Reading Writers’ Houses

January 11, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 4 7 min read

Roughly one hundred miles west of the Chilean capital of Santiago, in the sleepy fishing village of Isla Negra, a cylindrical stone tower flanked by tiered, red-roofed corridors winds across a sloping bluff overlooking the Pacific’s black-rock beaches. On first glance, it resembles a maritime vessel grounded into the jagged coastal landscape, more of an aesthetic construct than an inhabitable space. Scattered about the yard are mounted anchors, sidewalks inlaid with seashells, triangulated wooden posts festooned with rusted bells and, incongruously, a red-and-black locomotive. Pablo Neruda purchased this house in 1940 and, through a process of continuous renovation and expansion that lasted until his death in 1973, managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like. And largely because of this, Neruda’s house in Isla Negra is exceptional among existing writers’ houses.

On the whole, writers’ houses are uninspiring sites that fade from memory soon after the tours conclude. At Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, for example, I harbor vivid memories of the six-toed cats lounging about the yard but can’t recall anything about the house itself. In Concord, Massachusetts, the premier literary pilgrimage spot in the United States, I toured the houses of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, along with Henry David Thoreau’s reconstructed cabin at Walden Pond; yet what I remember most about that day is when the guide in Emerson’s house pointed to some thick curtains and remarked that Hawthorne, who was painfully shy, sometimes hid behind them during social gatherings. As soon as she said this, several members of my group scurried over to inspect the curtains. Someone asked if the curtains were original. The guide shook her head, but then indicated that they were exact replicas of the curtains that Emerson had used during his lifetime. Satisfied with the answer, we continued on to the next room, where I instantly tried to determine the corners and crevices that Hawthorne might have deemed appropriate hiding places.

While it’s amusing to envision a great American writer cowering behind the drapes at his equally renowned friend’s home, it is this sort of pithy anecdote that underscores why visiting writers’ houses often makes for an underwhelming experience. Writers’ houses offer a curious mixture of reverence, nostalgia, fabrication, and history; but there’s a limit to the information that they can impart. Seeing the refurbished domestic spaces where authors toiled away on their masterpieces does little to illuminate how the authors’ lives influenced their works and vice versa.

coverOf course, few people are in search of textual illumination during journeys to writers’ houses. Some are sightseers interested in the history of the region, while others want to feel closer to authors whose works have moved them. In A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a quirky and enlightening meditation on literary tourism, Anne Trubek notes that writers’ houses often serve as “secular shrines” that devoted readers frequent “because they believe that it will strengthen their faith to pay homage in person. The house—or the typewriter or the desk or the chair—is the mediating fetish object.” For these visitors, simply being in the study where the author wrote or, if the guide isn’t looking, touching the desk on which the literary alchemy took place is reason enough to have undertaken the journey.

Even casual visitors are drawn to writers’ houses for the opportunity, in Trubek’s words, to come “as close as possible to the precise, generative ‘Aha!’” moment of literary creation. Yet since such moments cannot be seen or sensed but instead must be either imagined or re-created, visits to the rooms where writers labored often prove anticlimactic. After all, the rooms themselves were tangential to their inhabitants’ creative processes, and they appear now as little more than sterilized set pieces that have been deliberately frozen in time. Ultimately, the meaning that visitors derive from these rooms varies according to their capacity to imagine what might have taken place there. Or, as Trubek argues, a writer’s house is a fiction that visitors “read” based on whatever desires compelled them to venture there in the first place.

In Trubek’s estimation, there are over seventy operating writers’ houses in the United States alone, a group as notable for its inclusions (Jupiter Hammon, Gene Stratton-Porter, Vachel Lindsay) as its exclusions (Sherwood Anderson, Dr. Seuss, Theodore Dreiser). Over the past decade I’ve trekked to over a dozen of these houses and gradually became inured to the standard assortment of polished period furniture and colorful biographical tidbits that each offered. I fell into the habit of reading writers’ houses as formulaic works of genre fiction: easily digestible, diverting, and unmemorable.

But Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra cut through my cynicism in surprising ways. It didn’t hurt that the house’s dramatic setting, perched above a particularly turbulent slice of the Pacific coast, stoked my imagination even before I’d entered. Most important, it was the only writer’s house I’d ever visited whose very structure and interior decoration seemed to offer insight into the author’s creative processes.

While additional Neruda homes are open to the public in Santiago and the port city of Valparaiso, neither is as fully realized as the house in Isla Negra, which served as Neruda’s primary residence during the latter half of his life. Neruda once referred to himself as a “carpenter-poet,” but if his house in Isla Negra is any indication, he was also a “poet-carpenter,” cobbling together images, objects, and textures in jarringly effective ways. Each idiosyncratic room looks and feels as uniquely constructed as Neruda’s poetry, overflowing with seashells, mastheads, ships in bottles, antique maps, mounted insects, and countless other oddities accumulated from a lifetime of travel and collection. Some rooms attest to his love of the sea, resembling ocean liners with low ceilings, porthole windows, and rounded corners; others are stocked with the sort of unvarnished wood furnishings that recall the author’s rustic childhood in the northern Patagonian town of Temuco. Overall, this distinctive house brings to mind the person who, while in Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature, declared that “my hobbies are shells, old books, old shoes,” and then, true to his word, promptly spent a hefty portion of his winnings on a stunning array of seashells and rare books.

coverIn her memoir, My Life with Pablo Neruda, Matilde Urrutia, Neruda’s third and final wife, asserted that the house had a “unique atmosphere, not so much because of what is actually there, but because the house took shape from a collection of images rooted in [Neruda’s] passions.” According to Urrutia, Neruda endeavored to transform the modest stone tower that he had originally purchased into “his dream world,” adding that only “he understood the value of things in it.” Neruda himself mused in his posthumously published memoirs that “in my house I have put together a collection of small and large toys that I cannot live without. I have also built my house like a toy house and I play in it from morning till night.” What these passages suggest is that while Neruda didn’t physically build the house in Isla Negra, it nonetheless grew out of his seemingly childlike ability to seek out and celebrate the poetry inherent in all manners of spaces and objects.

This combination of bottomless creativity and wide-eyed wonder formed an integral—and widely documented—part of Neruda’s personality. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story, “I Sell My Dreams,” the unnamed narrator spends a morning in Barcelona with a lightly fictionalized version of Pablo Neruda and marvels at how Neruda “moved through the crowd like an invalid elephant, with a child’s curiosity in the inner workings of each thing he saw, for the world appeared to him as an immense wind-up toy with which life invented itself.” Similarly, Matilde Urrutia’s memoir portrays Neruda as an “overgrown boy” enthralled by the minutiae and happenstance of life. For example, Urrutia recalls that Neruda’s desk—a thick, weathered slab of driftwood—was something that had washed ashore on a beach near their house after a violent storm. When Neruda rushed out to retrieve it, he “chortled like a little boy who had just received the most wonderful gift.” My guide in Isla Negra told comparable stories about an eclectic array of displayed objects—how Neruda had encountered the objects, infused each one with value, and then strung them together, like words on a page, into the larger poetic design of the house.

coverAs such, it is tempting to read Neruda’s house in Isla Negra as an extension of the author’s literary output. The house as a whole is as capacious, detailed, and imaginative as Canto General, Neruda’s lengthy masterwork on the history and geography of the Americas. At the same time, the attention that Neruda lavished on his possessions evokes his poems that glorify everyday objects, such as “Ode to the Onion” and “Ode to the Spoon.” By the end of the tour, I’d already come to the conclusion that Neruda’s poetry and houses were tightly intertwined, informing and playing off each other in a continuous creative loop.

However, reading a writer’s house in this manner is exactly what Trubek cautions against. In particular, Trubek warns that “if the fit between the author and his history—or biography—is too perfect, then the house becomes a cage, and the author, a bird.” This point is especially apt for the narrative constructed about Neruda at Isla Negra. My guide there repeatedly characterized Neruda as “a child in a man’s body,” and by doing so the tour accentuated Neruda’s eccentricities while effectively minimizing a more serious and equally important part of his life: his political activism.

It may strike many as comical that an individual with three sizable houses would define himself as a communist, but Neruda’s political convictions ran deep. He was someone who ran for President of Chile on behalf of the Communist Party, lived for nearly five years in hiding and exile to avoid political persecution, and titled one of his poetry collections Incitement to Nixonicide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution. When Neruda died on September 23, 1973, twelve days after a military coup had overthrown his country’s Socialist government and outlawed the Communist Party, his houses were ransacked and shuttered. The house in Isla Negra remained closed to the public for seventeen years, reopening only after democracy had been restored to Chile. Yet the tour does not dwell on this portion of the house’s history, perhaps because of its potential to polarize visitors, or because some of Neruda’s political views have subsequently fallen out of favor, or simply because it doesn’t fit comfortably within the airbrushed narrative put forth throughout.

But this shouldn’t be surprising. Even those readers that perceive of their treks to the choppy Pacific coast as pilgrimages must reconcile themselves to the fact that they’re also engaging in a tourist activity, and as with all forms of tourism, time restrictions and obligations to entertain typically trump concerns about historical accuracy and comprehensiveness. To capture a broad audience, my tour of Neruda’s house in Isla Negra seemed invested in canonizing a specific incarnation of the former inhabitant—the whimsical lover of wine, women, and words that has taken hold in the popular imagination over the past few decades.

And who’s to blame them? After all, this incarnation jibes with the unusual objects on display and, if my experience is any indication, is powerful enough to seduce even the most disenchanted literary tourist. Halfway through the tour, I’d become, in spite of myself, a willing accomplice in the constructed narrative, vividly imagining Neruda shuffling about the rooms, rearranging his scattered seashells and colored bottles, staring out at the Pacific while seated at his driftwood desk, waiting for inspiration to strike. Through it all a faint voice in the back of my head kept reminding me that for a more nuanced portrait of the author, I would have to wait for the tour to conclude. Invariably, a gift shop would await me then, conveniently stocked with biographies and assorted literary works at full retail price.

(Image credit: Luke Epplin)

has lived in Chile on a Fulbright Scholarship and the Doris M. Ohlsen Fellowship. His writing has appeared online in the New Yorker Book Bench and n+1, among other places, and he has been featured on NPR's "Here on Earth."


  1. FYI – Anne Trubek will be at WORD in Brooklyn at 7:30 tonight (1/11) to promote A SKEPTIC’S GUIDE TO WRITERS’ HOUSES. There will be a reading, slideshow, and book signing.

  2. Excelente articulo. Refleja , desde una mirada bien particular, las distintas peculiaridades de Neruda. Muy bueno.

  3. It is so interesting that someone chose to write a book about Reading Writer’s Houses…and even funnier that I had the chance to visit Pablo Neruda’s house in Chile without ever imagining I would have gotten the chance to. It was a real experience imagining what he was thinking as he sat in it, worked in it and that view of the water from it. I also didn’t expect to find mention of the English pirate Captain Morgan in it, so that was something to think about too. The title of this book tells you that there is always a new way to look at everything, and that we can learn from everything. The title of Neruda’s book attracted me there and I bought it: Confieso que he vivido. What an interesting thought, I thought, being a writer and poet myself. About a year ago I heard a famous hispanic singer tell Oprah that one of his life-long dreams is to visit Neruda’s home in Chile and I smiled because I had already done that.

  4. Its a fair deal to get to know and understand maybe part of writer’s creative process doing something perhaps elemental such as visiting their houses, very interesting article

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