Writers’ Houses has had a relatively quiet summer, not by choice, but by necessity. I’ve been writing and working hard on getting a book proposal out the door, and plotting for future writers’ houses endeavors. I’ve also been on the road a bit and fixing up a fixer upper in Asbury Park, NJ. I like to think of the town as Brooklyn-by-the-Sea, which is another way of saying that it’s awesome and not many people have realized it yet. So, it’s been busy, and I might owe you an email or a phone call. Or both.
This website will feature regular content on a regular basis soon, we’ll be adding a weekly interview and a weekly roundup of events related to writers’ houses and books that might interest our readers. As always, we’ll continue to add houses and post about our adventures to various writers’ houses and literary landmarks. And hopefully, we’ll soon have new writers’ houses posters in the store.
While this website has been quiet, it has gotten a couple significant shout-outs this summer. I gave a rather off-the-cuff interview to writer Leigh Newman for Oprah.com and last week Writers’ Houses got a mention on The New York Review of Books blog. Poet April Bernard’s post is titled “Here’s What I Hate About Writers’ Houses” so it was a wonderful surprise to be recommended given the subject of the piece.
In her post, Bernard notes that she doesn’t like writers’ houses for “the basic mistakes” that are made and lists many ideas in the context of visiting writers’ houses that are admittedly irksome, like “That visiting such a house can substitute for reading the work” and “That private life, even of the dead, is ours to plunder.” Bernard is right to be concerned and she makes astute observations, as does Anne Trubek in her book A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, about what can go wrong at an open-to-the-public writer’s house. But ultimately I’m not swayed. Visiting particular writers’ houses has been illuminating and moving to me. I have understood a writer’s work that I love better after visiting a house. And I’m rather humbled by the energy people put into keeping these houses running despite huge challenges.
Perhaps it’s easy to predict my response to Bernard’s piece. This website is evidence of my personal belief. I wouldn’t have invested all this time into it if I thought that visiting a writer’s house was a fool’s errand. Does that mean that all visitors to writers’ houses have the best intentions? It doesn’t. But I’ve visited a lot, a lot, a lot, of writer’s houses, and on the whole, I’ve met well-meaning visitors who visit houses to learn more about the writer or who are already head-over-heels for the writer’s work, or who are simply interested in history and architecture. I don’t see this as plunderous at all. Nor did Eudora Welty, who desired for her home to be turned into a visitable writer’s house after she died. Maybe her impulse was hubris on her part, maybe it was generosity. Maybe it was both. Does it matter? Now I know the books that were on her nightstand at the end of her life, and seeing them made my stomach knot and eyes water with appreciation.
In an essay I wrote earlier this year for Lapham’s Quarterly, I explored some of the issues about visiting writers’ houses that arise. But, I also argue that visiting a writer’s house is a form of pilgrimage that is a longstanding and significant cultural tradition. Those who know me well know I’ve been working on a writer’s houses book slowly these past few years, but I’ve decided to sit on it for a while, and turn to another project that is concerned with the houses and life of one particular writer, and I can’t wait to have some news to share about it soon.
Today, I’m also excited to announce Charles J. Shields as a new Guest Curator. Shields’ forthcoming biography And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life will be published by Holt in November. Shields has graciously contributed a short essay about Vonnegut’s West Barnstable house. The house is still in the Vonnegut family and it is closed to the public, which makes Shields’ contribution all the more special. Shields also blogs frequently about Vonnegut’s life and work here. My first encounter with Vonnegut was in middle school. If memory serves me right I stole into my brother’s room one day and nabbed Vonnegut’s collection of stories Welcome to the Monkey House after Sassy magazine recommended it as a summer read. I was hooked. And, to be honest, I would kill for a tour of Vonnegut’s house.
More soon literary pilgrims!
-A. N. Devers