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.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

9: Derry and South Shaftsbury: A double layer of Frost-ing

At first I thought the pun in the title was a bad idea, but Robert Frost embraced puns—even bad ones, I’m sure—so I went for it.

Frost bounced around a fair amount during his life, so I’m doubling up my adventures to two of his homes. That way no one feels the effects of extreme Frost. Especially me.

The first was an impromptu afternoon outing with my friend Christa. We had just planned to meet for lunch, but it was such a beautiful day—one of those rare September ones that hover perfectly between summer and fall—a visit to Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire, seemed like a good way to spend it. Fortunately for me, Christa is the sort of person who is up for spontaneous adventures.

(Oh yeah, about that lunch. We went to Joe Fish in North Andover—the name sounds like a salt-of-the-earth character from one of Frost’s poems. We have a habit of ordering fish and chips whenever we see the dish on a menu, so that’s what we did. Along with lobster bisque, just because. It was all delicious.)

The house in Franconia (September 25 post) that Robert Frost bought in 1915 met his idealized view of a farm in the mountains where a poet should live. That’s why he bought it. The Robert Frost Farm in Derry, where he lived from 1900 to 1909 (more or less), was someone else’s vision—his grandfather’s.

The farm is right on Route 28, and we hoped as we approached Derry and passed fast-food restaurants and other modern-day roadside landmarks that the farm didn’t sit smack in the middle of a stretch of neon and asphalt. Thankfully, it doesn’t. There’s a modest sign marking the entrance, an unpaved parking lot and a visitor center in the barn. Inside, wooden benches faced the screen that shows a video on Frost and his poetry, and one wall was hung with winning entries in the youth poetry contest.

Our youthful tour guide Stephen gave us a low-key tour of the farmhouse. Frost was only a few years older than Stephen when he moved to the farm. Frost’s paternal grandfather was concerned that his grandson, at 26, had no profession and no way of supporting his young family.  So gramps bought the farm for $1,700 (in his name, not Frost’s) and enlisted a hired man to teach the fledgling farmer the ropes.

Frost’s young adulthood (well, his whole life actually, but that’s a longer story) had had considerable ups and down. In 1892 he and his soon-to-be wife Elinor White had graduated from Lawrence High School as co-valedictorians, but Frost lasted at Dartmouth College for less than a semester. He returned to Lawrence and for the next couple of years taught at local schools, worked in the mills and as a newspaper reporter. He sold his first poem in 1894 to the New York Independent for $15. This may have been a confidence booster, because he proposed to Elinor that year and married her in 1895 (after she had finished college). He enrolled at Harvard, but he left after two years to support his growing family—son Elliott was born in 1896 and daughter Lesley in 1899. Sadly, Elliott died of cholera in 1900, shortly before his fourth birthday, and Frost’s mother died of cancer a few months later.

It was in this sad state that the young family moved to Derry. Frost took up poultry farming (he liked chickens) and tried to settle down to the business of making a living. He didn’t care for the details of money (keeping track of spendings and earnings), and he didn’t like getting up early, so his was an unorthodox farm.

His grandfather died a year after the family moved to Derry. He provided an annual allowance for Frost in his will and stipulated arrangements for the farm, which would become Frost’s in 1911 (and until that time, the family could have the place rent free).

The family grew during the Derry years to include son Carol and daughters Irma and Marjorie. (Another daughter, Elinor Bettina, lived only a few days.) The children loved the fields and woods that lay outside their door, and their father took them on rambles and taught them the names of the various plants. The farm today has a nature trail through the woods, and on our lovely afternoon a herd of small children (a mommy group on an outing) was enjoying a ramble of their own.

            The well was dry beside the door,
                        And so we went with pail and can
            Across the fields behind the house
                        To seek the brook if it still ran; …

*   *   *

At the peak of leaf-peeping season my friend Susanna and I ventured to Vermont on another Frost pilgrimage. (Sus and went to grad school together at Goddard College, so driving to Vermont with her just seems right.) Stimulus money has been poured into road construction projects, which will make for a smooth ride in the future, but on this fine fall day it made for detours and lane shifts and almost as many Jersey barriers as leaf-peepers.

We got to Bennington, Vermont, at late lunchtime and headed for Lil’ Britain. Like I said about lunch with Christa, I just have to try the fish and chips whenever I see them. But the bangers and mash were irresistible too. (Luckily, I talked Sus into ordering both and splitting them.) This isn’t fast food; it’s all made to order, taking all the care and time needed to make it delicious. Nobody seemed to mind waiting—the small restaurant had eight tables (for two or four) and all were full, plus a few folks came for takeaway orders. They all seemed to know if was worth waiting for.

I was happy to have found a Brit-food restaurant tucked away in Vermont. It had the nice connection that satisfies my sensibilities—Frost and his family lived in England for a couple of years, after Derry, before Franconia. And after Franconia he came to Vermont. As I said before, he bounced around a fair bit, and once he was established as a successful poet, he undertook reading tours and teaching gigs that took him away from whatever place he was calling “home” at the time.

Before we went up the road to South Shaftsbury, we walked through Bennington to visit the cemetery at the Old First Church, where the Frost family is buried. A handful of folks off a tour bus and a friendly cat were also visiting the gravesite. The location of the graves is clearly marked with small arrows, so there’s no wandering around—any tangential gravestone reading has to be on purpose, but that didn’t stop people. It’s an interesting old cemetery.

The Stone House in South Shaftsbury, like the other Frost houses I visited, is minimalist in its presentation. The focus is on information over restoration. The house is in fine shape, but rather than filling the rooms with Frost furniture (or Frost-like furniture) the museum has chosen to mount exhibits addressing Frost’s life and poetry. Only the downstairs is open to visitors. Entering through the back brought us into the visitor center, where we paid our admission to the three galleries in what were the living room, front hall and Frost’s study.

The first gallery presents biographical information with interesting excerpts from family letters. Frost to a friend on his son’s work at farming the property: “The farm goes rip-roaring as no farm ever went with me …”

The hall is hung with examples of the woodcut artwork created by J.J. Lankes to illustrate a number of Frost’s books.

The third room is where Frost composed “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in 1922 (on a summer morning, when perhaps he was wishing for cooler conditions). The exhibit tells the story of the poem’s life, from its creation and structure to its reception by critics and long life in popular culture.

None of the Frost houses I’ve visited even attempt to present a full-blown look at his life. (This is a good thing.) He was not an easy man, and he didn’t have an easy life. Author Brian Hall wrote a fascinating biographical novel called Fall of Frost (2008) that captures much of the inner and outer turbulence of the poet’s life.

The cars and tour buses had thinned out by afternoon, and our return drive along Vermont Route 9 was much less crowded. But we still felt a need to stop before we hit the highway, so we turned in at the Chelsea Royal Diner in West Brattleboro. C’mon, who can say no to pie? Not me.

Friday, October 16, 2009

8: Concord, the sequel: Transcendentalists and Fluff

Walden Pond ain’t what it used to be. I could practically hear Henry David Thoreau muttering that in my ear as my friend Michelle and I picked our way along the wire-fenced trail and dodged young cross-country runners getting in their training mileage. Saying that Walden Pond is a popular spot would, of course, be an understatement.

We walked as far as the site of Thoreau’s cabin and contributed a stone to the pile marking the spot (a tradition started by Bronson Alcott after Thoreau’s death) and then felt the need to escape the crowds attracted by the solitude of nature.

Not exactly what we had envisioned. But then Thoreau’s Walden experience (that lasted two years and two months beginning July 4, 1845) wasn’t exactly what we might envision either. When we read his account of his experiment, we have to consider the parts he left out. He didn’t live as a hermit and didn’t claim to—he does write about having visitors: “I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” But he conveniently fails to mention that he often walked into town—to take meals with friends and to have his mom do his laundry. So, in his mind living “deliberately” and “so sturdily and Spartan-like” meant having mom rinse out his long johns—but then I suppose the Spartans’ moms probably washed their duds too.

And Thoreau doesn’t mention his mother once in Walden.

He had hoped to have his cabin-by-the-pond experience several years earlier: In 1841 the Flint family refused to allow him to build on their land by Flint’s Pond in Lincoln. At that time he wrote in his journal: “My friends ask what I will do when I get there. Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?” Employment enough, yes, certainly. Especially if he didn’t need to make money to lease the land—thank goodness for Ralph Waldo Emerson, who did give him permission to build on his Walden Pond property four years later, or none of us would ever have read Walden.

It is rather remarkable that Emerson was open to the idea of Thoreau living in his woods—the year before, while camping out in with a friend, Thoreau accidentally started a fire that burned three hundred acres of Concord forest (and caused over $2,000 worth of damage, but then Thoreau wasn’t one to concern himself with money).

Emerson wrote of him:

“He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State … He had no talent for wealth, and knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance. ...”

Emerson paints his friend in a generous and Romantic light. Thoreau didn’t exactly live alone—well, he did famously in that little Walden cabin, but he bounced from one place to another, living at home with his parents for most of his life and occasionally with the Emerson family, serving as an odd combination of handyman and nanny.

Thoreau refused to pay that historic poll tax in an act of “Civil Disobedience,” but, as he says, “some one interfered and paid that tax.” No, no, Hank, don’t say thank you, just puff yourself up and declare, “I have paid no poll-tax for six years” and leave out the part that for each of those six years (and for every year for the rest of your life) your aunt “interfered” and paid it for you.

“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him …”

It seems to me that if taking that stand mattered so much, he might have refused to allow his relatives pay his tax and maybe even tried to convince them not to pay their own. But that’s just me.

Or maybe not. Emerson expressed a blunter opinion of his outdoorsy friend when he wrote in 1849: “Thoreau wants a little ambition in his mixture.”

I’m not saying that Thoreau wasn’t a wonderful writer and thinker—many of his ideas are powerful—but I’m sure he sorely tried the patience of his family and friends.

It’s understandable that Emerson would lose patience with the lot of his Transcendentalist buddies now and then. They all seemed to take advantage of his generosity—Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thoreau.

After leaving Walden Pond we visited Emerson’s house.  But first, a food interlude.

Lunch at the Walden Grille. (The restaurant is located in downtown Concord in what used to be the Central Fire Station. The fire station came along long after Thoreau’s accident, so there’s no historic tie—just an amusing coincidence.) Feeling “green,” we had salads—a huge Cobb salad and a creative Walden salad (that included candied walnuts, apples and cranberries tossed with greens and grilled chicken).

After lunch a magnetic force pulled us into the Concord Cheese Shop across the street. Major distraction. So many cheeses to ogle (not to mention all the other goodies in the place). And a friendly cheese monger tempted us with samples and entertained us with his own enthusiasm for the morsels. There’s a man who has found his calling. (We had to return after our museum visits to make some purchases.)

We walked to the Ralph Waldo Emerson House and, as instructed by a little sign at the front door, rang the bell to request a tour. There were four in our tour group: a husband and wife and Michelle and I. The guide was diligent in keeping us together and moving along. I would have liked a little time to look more closely at the details—the books on the shelves, the portraits of friends like Thomas Carlyle and John Muir, the toys in the nursery.

The house—unlike Orchard House and The Wayside, which I visited on an earlier trip—is in fine condition. Emerson lived here from 1835 until he died in 1882; his widow Lidian lived here another ten years and daughter Ellen until her death in 1909. The house is still owned by members of the Emerson family. Many of the furnishings are original to Emerson’s time, like the “Sunday chair” that Thoreau rigged up with a drawer under the seat where Emerson could keep his Sunday gloves—since he was often late getting to church because he couldn’t find them.

In 1872 fire significantly damaged the house (none of the family was hurt). When our guide mentioned how upset Emerson had been, Michelle said, “I know just how he felt.” Our companions on the tour were fascinated by her story of a fire in her home last year—she had to throw her dog out the window, then climb out after her (and I’m not sure the dog has forgiven her yet).

Emerson bought the house with money he received from the estate of his first wife, Ellen Tucker, who died of tuberculosis in 1831, just two years after their marriage. She was just one of many losses Emerson faced in his life: His father died just before Emerson’s eighth birthday, he had a brother and sister who died in childhood and two more, Edward and Charles, who died in young adulthood (both of tuberculosis). One of his own children, Waldo, died at age five.

He remarried in 1835, and he and Lidian moved to Concord. Charles, a lawyer, handled the purchase of the house for his brother Waldo. The two of them had a vision of gathering the family together to live in Concord in close community. Emerson was never to realize that dream with his brothers, which may have been why he gathered up his collection of Transcendentalist fellows, helping Alcott and Hawthorne find houses in the area and taking in Thoreau periodically as well as letting him build his cabin at Walden Pond. He was the responsible one of the group.

He had two surviving brothers. William, the oldest of the Emerson siblings to live to adulthood, was already settled in New York with a family of his own. And Bulkeley, who was developmentally challenged in some way (we have no way of knowing exactly what his condition was), boarded out to farms in the area to do day labor, although sometimes he had to be institutionalized. His two brothers saw to his care throughout his life.

Emerson wrote and lectured extensively on a broad range of topics and was recognized even in his day as one of the major figures in American thought. (Learn more about his life and works.) The actual furnishings of the study where he did much of his work are on display at the Concord Museum (across the street from the Emerson House). Also in the museum are the bed, desk and chair Thoreau had in his Walden cabin, among many other Thoreau artifacts

We visited on National Museum Day, so admission was free. The day is sponsored annually by the Smithsonian Museum as a way to encourage people to visit museums.

Not only was it Museum Day, it was also the day of the annual Fluff Festival, celebrated in Union Square, Somerville, where Archibald Query (great name!) invented the marshmallow marvel in 1917. The festival—a street fair with music, food (yes, Fluffernutters), a poetry contest, official t-shirts and assorted silliness—was worth the visit despite the traffic and seemingly endless search for a parking spot. The festival, like Fluff itself, is best enjoyed in small doses. Too much gets sticky.