A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses

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In the Company of Amy Clampitt

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Two years ago I spent some time in Lenox, Massachusetts, at a house once owned by the poet Amy Clampitt. I slept in her bed, rifled through her books, gazed out the kitchen window at the tree by which her ashes are buried. Since 2001, the house has served as a residency for poets; as the ninth Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow, my boyfriend was awarded a six-month stay. On a January weekend I helped him move into the grey clapboard house with blue-green shutters. Just down the road, The Mount, the mansion built by Edith Wharton, stood in baronial splendor. Everything about the more intimate Clampitt house struck me as perfect: the cozy living room with its comfy upholstered chairs; the loft bedroom and writing nook overlooking the snowy street; the spare bedroom crammed with boxes of Clampitt’s manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. We found a bin stacked with copies of Clampitt’s own books of poetry, and my boyfriend noted how cool it would be to read Amy Clampitt’s Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher.

I reluctantly caught the bus back to New York, where I had an M.F.A. thesis to write. This meant churning out and polishing short stories, and also producing a critical essay. I decided to write about Clampitt. Now I had an excuse for riding the Greyhound to Lenox as often as possible: I had research to do. But I immediately ran into trouble. I wanted to write about both Clampitt’s poetry and her house, but what was the connection between the two? Clampitt, who grew up in Iowa and spent most of her adult life in New York City, bought the house in Lenox when she was seventy-two, after winning a MacArthur grant. The places that loom large in her poems are primarily the rural landscapes of her childhood, the Manhattan streets of her adulthood, the Maine beaches where she vacationed in the summer, and the Europe of her travels—not the Berkshire towns along the Housatonic River. Six months after Clampitt moved to Lenox, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a year and a half later. On one of her bookshelves, between Dickens and Howard Moss, I found a spiral-bound workbook called Chemotherapy and You. Some of the pages were paper-clipped, marked for use.

In a piece here at The Millions, Luke Epplin discusses his visit to Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. This house “is exceptional among existing writers’ houses,” Epplin observes, in that Neruda “managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like.” The design of the house, the attention to detail, the arrangement of treasured possessions—all seem to capture the spirit of the writer of Odes to Common Things. But even as he enjoys seeing the house as an extension of Neruda’s poetic sensibility, Epplin is suspicious of the way that such museums tend to present a limited portrait of the writers who once lived there. In his critique of the literary tourism industry, he calls on Anne Trubek’s recently published A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a book I find charming, if a bit oddly conceived. Trubek spends a lot of time describing places that irritate her. She finds writers’ houses that have been turned into museums dispiriting and even dumb. “[T]hey aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.”

But she keeps going, reporting on her half-hearted treks around the country with a curmudgeon’s pleasure in disparaging what she sees. The first writer’s house she visits is the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman published three editions of Leaves of Grass and an autobiography, Specimen Days. Whitman died in this house, but, Trubek notes, “The house is set up, as are most house museums, to fool us into thinking that Whitman was still living there.” His things, or replicas of his things, are staged in a way that Trubek finds false. Though writers’ houses are meant to make their former inhabitants come alive, Trubek observes, “They remind me of death.”

In Lenox I became friendly with the poet Karen Chase, a great friend of Clampitt’s in the last few years of her life, and one of her literary executors. Karen was at Clampitt’s bedside when she died. We talked about this one morning in the kitchen of the house that Karen helped to furnish, taking her friend on “junking” trips to local antique stores. Karen told me that after the funeral the cleaning lady set up a little memorial to Clampitt: a table with a doily and an arrangement of Clampitt’s books, along with books by Edith Wharton. “I sort of messed it up,” Karen said with a touch of pride. “It was museum-like. It would have gone against her grain in the deepest way.” Trying to learn who Clampitt was (or Amy, as I really thought of her, longing for intimacy), I stared at the framed photograph of a woman both lanky and pixie-like, prim and hippieish, standing in a whirl of autumn leaves. I read her letters, filled with descriptions of European trips and anti-war rallies, the books on her nightstand and the flowers in her window box. And of course I read the four books that make up her Collected Poems, mostly on bus trips between Manhattan and Lenox. I was pleased to think of Clampitt herself, suddenly a poet in demand in her sixties, riding Greyhound to give readings and lectures.

The poems that struck me the most, the poems I decided to focus on in my M.F.A. thesis essay, were her portraits of the dead, at once somber and lovely. “A Winter Burial” describes a woman’s death, which seems as lonely as her time in a nursing home:

. . . one nightfall when the last
weak string gave way that had held whatever

she was, that mystery, together, the bier
that waited—there were no planes coming in,
not many made it to the funeral, the blizzard

had been so bad, the graveyard drifted
so deep, so many severed limbs of trees
thrown down, they couldn’t get in to plow

an opening for the hearse, or shovel
the cold white counterpane from that cell
in the hibernal cupboard, till the day after.

This is bleak, indeed: an old forgotten woman literally buried even deeper by a snowstorm. Still, the music of the poem—those lovely incantatory final lines—dignifies the death in a way, placing it not in a sterile box, but in a space of privacy that the snow-covered earth allows. Clampitt’s poems memorialize the dead not by portraying the person who once lived, but by paying acute attention to place, sometimes places where the subject died or is buried, sometimes places that invoke the relentless flow of time and history. One of her most famous poems, “A Procession at Candlemas,” observes, “Sooner or later / every trek becomes a funeral procession.”

She’s also wise to the way that paying tribute to a place can profane it, the kind of thing that troubles Trubek. “Amherst” refers to the worshippers who flock to Emily Dickinson’s house on the anniversary of her death: “the wistful, / the merely curious, in her hanging dress discern / an ikon; her ambiguities are made a shrine, / then violated.” Clampitt includes herself in this group: “we’ve drunk champagne above her grave, declaimed / the lines of one who dared not live aloud.” She wants to address her—“(Dear Emily, though, / seems too intrusive, Dear Miss Dickinson too prim)”—even as she knows this makes her part of the adoring crowd that reduces the woman to literary icon.

As an alternative to preserving a writer’s house, Trubek suggests greater attention to his or her work. Reflecting on the plans to restore Langston Hughes’ former house in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, she asks, “Why not redirect our energy to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house . . . ? His books are plentiful and inexpensive. It would not be cost prohibitive to give every resident of Fairfax a book, or every teacher a classroom set of, say, Poetry for Young People.” After visiting Louisa May Alcott’s house, one of an exhausting number of literary sites in Concord, Massachusetts, Trubek reflects, “Here’s what I wish for Alcott, today: Her books assigned in schools as often as are Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye; her reputation remade into that of the tortured romantic genius; it would also be nice to have a foundation in her honor dedicated to offering women writers grants or scholarships for female writers.” To promote the work, to elevate the status of a woman writer, to support other writers: these are worthy goals, and the Clampitt House, in its quiet way, fosters them. While the lavish Mount down the road lets tourists see where Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and other novels, perhaps increasing the readership of these books, it could be argued that the Clampitt House is better for writers (if only, so far, eleven of them) by providing a place to stay rent-free for an extended period of time and get work done. I imagine Trubek would approve of the Clampitt House: not a memorial, but a practical living space.

I don’t think Clampitt envisioned that her house would one day serve, in her name, as a temporary home for other poets. Her husband, who lived for seven years after her death, came up with the idea for the residency program. I do know that she had some romantic ideas about the former dwelling places of writers she admired. In her essay “A Poet’s Henry James,” she writes, “When I made a pilgrimage to Rye a couple of summers ago, it was with the objective of standing on the spot where Henry James dictated The Ambassadors.”

In the essay I completed as part of my M.F.A. thesis, I wrote about the experience of staying in the house of a writer who had died there, and I wrote about Clampitt’s poems that deal with death. I don’t think I quite found a successful way to link them. But though it puts me in danger of romanticizing Clampitt and the place she once lived, I can’t help but feel that her expansive poems about loss are connected to the cozy grey clapboard house in Lenox. According to Trubek, “writers’ houses are by definition melancholy.” There is something melancholy about the Clampitt House. As Clampitt observes about Dickinson’s house, the poet’s “ambiguities” are inevitably given over to strangers’ imaginings of what she must have been like.

It’s a good kind of melancholy, though, the kind that allows us to miss people we’ve never met. During a talk she gave at Grinnell forty-five years after she had graduated from the small Iowa college, Clampitt addressed the question of what a writer needs to know. “In one word, I’d say, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, thought about them, written about them. But so I find it to be . . . .Writers need company. We all need it.”

Image: Clampitt House, courtesy the author

Reading Writers’ Houses

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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.

Of 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.

In 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.

As 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)

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