Wednesday, December 16, 2009

“You might as well not believe in fairies!”

One of my favorite pieces of writing related to the Christmas season is the 1897 editorial from the New York Sun penned by Francis Pharcellus Church. The editor wrote in response to a letter from a reader:

“Dear Editor: I am 8 years old.
“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
“Papa says ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’
“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
            “Virginia O’Hanlon.”

I admire Church from the outset because he doesn’t hedge. He goes right for it with his opening sentences: “Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.”

Church’s response celebrates the season and the power of a sense of wonder. But it also illustrates the strength and certainty that once upon a time rolled off printing presses all over the country. “If you see it in The Sun it’s so.” Readers believed in newspapers. That belief has slipped away over the past century as surely as a faith in the existence of Santa.

I’m not saying that newspapers then—and in times since—didn’t grind axes and rake muck and go all yellow, but people counted on them, and the journalists knew it. Now, in the age of twenty-four-hour-a-day news access via television and the Internet, news in print is like the turtle to the hare (with the outcome of the race still to be determined). With so many outlets for news none of them appear to feel that same sense that people count on them.

Getting the story first matters more than getting it right, because there’s always a chance for a follow-up, and a follow-up just means more news to deliver. Streaming news comes at us like flowing water—first impressions, unconfirmed items, corrections, additions, commentary, confirmations, additional unconfirmed facts uncovered, bystander accounts, exclusive interviews, semi-related juicy gossip…

Once upon a time a newspaper reporter dug up all those bits and pieces, chewed them over, and then gathered them into a story. Or a series of stories. All those elements, rather than streaming over us, gathered into a pool that we could dip into. And the deeper the reporter dug, the deeper the pool for us to savor.

I’m afraid those days of diving into the news may be gone, but perhaps, as F. P. Church wrote, I “have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.”

In this season of wonder I will try to resuscitate my belief.

Church’s editorial makes me want to believe in journalism as much as in Santa Claus. And the belief he writes of, a belief in “all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world” makes me think he may have been a fiction writer too. Or at least he understood fiction writers, the creative process and the magic involved in it.

“[T]here is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.”

I wonder if he knew, after he’d finished writing the column and was reading it over, that he’d written something that would be so long enduring—so “real and abiding.”

(In case you’re interested, you can read the whole column for yourself.)


Note: I’m giving myself a Christmas present and taking a couple of weeks off from blogging. Look for me again in 2010.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Here it is two weeks after the craziness of National Novel Writing Month, and I miss it. I am on a forced hiatus from my writing life (in large doses). But I am hoping that the recess will let me hit the keys running when I’m ready to go back.

The reason for the break is a practical one—I had LASIK surgery on my eyes last week and can’t spend a lot of time at the computer just yet. I’m hoping for a new outlook, both literally and figuratively.

One thing the timeout has shown me is just how much time I spend writing or reading. It’s difficult to fill the days in a satisfying way with those activities curtailed. I am in love with the written word.

It’s the unknowable quality of writing—the part that can’t be captured in books on craft and how-to articles—that fascinates me. And I’m not the only one. Plenty of writers have tried to explain it, or at least written about their inability to explain it.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King puts it bluntly: “Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.”

Nearly fifty years earlier, Ernest Hemingway said essentially the same thing: “In truly good writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is done. That is because there is a mystery in all great writing and that mystery does not dis-sect out. It continues and it is always valid. Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.”

The above is from a letter, so I’m guessing Papa wasn’t expecting the sentences to be widely read. But you can see that he used punctuation sparingly. He commented on this in another letter, and to my delight, he reveals a sense of humor:

“My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.”

If only he could have allowed himself to take that flight of fancy, I really think he would have understood that golf would be radically improved by the introduction of croquet mallets and billiard cues on the putting green. Not to mention goalkeepers and defensive tackles. But that’s another topic for another time. And I realize that he was actually talking about punctuation, not golf.

I’m just surprised at the humor, unexpected from square-jawed Mr. Hemingway. I expect if from Stephen King, who describes his muse as a surly, grunting little guy who “sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.”

Whatever. He has a muse, and obviously the little guy does something.

Sometimes I wonder about mine. (Just like I wonder about the existence of Mr. Right-for-me.) But all I can do is pound the keys and keep going—or will do as soon as my eyeballs seat themselves properly again in my skull.

It’s a process. An ongoing one. Not just ongoing—one that keeps going and going and going, like a popular fuzzy critter from advertising. So my plan for the novel-in-progress is to keep making progress. Like Hemingway said, “[T]here is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.”

So, here’s to the end and the hope that I’ll get there sooner rather than later.


“The hardest thing in the world to do is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn…” – Ernest Hemingway

(Hemingway quotes from Ernest Hemingway On Writing edited by Larry W. Phillips.)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

NaNoWriMo hangover

Okay, I’ll admit it right up front. This post is going to be shorter and shallower than previous ones. I can’t help it—my fingers and my brain are tired.

Fifty thousand words in thirty days. I did it. The novel isn’t finished—its story wouldn’t be contained in fifty thousand words. I’m still not exactly sure how it ends, but I’ve come to know the characters—surprises and all—and I made it through a variety of unanticipated plot twists. Those moments when words spill onto the page bypassing the conscious brain until my eyes read them are magical, if disconcerting. When a sentence that I knew when I started it finishes itself in some unexpected way makes me wonder where the ideas really come from.

The month of marathon writing was like walking on a path through the forest at night. I knew ultimately where the trail led, but I didn’t know the territory I had to cover along the way. And my flashlight batteries were rather weak—I could only see a few feet ahead of me at any given time. It’s a scary situation to be in: dark shapes loom just beyond that beam of light, and the trail might fall off into nothingness out there in the gloom.

One might think that new batteries and a bright, piercing beam would make me better equipped for such a journey when I take it again. But I think I’ll keep things just the way they are—that stumbling through the unknown is a unique trip and one worth taking.

I still have the rest of the story ahead of me, but I’m doing that on a less grueling schedule and giving myself room to breathe.

Until next year. November 2010 will find me frantic and fumbling through NaNoWriMo once again.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Writing and food

Food is fuel in more ways than one. It nourishes physically when we eat it. It nourishes emotionally and socially when we gather around it. And it even nourishes creatively when we (writers, I mean) use it in our work.

Eating out was a key component in my field trips to writers’ homes, partly because I like to try new (to me) restaurants and partly because I like to write about food. It’s about details—looks, smells, tastes, textures. Recalling the meal can capture the moment.

I like writers who incorporate food and eating into their work. (Of course I do—it allows me to eat vicariously.) One of my favorites is Julia Child’s My Life in France. Restaurant meals and relationships get equal emphasis in her recollections. Learning the ins and outs of the marketplace was like learning the language. It’s a book about people, places and food.

She celebrates a local shopkeeper who sold butter and cheese with this description:

“Madame was a whiz at judging the ripeness of cheese. If you asked for ac Camembert, she would cock an eyebrow and ask at what time you wished to serve it: would you be eating it for lunch today, or at dinner tonight, or would you be enjoying it a few days hence? Once you had answered, she’d open several boxes, press each cheese intently with her thumbs, take a big sniff, and—voila!—she’d hand you just the right one. I marveled at her ability to calibrate a cheese’s readiness down to the hour, and would even order cheese when I didn’t need it just to watch her in action”

I love that Julia Child loved food and loved people who loved food. She captures not only the details of the skillful shopkeeper at work but also her own joy and enthusiasm.

A fictional take on incorporating food into life and story is Laura Esquirel’s novel, Like Water for Chocolate. It’s a beautiful, magical love story, and food is one of the beloved objects. Recipes are incorporated into the family history. The reader knows exactly what’s in the oven or on the table, and the food has an undeniable influence on the characters and the course of the story.

“The cut-up ox tails are placed in a pan to cook with a chunk of onion, a clove of garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. It is advisable to add a little more water than you normally would, since you are making a soup. A good soup that’s worth something has to be soupy without getting watery.

Soups can cure any illness, whether physical or mental—at least, that was Chencha’s firm belief, and Tita’s too, although she hadn’t given sufficient credit to it for quite some time. But now it would have to be accepted as the truth.

About three months ago, after tasting a spoonful of soup that Chencha had made and brought to Dr. John Brown’s house, Tita had returned to her senses.”

In this fictional world food is an expression of emotions and sometimes even a catalyst of the action.

Food has played an important part in my adventure in National Novel Writing Month. I think about it as a distraction—hmm, I know I have a thousand more words to crank out before lunch, but what will I have to eat when I do get that break?

But even more importantly, I use it in the work. Whenever I’m not sure what my characters are going to do next, I sit them down around food. They drink coffee and talk—oh, and don’t forget the homemade cookies and brownies to go with the coffee. They gather around a meal, sharing it and themselves. Like real people, my characters fall into easy conversation over their plates, and suddenly they are revealing things about their pasts and their prejudices that I hadn’t known.

“We gather together …” and who knows what will happen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Putting pen to paper in the face of death

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

Writing about death is a challenge—I’m guessing that’s true for other writers, not just me. And in contemporary fiction it’s almost a requirement that death needs to be shocking, so authors mostly write about people being killed—intentionally or accidentally doesn’t matter so long as it makes for an exciting scene. We’re all about shock and awe these days.

But what about the quiet, tender taking leave of life?

I’ve been reading E.M. Forster. (Yes, I know he’s not an American writer, but I’m not exclusive. Tennyson wasn't American either.) In 1927 he gave a series of lectures that were collected and published as Aspects of the Novel. In discussing people/characters he says that the major facts of life are birth, food, sleep, love and death and then asks, ”Does the novelist tend to reproduce them accurately or does he tend to exhibit his characters going through processes which are not the same through which you and I go, though they bear the same names?”

Forster also points out that any depiction of death “is all from the outside.” There have been stories that try to venture beyond that line between life and death (and yes, I liked The Lovely Bones), but at that point the story has also crossed the line into fantasy, because there is no way of knowing if the fiction resembles at all what is real.

But even sticking to the portrayals from the outside, so many of the deaths we experience in books and plays and films tend to be of the exaggerated variety, which makes them seem distant from our own experience.

I lost a friend this week, so I am thinking about death and looking for comfort in words. I’m discovering that I have to venture back in time to find what I’m looking for. The first death I remember from my childhood reading was Beth in Little Women. I remember crying over the pages. And I look over those chapters today and find that those scenes resonate more—touch what I am going through now—than any of the shocking and sensational deaths in the modern fiction on my bookshelves.

Maybe that means I’m naïve or parochial. I don’t think I care. I’ll take comfort where I can find it. And I find it in some of Louisa May Alcott’s words. Beth endured a long illness, and her family drew close around her as she grew weaker: “It was well for all that this peaceful time was given them as preparation for the sad hours to come …”

The hospice movement didn’t exist back then, but that’s exactly what Alcott describes—a tender approach to the end of life.

“Seldom, except in books, do the dying utter memorable words, see visions, or depart with beatified countenances; and those who have sped many parting souls know that to most the end comes as naturally and simply as sleep. As Beth hoped, the ‘tide went out easily;’ and in the dark hour before the dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little sigh.”

I lost a dear friend this week. We don’t use that word—dear—much anymore. Maybe as part of the opening in a letter, but how often do we write letters these days? Dear is a specific and special word, it means “loved or especially valued.” So it means exactly what I want to say here. I lost a dear friend, and I will always think of her that way.

As for those dark hours before the dawn, it makes me smile to know that the morning she died was also the peak of the Leonid meteor showers. So I know she rode those streams of light into the heavens. I like to think that’s not a coincidence, and it makes me smile to know that every time I see a shooting star I’ll think of her.

I love you, R. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On the edge of the Great Unknown

What do you write about when you don’t know what to write?

At first glance that might seem like a ridiculous question—why would you (or I or anyone) write if you didn’t have anything to say? But think about it, a good part of our writing—maybe most of it—isn’t done when we feel like writing, that is, when we feel that we have something to say, but rather when it is demanded of us.

School papers. I’m sorry, professor, I didn’t write my thesis because I just didn’t feel the need to express anything at this time.

Work assignments. Customers on the website really just look at the pictures. No, really, boss. And I’m sure there’s an editor somewhere shouting, those newspaper column inches need to be filled—go out and make some news if you can’t find it. (By the way, let’s all make a point of reading a newspaper so they don’t become a thing of the past.)

National Novel Writing Month is prime territory for this dilemma. It feels a bit like jumping into the Great Unknown. Just trying typing 1,600-and-some words of don’t-know-what-to-say and you’ll get a little insight into the daily angst of crazies around the world that are attempting this.

But they’re happy crazies, at least I know I am, and I talked to another one last night. I got a call from my college alma mater—the annual giving call. I actually don’t mind these calls, because they are made by some of the university’s undergraduates, and that means I get a peek into what life is like there these days. Last night the sophomore I spoke to was friendly and upbeat until I mentioned NaNoWriMo—and then she revealed the happy crazy that she really is. Wow, she said, I’m doing it too. And then we forgot all about college and the big wide world for a few minutes and talked about the novels we’re trying to shepherd into the world and the big question of what do you write about when you don’t know what to write.

I felt good when I got off the phone, not at all like I’d just been hit up for money. More like I’d crossed paths with a kindred spirit, who is having just as challenging and satisfying a hike up her path as I am on mine.

Back to those nineteenth- and early twentieth-century friends I made this fall. I think that’s why they hung together like clusters of grapes—it helps to have a kindred spirit or two handy, especially when you don’t know what to write about. Emerson gathered up the like-minded to his little community in Concord. Melville bought a house in the Berkshires when he learned that Hawthorne and others were there. Longfellow hosted virtually all of the major writers of his day at his house in Cambridge. They all wanted the luxury to talk writing with someone who knew what the heck they were talking about. Others who had been crazy enough at some point in their lives to jump into the Great Unknown.

They didn’t have the global-hopping Internet capability I have, so they couldn’t reach out almost instantaneously to writers around the world like I can. When I went to graduate school a number of years ago, I attended a low-residency MFA writing program at Goddard College. My schoolmates came from far-flung places and gathered for eight days twice a year. The rest of the time we went back to our own little corners of the world to live our lives and write our dreams. My “gang” of friends kept in touch (and still do) via an email list, commiserating or celebrating depending on how the work was going.

And now here I am participating in the global insanity of NaNoWriMo—and I must say that it makes me smile to think of other people all over the world wracking their brains this month just the way I am to create something.

But with or without instant global communication the creative process is much the same. I am sitting here at my computer, but I could just as easily be scratching away on a sheet of paper with my quill pen or hand-sharpened pencil. Stories are born independent of technology—deep within the mind and heart and soul—and then somehow they appear through the fingertips and onto the page (via pen, pencil or computer, it doesn’t matter which).

Eudora Welty (her home was too far away for a day trip, but I’ll get there some time) put it like this:

“The events of our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily—perhaps not possibly—chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”

I’m still typing. And who knows what I’ll uncover.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

W: Writing, words and Wednesdays

Letter of the day is a little Sesame Street, but I don’t care. I enjoy my little crutches. Especially now. It’s November. And November is National Novel Writing Month. One guess as to what I’m busy doing.

So instead of visiting writers’ homes I’m staying home and writing. This is day four. It’s going well so far (knock wood). I’m cautiously optimistic and having a lot of fun. I won’t go into details yet. Maybe later. Anyway, my plan is to keep exploring America here on a weekly basis—probably musings about American writers and their thoughts on writing. For my own inspiration.

I’m still thinking about the writers I “visited” this fall. I envy the ones who got free housing and didn’t have to worry about paying the bills thanks to someone else’s largesse. I worry about the fact that so many of them seemed to suffer from depression or other mental illnesses and wonder that if there’s some genetic link between writing and those illnesses. I noticed that most of them had erratic work histories (granted, most were nineteenth-century folk, and the world ran differently then), and that gets me to thinking about my own résumé.

But for now, I’m just happily banging away on my keyboard and creating a novel—well, at least a “shitty first draft” (as Anne Lamott so beautifully put it). I’m keeping good thoughts and doing the math on how many words per day I have to write in order to reach the 50,000 mark by month’s end. It’s 1,667 per day for 30 days. But I know I’m not going to want to write on Thanksgiving (that’s a food day), and I’m sure there will be at least one other day that’s bound to get problematic schedule wise. So if I figure on 28 days, I’m looking at 1,785 per day. Heck, I’m going to shoot for 2,000 whenever I can, so that it will make up for the few miserable days I’m bound to run into when I can pound out only a few hundred.

All right, you’ve guessed it—I’m using the math as a distraction. Poking numbers into a calculator means I’m not dancing my fingers across the keyboard.

It’s got me thinking about some other numbers. One fact I gleaned at the Mark Twain House and Museum was that he wrote four thousand words a day. With output like that, he’d get through National Novel Writing Month in less than two weeks.

Then again, maybe not. He wrote an essay called “When a Book Gets Tired” in which he explained that he often had three or four projects in the works at a given time, because each would have to sit for a time when it he hit a snag with it.

“It was by accident that I found out that a book is pretty sure to get tired, along about the middle, and refuse to go on with its work until its powers and its interests should have been refreshed by a rest and its depleted stock of raw materials reinforced by lapse of time.”

Don’t tell me this. There is no room for a “lapse of time” in a thirty-day span.

Another thing about numbers, consciously or not a number of my historic friends used banking as a metaphor when they talked about writing. Do you think that the money question was always nagging at the corners of their minds and influencing their literary imagery?

Twain (in an essay called “Comment on Tautology and Grammar”) explains sloppy word repetition on “the fact that the writer’s balance at the vocabulary bank has run short and that he is too lazy to replenish it from the thesaurus.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to his journal as his “personal savings bank” in which he’d deposit thoughts and then later withdraw them as needed for his writing.

I get the sense that both men considered the value of the words and ideas they were dealing with and tried to be wise about their saving and spending.

I wonder (in fleeting moments so far) if I can come up with 50,000 words on short notice. Act now! This offer won’t be repeated!  Will I mentally be turning my pockets inside out and scrounging between the sofa cushions for spare words?

And then I second-guess my marathon of choice. I could have gone for the Brattle Theatre Movie Watch-a-thon fundraiser. I could happily watch movies all day long. Unfortunately for me, the timing of the Watch-a-thon and novel writing month are in direct conflict, so I guess it’s writing for me.

Plus, I’ve already started typing.

Twain wrote in another essay (“Reply to the Editor of ‘The Art of Authorship’”) that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

I’m going to be writing 50,000 of the suckers. Maybe a few of them will be right. Certainly a lot of them will be wrong. But that’s what rewrites are for. Right now, I’m going to get my kite and my key and get back to that novel.

Friday, October 30, 2009

12: Pittsfield: Melville and his mountains

With October zipping right along (and November breathing down my neck) I was feeling both excited and a little sad to be launching my final field trip for the fall. This time I enlisted my nephew Keith as traveling buddy. We had been talking about going for a hike, so that part worked. And he was a history major in college, so he “got” the house visiting part of the plan. And he’s always good company.

The unappealing thing about western Massachusetts for me is simply that I have to endure a long (usually boring) drive to get there. The good thing about this day was that, unlike the day of the Lenox expedition, it wasn’t raining. So the ride was just boring, not boring and dreary.

Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s home in Pittsfield, is now home to the Berkshire Historical Society. We bought our tour tickets and poked around the store in the small building at the back of the house and, on the recommendation of the cashier, walked through the exhibits in the barn. A series of captioned photos explained the history of the house—2009 is the Arrowhead’s 225th anniversary—and its restoration. Another exhibit shows a collection of colonial era furniture and tools.

We lucked out and got a tour to ourselves (advantage of visiting on a weekday, I guess). Our tour guide, a retired high school history teacher, had plenty to tell us about the house and its contents—when she learned that we were most interested in Melville, she focused mainly on his part in the building’s history. She started on the piazza (a reconstruction of the one that existed in Melville’s time, because a subsequent owner tore down the original), Melville’s favorite spot in the house. The view from the porch is topped off by Mount Greylock in the distance, rising above the trees.

Melville described the wonder of this view in “The Piazza”:

“Whoever built the house, he builded better than he knew; or else Orion in the zenith flashed down his Damocles’ sword to him some starry night, and said, ‘Build there.’ For how, otherwise, could it have entered the builder’s mind, that, upon the clearing being made, such a purple prospect would be his?—nothing less than Greylock, with all his hills about him, like Charlemagne among his peers.”

Melville, born Herman Melvill in 1819, had a childhood of privilege in New York City. But in 1830 his father, a merchant, went bankrupt and the family moved to Albany. Two years later his father died, leaving his mother a widow with eight children. Herman and his older brother had to work to help support the family. One of his jobs was helping on his uncle’s farm in Pittsfield. Melville (his mother added an “e” to the name after her husband’s death—was it to try to avoid creditors or a symbolic separation?) visited the area almost every year until he bought Arrowhead.

He worked at a variety of jobs: first as a clerk and bookkeeper, then as a schoolteacher (after managing to get some schooling of his own). In 1841 he sailed on the whaler Acushnet as a member of the crew but deserted in the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. He crewed on a few other ships and made his way back to Honolulu, where he enlisted in the US Navy. He returned to Boston in 1844 and was discharged.

Melville jumped at the “write about what you know” idea and produced a book (eventually titled Typee) based on his experiences in the Marquesas. His brother, Gansevoort, helped him sell it to a London publisher and it was released in 1846. A short time later a New York company also published the book. Melville followed up with four more novels in the next four years, all based on his sea travels.

In 1850 while visiting Pittsfield with his wife Elizabeth and toddler son Malcolm, Melville was part of a picnic outing to nearby Monument Mountain that included James T. Fields (our friend from Ticknor and Fields publishing house) and his wife Annie, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne. Seems we’re right back where we started: Everyone, it seemed, knew everyone.

Melville and Hawthorne met on this outing and enjoyed a close friendship for the next several years. The Hawthornes were living in Lenox at the time, and Melville thought he’s settle in the area as well. He bought the 160-acre farm known as Arrowhead, which abutted his uncle’s farm. His father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw (Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court), provided half the money for the purchase.

The family that moved into the new home consisted of Melville, wife Elizabeth and son Malcolm as well as Melville’s mother and three of his sisters. During their thirteen years here, the Melvilles welcomed three more children.

It was obviously a bustling place, but Melville would shut himself away from the commotion in his second-floor study (with a beautiful view of Mount Greylock), where he produced among other works, his epic Moby-Dick. He dedicated the book to Hawthorne, who had talked with him about the story’s potential to be something deeper than a swashbuckling sea story.

At Arrowhead Melville’s sister Augusta, known as “Gus,” helped her brother as copyist, making clean copies of his manuscripts to send to his publisher. Producing those clean copies may have been efficient for business, but it means that there are few specimens of Melville’s manuscripts in his own handwriting.

He followed Moby-Dick with another novel, Pierre (1852). Neither enjoyed the popularity of his earlier works, and Melville fell into a depression. His father-in-law sent him on a European trip in an attempt to bring him out of his funk, while Elizabeth and the children stayed with the Shaws in Boston.

Melville struggled as an author and couldn’t make a good living at it. In 1863 he traded Arrowhead to his brother Allan for Allan’s house in New York City. A couple of years later he secured a position in the custom house at the port of New York. By the 1880s Melville had sunk into obscurity. When he died in 1891, he left behind a number of poems and sketches and the manuscript of Billy Budd, written in his own hand. (Billy Budd wasn’t published until 1924.)

We left Arrowhead and drove to Stockbridge for a quick bite. Elm Street Market was a great place to get it. We could have laid in supplies—appropriate trail food and drink—but we opted to stop for a bit to enjoy our lunch at the counter and watch the grill cook in action. We lucked out and grabbed a couple of stools and placed our orders before the riders of a tour bus walked in.

The cook turned around sandwich orders with entertaining speed and efficiency. By the time the flurry was over our lunch was sitting before us: grilled hot dogs (listed as Chicopee franks on the menu) that popped in a satisfying way under pressure of teeth—it’s a simple pleasure. We helped ourselves to drinks from the cooler, then ate and eavesdropped (you can always tell a “regular”), and when we were finished we told the cashier what we had eaten and settled up the bill. All refreshingly low key.

Fueled up and ready for more adventure, we headed down the road to Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. As the story goes Melville and Hawthorne, deep in conversation, took shelter under an overhanging rock and continued their talk until the rain abated.

We had no rain to worry about—the day was crisp and clear, a perfect autumn specimen. The area, a property of the Trustees of Reservations, is a popular area for hikers. On the Wednesday afternoon we visited we passed probably ten other parties—couples, folks with dogs, families. The various trail choices make it a doable hike for most anybody. We did a nice loop that took us to the summit.

There were several good spots for getting the wide view—the westward-looking one provided a vista of red and gold trees that looked like a patchwork quilt that just wouldn’t translate through the camera. Some things have to be seen to be appreciated.

By plan, the steeper trail was our descent. The trails are well maintained and included a few cool bridges across a stream.

I kept my eyes open for a rocky overhang that looked like it could be a writers’ refuge. I imagined Melville and Hawthorne crouched in the shadows, carrying on their lively conversation during the rainstorm. It was their first meeting, so there had to have been at least a little getting-to-know-you conversation. Maybe they talked about how they both added letters to their last names. You did? Yeah! Me, too!

Keith and I didn’t have any deep literary conversation, but we did discuss the optimal construction of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

11: Hartford: Writers in the neighborhood

Once upon a time, Hartford, Connecticut, was a happening place. Really, I’m not kidding—it was known for something other than insurance. Think about it: Samuel Clemens a/k/a Mark Twain chose to live here. Turns out that in the mid-nineteenth century Hartford was a hub of American publishing. It was also the wealthiest city per capita in the United States. And some of the more interesting wealthy folk lived in a neighborhood called Nook Farm—including Harriet Beecher Stowe. The neighborhood houses, most designed by prominent architects of the day, touted the style of the Gilded Age. Clemens visited Hartford and Nook Farm and set his sights on living there. He knew a good thing when he saw it.

The Hartford trek was probably the fullest day trip of the bunch. There’s an awful lot to see and learn about these two literary lions. But they make for fascinating company. And speaking of company, I had three friends along for this expedition: Gail, Jeff and Nicky.

Our day started at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. We had time before our guided tour to watch a video presentation and poke around the exhibit in the visitor center. Stowe is, of course, best known as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but she was a prolific and wide-ranging writer who produced a book a year for thirty years.

Stowe was already famous when she moved to the neighborhood. A Connecticut native, she had lived a handful of other places—moving for husband Calvin Stowe’s jobs as a minister and professor of religion—by the time she returned to Hartford upon Calvin’s retirement. Their first home in the city was a large, expensive villa; they sold that in 1870 and built the more practical house in Nook Farm.

There were a dozen of us following our tour guide Michelle through the rooms. Michelle looked to be college aged or just out, and she was well versed in information about Stowe’s life. On most of my visits (with a small number of memorable exceptions) I’ve met older tour guides—not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s heartening to see some youthful pursuers of history.

She got her energetic activism from her father Lyman Beecher, a well-known New England preacher. Beecher expected and inspired his children to make a difference in the world. All seven of the Beecher boys became ministers, and Harriet and two of her sisters became authors and educators. Young Harriet was well educated at the Hartford Female Seminary, which had been established by her older sister Catherine, and later taught there herself. She moved with her family to Cincinnati in 1832 and taught at another women’s school with her sister.

After she married Harriet left teaching and turned her energies to writing—she had already published several short stories in a Cincinnati magazine. Soon her stories and essays gained acceptance in national publications. In 1845 she wrote “Immediate Emancipation” on the subject of slavery. Abolitionism was a gnarly subject in the Beecher family: Lyman was conservative in his approach while his sons were all radical. With this essay Harriet cast her lot with her brothers.

And she shook things up a lot more five years later with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which she wrote in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The story appeared originally in serialized form, and after its runaway success, it was compiled and printed in book form. A few years later she published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to respond to critics of the story who claimed that she fabricated or exaggerated the conditions she described. (Beyond writing about slavery, Stowe had been a hands-on abolitionist at least once. In Cincinnati when one of their servants revealed that she was in fact a runaway slave, Stowe and her husband helped the woman flee farther north on the Underground Railroad.)

Popular response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin was astounding. It became an international bestseller—translated into twenty-two languages in the next eight years—and was outsold only by the Bible. Not bad for a first novel. Nineteenth century fans were just as eager as those today to get their hands on tie-in merchandise. Pitchers, china sets, candelabra, wallpaper—Uncle Tom, Eliza, Topsy and Little Eva were everywhere. And dramatic presentations of the story, commonly known at “Tom shows” flourished.

Shortly before the Stowes moved to Nook Farm, Harriet collaborated with her sister Catherine on another book that became very influential—but in a very different way. The American Woman’s Home was a practical guide to home economics, and some of the ideas they presented can be seen in action in the house—especially the setup of the kitchen. Beecher and Stowe advocated for a centrally located workspace (lots of kitchens these days have a central island thanks to these gals), counter tops with storage underneath and shelves located in different areas of the kitchen to store the items that were used in each area. Efficient.

Talk of kitchens made me think of food, and thinking of food made me hungry. Fortunately, the visit to the kitchen was near the end of the tour, and off we went to lunch at The Pond House in nearby Elizabeth Park. The day was just warm enough for us to eat outside with a view of said pond and the variety of birdlife hanging out there. Because it was just warm enough for outdoor dining, we started off with mulled cider. We were evenly split on entrées: two salmon burgers and two roasted pear salads. (Let me just say the roasted pear was stuff with melty Gorgonzola. Take a moment.) But we had to go three ways (with one abstention) on desserts because they were so creative: apple flatbread, plum shortcake and deconstructed cheesecake. Delicious all around.

We headed back to the Nook Farm neighborhood to the Mark Twain House and Museum. I hadn’t visited the house for years, way before the new museum center was built. Okay, so it may have been expensive, but it’s also impressive. It took me most of the afternoon to read my way through the exhibits before and after our house tour. (I discovered more than a few things I didn’t know about the man, and let’s just say I’ll be digging away at a few things to satisfy my curiosity.) As a matter of full disclosure: I am a devoted Twain fan.

I must not be the only one as there were fifteen people in our tour group. (The group included one who tended to wander—and make random comments—which presented a challenge to our tour guide.) Steve, said tour guide, was also a Twain fan (an illustration of that later) and very knowledgeable. With all the available material a tour of the Clemenses’ house could last for hours—the Gilded Age architectural design is detailed and fascinating and worth plenty of study on its own. Unlike Stowe, who had already found fame and fortune when she came to Nook Farm, Clemens was in the early stages of his career when he decided he’d like to live in this exclusive neighborhood. Fortunately, his father-in-law was already wealthy and put up the money to build the house—approximately $45,000 ($1.5 million in today’s equivalent).

Mr. and Mrs. Clemens (Livy) settled into the new mansion with their young family. Their first child, a son named Langdon had died of diphtheria at nineteen months, but they had two little girls when they moved in and welcomed a third several years later. For all its impressive décor, the house was a family home. The girls—Susy, Clara and Jean—entertained guests with amateur theatrics in the front parlor (Susy was the playwright) and played “jungle” in the conservatory with the butler acting as a lion or tiger and star turns by papa as an elephant. They also liked to play with the angels on their parents’ bedstead. The removable carvings were often dressed up and cuddled like dolls with the house rule that they be returned to their proper place by bedtime.

Many of Mark Twain’s famous “children” also grew up in this house. He wrote his major works during the seventeen years he lived here, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and, appropriately, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he originally conceived as a simple sequel to Tom Sawyer turned into something quite different after he traveled down the Mississippi River in 1882 while researching Life on the Mississippi. The failures of Reconstruction and the living conditions of southern African-Americans that he witnessed inspired him to raise the bar for Huck’s adventures, and made the novel a much more complex story than a simple coming-of-age tale. The complexity and the controversy the book has long generated are what make it irresistible and enduring. I’m sure that’s what attracted Jon Clinch when he took on the insane task of writing Finn (2007), a novel that tells the story of Huck’s father. (No whitewashing of fences here; it’s a dark tale.)

At the top of the house is the billiard room/writing room where the creative juices—and other liquids, I’m sure—flowed. The billiard table at the center of the room, rather than the smaller desk in the corner, was where Clemens spread out his manuscripts to edit them. My imagination senses creative energy and cigar smoke still hanging in the air. I think Steve, our tour guide, feels the same; as he describes the room and talks about the masterpieces Clemens wrote here his voice goes soft, and he admits, “It makes me almost choke up when I come into this room.”

That pretty much says it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

10: Lenox: A writer by design and food for thought

Okay, so it was going to be another day for Gail and me to get wet. We own raincoats and umbrellas. And changing plans due to weather hasn’t been part of this adventure.

The rain did make the drive to Lenox seem long—even longer than the Mass Turnpike usually feels. But, it had actually stopped by the time we got to Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount. Sure, the sky was full of thick, gray clouds, but that just made things photogenic.

The Mount is an oddity among the places I’ve visited, because it’s a work in progress. The organization Edith Wharton Restoration was established in 1980, to preserve and restore the estate, but its work started slowly. Actual restoration work didn’t begin until 1997, and it’s moving ahead a bit at a time. This makes for an unusual viewing experience as tours walk through wonderfully appointed rooms and then past ones that are empty and untouched—it allows some understanding about all the work that has been done in a more immediate way than before-and-after photos could do.

This one-step-at-a-time approach is probably much like what Wharton went through as she and her husband Teddy were building the house in the first place. They purchased the property with money from an inheritance and the sale of their Newport, Rhode Island, house. Major construction took place in 1901 and 1902. It was finally completed in 1907, and the later work was financed with proceeds from The House of Mirth, which Wharton wrote here, and a nonfiction book, Italian Villas and Their Gardens.

Wharton was fascinated by both interior and landscape design. She had already written a hugely influential book called The Decoration of Houses, co-authored with architect Ogden Codman and published in 1897. They advocated décor in the European tradition as opposed to the heavy Victorian style that was popular at the time. The book’s introduction states it clearly:

“Rooms may be decorated in two ways: by a superficial application of ornament totally independent of structure, or by means of those architectural features which are part of the organism of every house, inside as well as out.”

Wharton demonstrated her ideas in The Mount. The house was built to be a home, a primary residence, and each room is designed with intimate groups in mind (small gatherings rather than large parties), in part because Wharton was a private, rather shy person.

Our tour guide Laurie explained some of the thought behind the architecture and design. Visitors enter a courtyard as they approach the front door, considered an extension of the house, the first room experienced by visitors. The courtyard and the face of the house are symmetrically designed—the symmetry includes several false windows that appear with shutters closed. Going through the front doors brought us to the entrance hall, designed like an Italian grotto. A fountain and mirrors reflecting the view through the windows bring the outside inside, making a beautiful transitional space to the home’s true interior upstairs.

Wharton was born Edith Jones in 1862. Her parents were from prominent New York families—the class of people she would write so much about. Just after the Civil War the family moved to Europe to escape the economic depression at home, so Edith’s early education included travels in England, Italy, Spain, France and Germany. In 1872 the Joneses returned to the US and divided their time between homes in New York City and Newport.

She patterned her library (an unusual thing for a woman to have in the early 1900s) after her father’s. A photograph of her in this room shows that while she may have broken free of the Victorian style of home design, she was still a slave to the fashion of the day in her dress.

A connection to another of our New England authors: Her mother privately printed a volume of Edith’s poetry (Edith was 16), and a Newport friend showed the book to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow passed it on to the editor of Atlantic Monthly, who published one in the magazine.

Edith Jones married Edward “Teddy” Wharton in 1885. She, at 23, was on the verge of becoming an old maid. (Thank all the gods thinking has changed on that score.) This was not a love match, and it proved to be a difficult marriage. They divorced in 1913, unfortunately not before he embezzled money from her to support his mistress.

Fortunately, Wharton had many interests to fill her time (and keep her mind of her husband). A typical day for her at The Mount started with several hours of writing in bed, surrounded by her little dogs—she was a dog person and considered cats “snakes in fur.” Afternoons she spent on gardening, photography, taking drives and visiting with friends like Henry James.

Wharton’s understanding and appreciation for design appears in her writing. Perhaps she was thinking about how she would landscape the grounds of The Mount even as she was working on The House of Mirth away every morning in bed. In an early scene she describes “a landscaped tutored to the last degree of rural elegance.” The view from her windows shows how the plantings change from a more formal layout closer to the house to more natural and wild as they blend into the woods at the edge of the yard.

Wharton often uses details of interior design to illustrate character in her writing. She knew that an individual’s personality is reflected in his or her chosen surroundings. Her descriptions of homes and the items in them capture how characters differ from others in their society or how they strive to be the same.

In The Age of Innocence Wharton compares the eccentric Mrs. Mingott and her dwelling to her fellows in New York society. Mrs. Mingott sounds like she believes in Wharton’s design style, breaking with Victorian tradition:

“The house in itself was already an historic document, though not, of course, as venerable as certain other old family houses … Those were of the purest 1830, with a grim harmony of cabbage-rose-garlanded carpets, rosewood consoles, round-arched fire-places with black marble mantels, and immense glazed book-cases of mahogany; whereas old Mrs. Mingott, who had built her house later, had bodily cast out the massive furniture of her prime, and mingled with the Mingott heirlooms the frivolous upholstery of the Second Empire.”

After the tour we headed to downtown Lenox for a late lunch. It seemed that many of the side streets were under construction (adding curbs). It also seemed that there was scarcity of parking for the number of businesses around, and that what parking there was wasn’t advertised. It wasn’t a “user friendly” town for strangers, but it may just feel that way during construction. I can’t condemn on a first glance.

We did feel welcomed at Alta Restaurant and Wine Bar, our restaurant of choice. On the gray, dreary day, soup was a good place to start, and we followed that up with some carefully crafted panini sandwiches. Gail had the soup of the day, mushroom with roasted garlic that gave it a whole extra dimension, and I had the butternut squash, smooth and creamy. As for the sandwiches, the Autumn was like Thanksgiving dinner on bread: roasted turkey, grilled slices of butternut squash, caramelized onion, cranberry sauce and cheddar cheese. The Vegetarian was full of big flavors: grilled Portobello and onions, roasted red pepper, arugula and mozzarella. We skipped the wine section of the menu, but only because we still had more to do with our day, and we had to pace ourselves.

Back to The Mount, and we had a little time to look at the gardens before four o’clock. They were beautiful, and we managed to get in a few photos before the skies opened up again and rained on us.

We hurried to the stable for a special event—and to get out of the rain. One goal of Edith Wharton Restoration is to establish The Mount as a literary and cultural center. To that end the group was hosting a panel discussion on the future of food writing. Half a dozen New York–based food writers (book authors, bloggers and print journalists) engaged in a lively talk about the state of the industry and how it’s changing. (Ironically, several days later the news broke that Gourmet magazine was history.) A highlight for me: getting a signed copy of Judith Jones’s new book.

And could a talk about food writing not be followed by food? Certainly not. There was a wonderful tasting spread of local cheeses and meats plus beer and hard cider. This gave me my first opportunity to try lardo (pig fat cured with spices)—a little too slippery for my taste. But I could have packed away plenty of the cheeses. Fortunately, there were enough people crowded between me and the food to discourage too many return trips. (Unfortunately, those same crowds kept me from getting any pics of the spread.)