At Home With Writers

one of Hemingway's work spaces

I have always had a fascination for the spaces that authors use for their writing. The rooms, the desks, the tools and the things that surround them are interesting to see. I think it was the old Saturday Evening Post magazine that ran a regular page on writers' desks at one time. I suppose that when I was younger, I thought that some secrets about their writing must be hiding in those spaces.

I discovered at least one other person who is interested in this. A.N. Devers is the founder and editor of Writers' Houses, a website dedicated to exploring writers’ spaces and the literary pilgrimage.

She says that she created her site dedicated to documenting writers’ houses because of "a growing obsession, since childhood, with books, travel, and making connections between a writer’s work and place. It also came from a realization that there wasn’t a comprehensive resource online, or in print, that helped literary pilgrims find their way."

You can search on the site by author, city or state. In my own NJ, there were only two listed. One is the Walt Whitman house (which I have visited) and the other is the home of James Fenimore Cooper (which I have not seen).

I wouldn't call my trip to Whitman's home a "pilgrimage" though I suppose that's what these trips might be for some people. I went with my friend Steve and the docent guide mistakenly assumed we were gay because, according to him, the house is a kind of pilgrimage stop for gays.

I found a piece Devers wrote online about two literary home visits. First she describes a visit in Georgia to Flannery O'Connor's home.

This past August, I bought, for two dollars, a small plastic jar of dirt from the gift shop located inside Flannery O’Connor’s house in Milledgeville, Georgia. For the same price I also bought a jar of pond water. At some point, the dirt and pond water had been procured from the grounds of Andalusia, the O’Connor family’s 544-acre farm. On my way to the car after my tour, I picked up a small feather from a peafowl. The Andalusia Foundation recently acquired three peafowl: two peahens and a peacock, no doubt because their visitors were clamoring for them. The peafowl are not descendants of O’Connor’s original forty to fifty birds. Even though I knew this, I placed the feather on my car’s dashboard. Andalusia was the sixth of fourteen writers’ houses I visited on a ten-day road trip across the American South. At some point during the trip, the feather blew out of the car window. I regretted not being more careful with it.

Before I raided the gift shop, I stood behind a rope looking into Flannery’s first-floor bedroom, which was also her writing room. Her crutches were the first things I saw—they are the first things the visitor is meant to see. It is an evocative tableau: her desk and typewriter are situated close to the window, her crutches propped up against a wardrobe behind the desk. But unlike much of the decor in the house, the desk and the typewriter weren’t Flannery’s. I only know this because earlier that day I had seen the real artifacts down the highway a few miles in an exhibit room at her alma mater, Georgia College & State University. It didn’t matter much to me that the desk and typewriter weren’t authentic. Perhaps I didn’t care because I had already seen them. But more likely it’s because I’ve grown used to the reproduction furniture and other anachronisms of the houses of dead writers open to the public. I suppose in that way I am a sympathetic literary pilgrim.

So why visit the homes of the literary departed? She mentions some reasons: hope for proximity, epiphany, trivia and biographical data, an attempt to pull images from our memory of favorite novels, stories, and poems and match them to rooms and objects, to ask questions about the person and place and to separate fact from myth.

One author I would make the pilgrimage for is Ernest Hemingway. He offers several places to visit. His Key West home is the most popular writers’ house in America.

...the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, plays fast and loose with stories and anecdotes from Hemingway’s life. The house is a privately owned and operated business that has brilliantly capitalized on three things in the following order: people love cats, people love Ernest Hemingway, and Ernest Hemingway loved cats. The story goes like this: the scores of cats that have lived over the decades on the property in Key West are direct descendants of Hemingway’s original cats, including Snowball, a six-toed cat who was given to Hemingway as a gift from a sea captain. When I visited in 2008, the Key West guide showed off a picture of Hemingway’s young son Patrick, holding a snow-white kitten in the yard. But in a 1972 Los Angeles Times article by Charles Hillinger, Ernest Hemingway’s last wife and widow, Mary Hemingway, states, “Ernest…never kept animals at the Key West house during the last twenty years of his life. He never stayed at Key West long enough to bother with animals after his divorce from Pauline.” In a 1994 interview with the Miami Herald, Patrick Hemingway stated the cats in the picture were his neighbors’ who wrote in to the paper to confirm. The cat myth began with Bernice Dickson, who bought the Hemingway house in 1964 and opened the estate as a tourist attraction. At some point she started breeding and selling six-toed cats, even sending them through the mail, and claiming, “they are a special Asiatic breed that Mr. Hemingway had when he was here.”

EH reading in Cuba
Supposedly, Hemingway’s family had "sour grapes because they’d failed to keep the lucrative property." Hemingway wrote letter from abroad asking about the animals at Key West - but was referring to his peacocks (which Flannery O’Connor also owned - maybe I should get a few of those...)

I could also make the journey to his birthplace in Oak Park, IL.

When the Hemingway family left that house, they built a new family home at 600 North Kenilworth Avenue, where Ernest spent his high school years. (This second home, while owned by The Ernest Hemingway Foundation, is not yet open to the general public. Possible stop #4)

video of his birthplace in Oak Park, IL

Papa's beloved Pilar

The third stop would be tougher to get to, but might be the most interesting. Hemingway loved his Havana home, La Finca Vigia, and would have stayed there till the end of his life if it wasn't for the political issues (and the big fish becoming harder to find in the Gulf). His beloved boat, Pilar, is kept there.