the idea for the site after I couldn't find a website that listed the locations of writers' houses that were open to the public. I couldn't believe it didn't exist. The day I had the idea, I first thought I would write a book, and I still want to do a book,  but the more I  thought about it, the more I realized that this was something I could put online that would be used and valued. In some ways it was a selfish impulse, I wanted it to feed my own obsession with writers and reading and collect these places up so I knew where they were.

NEA: How many homes have you visited since beginning the site?

DEVERS: Oh golly, I haven't counted for a while. 20? 30? There should be a name for a group of these houses. A stone of writers' houses? An inkwell of writers' houses? I've been to a large inkwell of writers' houses. The summer of 2010 I went on a tour of nearly all the Southern writers' houses. I still haven't written much about the trip, but it's top on my to-do list. I drove all the way down to Atlanta from New York and then looped around through Alabama and Mississippi and back up again. I think I saw 14 houses in ten days. I'd like to visit every single one in this country. It's a life mission. Or maybe a year's mission. I'm going to London in two days and I plan on going to 15 writers' houses in 15 days if I can swing it. I'm going to be at Dickens' house on the bicentennial of his birth, which is incredible and I'm beside myself about it.

The cellar of Edgar Allan Poe's house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by A.N. Devers

NEA: How did you become interested in writers’ homes?

DEVERS: I thought about this a lot as I was planning the site. In the end it all comes down to Edgar Allan Poe. He seems to have followed me through my life. His footprints are up and down the East Coast. I am a big fan and started visiting landmarks related to him when I was in college. He was a nomad, so he's left an incredible trail with three houses, a dorm room, and a museum open in his honor. I suppose I identify with him. Like Poe, I have a wanderlust that I haven't been able to cure.

NEA: What has been the most memorable writer’s home you have visited? Why?

DEVERS: Poe's house in Philadelphia just knocked me down. I was standing in his cellar and it was creepy and terrifying. He used it as a model for the end of his story, "The Black Cat." I don't exactly know what happened, but I had this moment of insight---I understood his writing and creative impulses in a new way.

Carson McCullers's house in Columbus, Georgia. Photo by A.N. Devers

NEA: Any writer’s house that you’re still dying to visit?

DEVERS: I'd say all of them, but it makes me sound like some kind of cheap writers' houses floozy. It's really a tie between The Bronte Parsonage and Virginia Woolf's Monk House. Woolf visited The Bronte Parsonage and wrote an incredible essay about it called "Haworth, November 1904." Rounding out the tipsy-top of my wish list: Dostoevsky's house in Saint Petersburg and the Japanese horror and mystery writer Edogawa Rampo's house in Tokyo. Oh, and that guy Shakespeare. Here's a fun fact: P. T. Barnum actually tried to purchase Shakespeare's birthplace and move it to America.

But really, I'm easy. I want to go to them all, in part because I want to understand better what we want and desire from literary tourism. It's a big dream though, travel's expensive, my website is a labor of love, and I can't always put it first even when I want to.

NEA: Why do you think the concept of literary pilgrimages is so alluring, both for writers and non-writers?

DEVERS: I've given this a lot of thought. Pilgrimage is such a tricky word, it's not as dimensional and resonating as I'd like it to be, but I use it because I haven't found a better word yet. When applied to writers' houses it takes on airs of religiosity and worship that makes me slightly queasy, because there's evidence that literary pilgrimage developed as a separate and different experience from religious pilgrimage. There are similarities for sure, but there are also differences. It's not as easy as saying, we are becoming more secular, and as a result we're switching out religious pilgrimages for cultural ones. I wrote a piece on literary pilgrimage for Lapham's Quarterly---while researching it, I found the glimmers of literary pilgrimage in Ancient Greece.

But whatever we call it, I do know that going to writers' houses is alluring. Writing is such a difficult and solitary endeavor---so I think it can be heartening for writers to see the homes where their favorite writing was produced. And most writers' houses are rather ordinary. The house is evidence that with some nerve and magical thinking, great work can come from humble origins. I also believe that there's a bit of magic in houses. Houses hold memory for us. And that's why I think many non-writers (readers!) visit too. There is a language and feeling we share about our houses. Houses are meaning filled. Or it could be that most people really want to believe in ghosts.

The Mount, Edith Wharton's estate in Lenox, Massachusetts. Photo by A.N. Devers

NEA: In the New York Review of Books, April Bernard wrote in blog post, “Here’s what I hate about Writers’ Houses: the basic mistakes. That art can be understood by examining the chewed pencils of the writer. That visiting such a house can substitute for reading the work.” How would you respond to that argument?

DEVERS: I think April Bernard has great observations and I understand her concerns. For example, there are writers' houses that don't emphasize the writing of the author at all. I hate when that happens. What a missed opportunity! You get a tour of the writer's house and you learn all about the writer's life, but very little about the writer's writing! There's got to be a balance. But ultimately I disagree with her. The existence of writers' houses are a physical manifestation of our belief in literature. They can be as historically significant as other architecture, they can tell us about our past as well as other old structures can. Should we only preserve one kind of building? Should we not preserve any? Plus, I do trust dedicated readers. They can tease out the myths and stories of these places. As to the unread tourist, I imagine that a writer's life is often fascinating enough for them to buy a book in the gift shop and start reading---I like that idea.

Personally, if I find value in visiting a favorite writer's house and I happen to find meaning in it, then I don't see how that's a bad thing.

NEA: What is your own writing space like? Is it different from your dream writing space?

DEVERS: I share a cozy Brooklyn apartment with my husband and dog. I have yet to acquire a room of my own---perhaps this is part of the reason I visit writers' houses---because the concept is exotic to me---and because I want to be ready when I do have the space. But I make it work---we've been working on a small fixer-upper cottage outside of the city and I'd like to spend time get significant writing done there eventually. And I am going to experiment with moving into an office space soon. Right now, I take after Edith Wharton and many others: I write in bed. Wharton would write a page out longhand and toss it to the floor. Her maid would pick up the pages and order them for her. That's a luxury I'll have to do without.

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