Monday, October 18, 2010

Dead Writers' Houses

There's an interesting essay by Anne Trubek in yesterday's Times Book Review (link above) about preserving the homes of dead writers. She was a Norman Mailer Writer Fellow last summer, and it seems she was singularly unimpressed with the great man's museum study.
I started thinking about dead writer's homes that I'd visited. In this country, it's not a long list. Edith Wharton's Massachusetts home, The Mount, stands out in my mind. I remember when the tour reached her bedroom, the guide said that Wharton wrote in bed. As she finished a page, she'd toss it on the floor, and her maid would pick it up. This seems to me the height of writer luxury. I did live in William Inge's boyhood home for two months (I still have a key to the front door somewhere) when I was Playwright in Residence at the Inge Center for the Arts. It is a beautiful old house, which hasn't been too horribly altered by time. Some misguided soul ripped off part of the front porch before the Foundation got a hold of it. Inge's mother took in boarders for a time (something he used in "Picnic"), so that there was a rabbit warren quality to the second floor back then. It is the only house that I know of in the US that's the home of a playwright preserved as a museum (the front part of the first floor). The Edgar Allan Poe house in the Bronx has been on my to-do list for decades, but I haven't made it there yet.
I tried to come up with any writers' homes in Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic or Austria that I've been to, and got three. The last house where Brecht lived in Berlin was being renovated when I was there, but the ground floor was a pretty nice restaurant, just down the street from where he and his second wife Helen Weigel are buried. The next is the house where Kafka grew up in Prague. The third is the house where Thomas Mann grew up in Luebeck. Not so much at all. While I can think of more than four preserved composers' homes in Vienna (Beethoven's a ringer, he moved so much), and there are plenty of so-and-so-lived-here plaques (my personal favorite is the plaque to the house where Mozart died is in a department store on the Kaertnerstrasse because that's where the house used to be), I don't remember many writer homes at all.
I wonder if there are conclusions to be drawn from this. The German-speaking countries value music more than prose? Maybe, but I'm not convinced. When I went to England with my parents as a teenage, I remember we saw Dickens' house in London, Samuel Johnson's house, Anne Hathaway's house in Stratford, the Sherlock Holmes museum (well, it kind of counts) and in Ireland we saw W.B. Yeats' tower (must have been miserably cold to work in- it was cold on a sunny day in August). Maybe it's that American's aren't so interested in preserving that kind of history (as opposed to Graceland or architectural history or Route 66). If you want to know the writer, as Trubek suggests, read a book.

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