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The Fantasy, and Folly, of the Home of a Dead Famous Writer

What’s actually there is, on occasion, a history that has been confounded or left out altogether, perhaps by oversight, perhaps by design.
April 28, 2021, 3:15pm
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A series that explores the endless appeal of the physical footprint of celebrity.

Last fall, the late novelist Ursula K. Le Guin’s childhood home was put on the market. The photos in the listing reveal a space that is simultaneously airy and rich, like good cake, with deep redwood walls, bright skylights, and wrap-around windows overlooking the green forest canopy outside. Le Guin had written about her home before—in fact, she immortalized it in an essay, “Living in a Work of Art,” where she wrote, “I wonder if much of my understanding of what a novel ought to be was taught to me, ultimately, by living in that house. If so, perhaps all my life I have been trying to rebuild it around me out of words.” When pictures of her apparent writer’s room went viral on Twitter, one poster echoed this sentiment: “I think if I had this room I’d write just as well. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.”

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Weren’t we all. The appeal of the dead famous writer’s home is not new, nor is it particularly opaque. “Literary pilgrimages” have existed since at least the 14th century, and experienced a boom in the 18th and 19th centuries, when writers and others swarmed to Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Today, walking tours, retreats, and residencies abound: you can trace the lingering steps of Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and others around Key West; tour the Mark Twain House and Museum; spend months writing and studying in Carson McCullers’ childhood home; and, of course, daydream about Le Guin’s house on Twitter dot com. Dr. Nicola MacLeod, Director of the Tourism Research Centre at the University of Greenwich, recently analyzed 12,000 TripAdvisor reviews of popular literary homes in the US and the UK for Current Issues in Tourism. In the article, she concludes that “what the literary visitor is seeking within the authorial home may be the genius loci”—“the spirit of the place,” the sense of genius-in-place, or, the sense that “the great woman or man has just stepped out of the room and may be met in person at any time.” 

Sure enough, a fantasy of proximity permeates the marketing materials and cultural conversation around these places: proximity to the person, to the work, and to greatness. According to Madeleine Smith, the former marketing and events manager of the Jane Austen House Museum, for many visitors encountering Austen’s writing table, it is “as if the wood itself contains something of Jane.” Erika Mailman, a novelist, described Louisa May Alcott’s desk at the Orchard House similarly in the Washington Post. “A spirit of creativity still seems to emanate from it,” she wrote. Moreover, what sparks the imagination is not merely that something of the person and their work lingers, but that we can access it, commune with it, take some of it into ourselves and take it away with us when we leave. Elisa Wouk Almino writes that “many of us go with grand hopes of finding something revelatory—we’re not sure what—that will make us feel closer to the person, perhaps lead us to discover something hidden about their work.” We—writers and lay people alike, under the great umbrella of literary tourists, voyeurs, and fans— do not simply want to visit greatness; we want to be transformed by it, in some ineffable way. But the fantasy of that transformation is not simply about proximity to the person (“I’d write just as well”) but to the place itself (“I’d write just as well there.”) The appeal of writer’s homes is about more than their celebrated work—it’s also about the conditions of possibility of that celebrated work. 

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This is not necessarily reducible to wealth or luxury. Not all authors were rich in their own time, of course, yet the fantasy of their homes, even the ramshackle ones, the cluttered ones, the rent-is-due ones, persists. What these fantasies evoke is less four-walls-and-a-ceiling than it is a feeling which often supersedes the actual factual reality of the place—if the marketing is working, anyway. A crucial feature of the dead, famous writer’s house is the preservation of a history, yet this history, and our reception of it, is often incomplete. Take for instance Austen’s writing table, at first sight of which, according to her house’s website, “some visitors hold their breath. Others cry.” Only a portion of the table displayed at the Jane Austen House Museum is the legitimate article, however—the table top itself. According to writer and researcher Anne Trubek, wishy-washy historicism is a common feature of these displays. So when we as visitors pursue that “faint whiff of cigar,” as a TripAdvisor reviewer in Dr. MacLeod’s article put it, the whiff, unseeable, intangible, yet felt, is more important to us than the actual set dressing and educational content. This is the work of fantasy: transposing what we want in place of what is actually there. 

Faulkner and his wife Estelle outside of Rowan Oak

Faulkner and his wife Estelle outside of Rowan Oak. Image via Getty

What’s actually there is, on occasion, a history that has been confounded or left out altogether, perhaps by oversight, perhaps by design. Take for instance William Faulkner’s Mississippi home, Rowan Oak, which pre-COVID was visited more than 20,000 times a year. The University of Mississippi site for Rowan Oak provides a brief history of the home, focusing mainly on the years after it was purchased by the Faulkners in 1930. Information about the home prior to that is limited to the following:  “Colonel Robert Sheegog, an Irish immigrant planter from Tennessee, built the home when he settled in the tiny frontier settlement of Oxford in the 1840s.” Faulkner’s family history is given a similarly brusque treatment, with only a brief mention of a great-grandfather, “a lawyer and a planter, William Clark Falkner,” who “had let a regiment north in 1861 to fight at First Manassas,” and who was a novelist in his own right. 

When the site refers to these men euphemistically as planters and soldiers, what they mean is that they were slave owners who fought on the side of the Confederacy. In an NPR piece about Faulkner from 2017, Rowan Oak curator William Griffith told reporter Melissa Block that, “We really try not to tell any family secrets”; I suppose this could fall under that category. He went on to say that instead they try to focus on the literature and property, as Faulkner would have wanted. Speaking of the property: the website, which walks us through several key sites inside the house and on the grounds, describes the smokehouse as “original to the 1840s construction.” According to the University of Mississippi Slavery Research Group, this smokehouse (referred to by the American Writer’s Museum as a “nostalgic structure”) was most likely the quarters of the enslaved people who lived there during Sheegog’s time

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There is a tendency on all sides involved to overwrite and overlook what is inconvenient, uncomfortable, or hard to sell. The visitor is buying into what one might call a structure of nostalgia: the bits and pieces of the writer, and the home, and the history, assembled in the way that is most digestible. When Phoebe Hamilton-Jones suggests in Lithub that our fascination with dead writers’ homes comes from a sort of genteel voyeurism—“Who hasn’t, upstairs in someone else’s house, looking for the bathroom, nudged open a second door?”—I hesitate, because there’s a difference between nudging open a door you’ve been told not to and stepping through one that’s been opened for you with a welcome mat laid underfoot. And I am by nature a voyeur: horribly nosy, with a shaky sense of self-identity and a knack for ferreting out others’ business. I like to dig around in peoples’ things and then tell myself that I’ve learned something about the world, about humanity, about how it all ticks. But I’m not sure that’s actually what’s happening here. 

Take that beautiful Le Guin house, with the redwood walls, the skyscraping ceilings, the impossible light; darling of home and decor websites, lust object of writers who will never own homes, it listed for 4.1 million and sold in two weeks. Designed by architect Bernard Maybeck in 1907 and occupied by her family from 1925 to 1979, this was her childhood home—that beautiful writer’s office may not even have been hers (although try telling that to the pleasure centres in my brain). It’s most likely the office was her father’s, the proprietor of the Maybeck home, Dr. Alfred Kroeber, who was been called “the founder of the study of anthropology in the American West.

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Perhaps it would be his spirit, not hers, emanating from that desk. Kroeber’s name was recently removed from a building at the University of California - Berkeley due to his participation in cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples, as a result of organizing and pressure from Indigenous student groups and leaders of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe; according to Dr. David Shane Lowry, this was “perhaps the first substantial crack in the façade of American anthropology’s imprisonment of Native America.” Kroeber instated an Indigenous man as a living exhibit at Berkeley, where he spent much of his time “on display for white museum audiences,” and the rest of it as “a live-in custodian and research assistant.” In my undergraduate class discussions of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, this particular history never came up. I question whether, if the Berkeley home became a museum or, as some on Twitter suggested, a retreat or residency for writers, this Indigenous Yahi man would be discussed between readings, in workshops, over cups of coffee and ice breakers. Whether land acknowledgements would be read, and received with solemn nods. Whether his history, and others, would emanate from the walls.

These writers’ homes are not unique in our society for failing or refusing to reckon with their own provenance. What I find interesting is how these spaces are specifically framed as places of memory and haunting, without doing the actual work of memory and haunting—these being essential tools of a writer’s craft for evoking old wounds, unearthing buried depths of feeling, and shading in conflicting or painful truths within a narrative. Hamilton-Jones argues that visiting dead writers’ homes involves “a gentle kind of ghosting, a kind of stepping into other shoes, ever so slightly intrusive,” but should history be gentle? And ghosts, should they be gentle too? 

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Many of the listicles touting Faulkner’s home as a key literary site to visit list only white writers’ homes. Meanwhile, searching “famous Black writers’ homes” on Google (as opposed to merely “famous writers’ homes”) brings up literally nothing. As author and poet Renée Watson, recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award and the Newbery Honor for her YA novel Piecing Me Together, told the New York Times, “It feels like, whether it’s intentional or not, our stories are being erased.” Watson, with her nonprofit organization i, Too, Arts Collective, leased the Langston Hughes home from 2016 to 2019, because she felt that “too many crucial landmarks of the Harlem Renaissance, like Mr. Hughes’s home, were disappearing or going unnoticed.” 

Le Guin and Faulkner were both white writers noted for their bare-faced renderings of the complexities of American life in the wake of colonialism and slavery, albeit from very different personal political lenses. Le Guin, a deeply moralistic writer, dissected the mores and modes of capitalism, colonialism, and power more broadly in her work. This is reflected in “Living in a Work of Art,” where she lovingly renders the craftsmanship and aesthetic of the Berkley home, which lent itself to her own burgeoning understanding of order, balance, and historical resonance. “It consisted entirely of redwood,” she writes: “Air and redwood. Light and air and redwood. And shadows.” She nodded to the cost of this beauty: “the exhaustibility of the sequoias,” a resource depleted by Maybeck’s generation, a complicity in her own beloved home. In an ugly irony, whichever stager dressed the Le Guin home for its listing included an Ikea-style tipi in the child’s bedroom. 

Jane Austen's house in Hampshire

Jane Austen's house in Hampshire, England. Photo by Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Getty Images

I highlight these particular cases because I believe that the gentle ahistoricism of dead, famous, white writers’ homes is a major part of their appeal. Last week, the Jane Austen’s House Museum announced that it would be revising its historical content to more accurately engage with her history, including “[updating] its displays with information on Austen’s links to slavery through her father, George Austen, who was the trustee of an Antigua sugar plantation.” Characteristically, some commentators were not pleased with this “woke nonsense.” Meanwhile, the marketing for retreats and residencies emphasize the quietude of these places, the peaceful solace and isolation, the space and the views which will inspire, reveal, transform us. 

These emphases—on spaciousness, airiness, quietness, softness—evoke the same feeling in me as those pictures of Le Guin’s childhood home did when I first saw them. The descriptions of these writers’ homes tell of the writer’s discipline and their success—perhaps a little of their trials and tribulations along the way—but it is a gentle conflict, already resolved. We thus get a partial view of the author, their work, and their provenance as a writer—but maybe we want that. Perhaps it is not just the fantasy of these spaces that is pleasurable, but the work that goes into creating the fantasy: the smoothing away, the gentling, the writing-over. Faulkner famously wrote that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past,” yet he also wrote, “It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless.” Do we all want that? Let me speak for myself: I am very tired, all the time. I would like for things to be less hard. I crave a moment of frictionless existence. 

Le Guin, describing the strangeness and charms of her childhood home, wrote: “Our house, for instance, originally had no stairs to the basement. “Maybeck was moody about stairs,” my mother said … I wonder if it was basements that Maybeck was moody about, rather than stairs.” This idea is not returned to, but it reminds me of the past that is not dead, and of Austen’s writing desk without legs. There is the surface, and then there is the rest. 

When I was 19 I had this fantasy: I would run into my favorite author in the street, in a bar, wherever, and she—struck by my looks, my smarts, or my nerve—would take me away from all the things in my life that were hard. I would be her muse, her prodigy, her kept woman. Life would be beautiful, and easy, and I would pad barefoot across the rich floors of her penthouse apartment to stare out of windows that stretched from my toes to the ceiling at the city beyond. I do not know for sure that she had a penthouse apartment. Probably not. But in this fantasy I could disappear into what I imagined her life to be. I would be safe in that apartment, and I would never have to step foot outside of it again. 

I had this other fantasy then, too: I’d envision a glacier, or a mountain top, or a forest, some remote and unpeopled place, and I’d be seized by the sudden desire—seized was the feeling, like an aluminum can grasped and crushed in the fist of my own wanting—to vanish into it. To be alone; to never be seen again. 

Recalling the images in the Le Guin house listing, the high ceilings, spacious rooms, and bright, endless windows, I am brought back to these fantasies, which are the same, at the end of the day. In our lust for the ease and the comfortable garnishings of wealth, for a moment freed of the weight and blame of history, for a trace of the euphoria and eulogization of success, I see a shade of that desire for self-obliteration. These fantasies absorb and disappear everything else: subaltern histories, and our own, too. We evacuate ourselves, make space for gentle ghosts. We step out of our own shoes, and let something else step in, sit us down, tell us a story. It tells us a story and we, with great relief, believe it.