Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Where is literary Philadelphia?

Since we moved here in June, I’ve visited a few literary sites: the NPS Edgar A. Poe House and the Marianne Moore room at the Rosenbach in particular. The Marianne Moore room probably shouldn’t count as literary Philadelphia really because it is a depiction of literary New York transplanted to Philadelphia (but still, it’s amazing). But I’ve driven by the Owen Wister house and been inside the school that George Lippard attended, both in Germantown (Concord School in HABS/LOC image on the left). I haven’t yet tracked down any Charles Brockden Brown sites, but that will be my next project.

It seems odd that someone has not already traced out an elaborate literary tour of Philadelphia. (If you know of such a literary tour, let me know!)

A few weeks ago, I talked to Ken Finkel of Temple University, formerly of WHYY and the blog The Sixth Square, about this. He indicated that over the years a few people have been interested in either starting up literary tours of Philadelphia or were generally interested in writers from the Philadelphia area. I’m tracking down leads currently, but in the mean-time I’m setting out on my own to see what the city has to offer the literary tourist.

I’ll start with Charles Brockden Brown and the current exhibition at the Library Company, “Philadelphia Gothic: Murders, Mysteries, Monsters, & Mayhem Inspire American Fiction, 1798-1854” for the background to my project. I hope to get to it as soon as holiday travels are finished.

Though it’s hard to think of Center City Philadelphia today as the setting behind Gothic novels like Lippard’s Quaker City, one place where you can see a touch of this is at Eastern State Penitentiary. Though it was built after Charles Brockden Brown’s time, there today visitors can get a sense of early criminality in Philadelphia and see how Quakers sought to reform convicts through institutionalizing forced personal reflection. You can see how an edifice built to inspire meditation on personal sins became a fortress-like prison, simultaneously modern and medieval. It only closed in 1971. So perhaps my tour of literary Philadelphia, or at least Gothic Philadelphia began here with Dickens' impressions of the prison on his tour of it in 1842.

From Dickens' American Notes, "PHILADELPHIA, AND ITS SOLITARY PRISON"

In the outskirts, stands a great prison, called the Eastern Penitentiary: conducted on a plan peculiar to the state of Pennsylvania. The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.

In its intention, I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing. I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature.

I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying 'Yes' or 'No,' I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, nomatter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree.

... Every facility was afforded me, that the utmost courtesy could suggest. Nothing was concealed or hidden from my view, and every piece of information that I sought, was openly and frankly given. The perfect order of the building cannot be praised too highly, and of the excellent motives of all who are immediately concerned in the administration of the system, there can be no kind of question.

Between the body of the prison and the outer wall, there is a spacious garden. Entering it, we ... passed into a large chamber, from which seven long passages radiate. On either side of each, is a long, long row of low cell doors, with a certain number over every one. Above, a gallery of cells like those below, except that they have no narrow yard attached (as those in the ground tier have), and are somewhat smaller. The possession of two of these, is supposed to compensate for the absence of so much air and exercise as can be had in the dull strip attached to each of the others, in an hour's time every day; and therefore every prisoner in this upper story has two cells, adjoining and communicating with, each other.

Standing at the central point, and looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver's shuttle, or shoemaker's last, but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound. Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired. He never hears of wife and children; home or friends; the life or death of any single creature. He sees the prison-officers, but with that exception he never looks upon a human countenance, or hears a human voice. He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the mean time dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.

Look here the entire text and a more complete description of Philadelphia

Thursday, December 4, 2008

F.G. Fisher's Stratford Models at the Rosenbach

I've been spending part of a day each week at one particular literary museum in Philadelphia, The Rosenbach. I first visited the museum in September. I went to see the Marianne Moore room, where the museum has recreated Marianne Moore's living room item-by -item in one of the upstairs bedrooms of the Rosenbach house. I was so interested in what I found in the museum, aside from the Marianne Moore Collection—which I can’t rave about enough, that I joined their docent class this fall.

As part of the class we wrote about three objects in the collection. My favorite objects this week are a set of models that Dr. Rosenbach collected in 1916. A portion of what follows is from my research for the class.

Dr. Rosenbach loved Shakespeare and collected a number of important editions of early collections of Shakespeare’s plays, some of which ended up in the Folger Shakespeare Library. Shakespeare collecting has long been in fashion and may have well been the first literary collecting where collectors saw objects associated with an author with a pseudo-religious fascination.

The famous Shakespeare Mulberry is a great example. Supposedly, Shakespeare planted the tree when he retired to “the New Place,” his final home in Stratford. The mulberry tree he planted inspired so many on-lookers that the last owner of the New Place, Reverend Francis Gastrell ripped the tree out and destroyed the house shortly thereafter. The legend goes that the townspeople were so angry that he had removed the tree, that they lobbed stones through the windows of the house. Gastrell eventually razed the house after the damage. Apparently, some locals thought to salvage the tree and make mementos out of the wood. These mementos were such a craze that "true" relics and fakes were often sold to unsuspecting, or even suspecting tourists. When Washington Irving traveled to Stratford he was offered such a relic from a man who claimed to have helped remove the tree. Irving declined, but procured his own “relic,”--a sprig from a tree in the courtyard where Shakespeare was buried (see The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. New York G. P. Putnam's sons, 1888, p. 354). Even Mark Twain and his wife, after visiting the birthplace in 1874, brought back a sapling that was a descendant of the Shakespeare Mulberry to plant in their yard in Hartford, CT. (Twain writes a hilarious account of the tree’s troubled life in a letter to the editor of the New York Evening Post, which you can find here).

At the Rosenbach you can see a whole set of papier maché models of the buildings in Stratford, including Shakespeare's birthplace and a rendition of the Mulberry tree. These were made by F.G. Fisher, a librarian and amateur actor (and the father of the famous actress, Clara Fisher). Made in 1830, they speak to how crazy the Shakespeare commemoration bonanza has been for more than two hundred years now. Scholars have argued that until 1769, most people interested in an author visited an author’s grave. Many even made rubbings of Shakespeare’s gravestone. But in 1769, the actor David Garrick brought a booming industry to Stratford to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday in an elaborate “Jubilee.” The celebration focused not on his grave, but on the other historical sites that were associated with him, especially his birthplace.

Garrick hung a banner depicting the rising sun in the window of the room where he believed that Shakespeare was born. By the time that Fisher created his model, the birthplace may well have been recognizable to most Shakespeare enthusiasts. The story of Shakespeare’s banishment from Stratford had already become popular legend akin to Washington and the cherry tree in the U.S. By 1830, Stratford was a site of national pilgrimage. The models were just in time for the second great celebration of Shakespeare in Stratford—the Second Royal Gala Festival. If a Shakespeare enthusiast could not make the trip to Stratford, perhaps he or she could have seen Fisher’s models on display in London.

The Rosenbach collection of Fisher’s models is fascinating and they aren’t even close to the most exciting thing that the museum has to offer.

See J. Jarvis, A Descriptive Account of the Second Royal Gala Festival, at Stratford-Upon-Avon...April 23, 1830...In Commemoration of the Natal Day of Skakspeare. London: R. Lapworth, 1830. See also for a brief biographical description of Frederick George Fisher the reprint of his daughter’s 1897 autobiography, Clara Fisher and Douglas Taylor, Autobiography of Clara Fisher Maeder (New York,: B. Franklin, 1970). Here, he is described as an "amateur actor and Shakespearean scholar of repute" (xii) and as a “gentleman of fine literary taste, [who] was at one time, proprietor of a noted library at Brighton, and afterward an active auctioneer in London." (Appendix 134).

See Nicola Watson’s work on graveside literary tourism in chapter one of Nicola J. Watson, T
he Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain. (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007).

Shakespeare’s gravestone was so well known to even Americans that some travel accounts of visits to Stratford omitted its description for fear of boring readers. See "The Birthplace of Shakespeare," The New York Times 15 Aug 1860.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Presidential Houses--How not to lose one...

Since the election, I have been thinking about presidential houses and presidential libraries. I wonder where Barack Obama will have his. Honolulu and Chicago might be in competition. Although the Obamas’ house in Hyde Park has only belonged to them since 2005, and it is unclear whether they will be able to return to the house after their years in the White House, wouldn't it make a lovely museum? I hope that Michelle and Barack Obama think seriously about following Harry and Margaret Truman's lead. Perhaps Obama will see his neighborhood as the perfect place to entrust his legacy and library.

Harry Truman spent his retirement years walking from his house, with his assigned secret service agents, to his presidential library office a little over a mile away. Rumor is that Barack Obama likes to walk through his neighborhood, so maybe a neighborhood presidential library is in order.

With the way that the National Park Service has carefully maintained the Truman house, in Independence, Missouri, it looks as though the Trumans left after cleaning up their breakfast dishes. A wrung-out dishcloth hangs drying for perpetuity, as though it was left there after cleaning up one of the last presidential meals. This washcloth is stained and worn, and it indicates that although the President could have purchased a dishwasher and replaced the stained wallpaper in the kitchen, the Trumans were modest, frugal, and they ate at the tiny little two-person 1950s-avocado-green, Formica table like my own parents or grandparents did. House museums can say a lot about who a president is (they can also say a lot more about how we’d like to remember them). I recommend a visit to the Truman house to anyone I can. It’s the kind of place that makes you realize that a president can come from anywhere (as opposed to those grander presidential palaces).

We have wanted to see how our presidents lived since the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, where George Washington’s Valley Forge headquarters were recreated for visitors to see. People piled in to see the reconstructed Ford Mansion where Washington’s jacket lay draped across the back of a chair, giving the impression he left it there carelessly while thinking about more important matters. The jacket across a chair back, the stained dish rag and Formica table—these are the things that help us remember that our leaders are humans just like us. These are the material traces of democracy, however staged.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Painting Writers’ Houses

I had a student several years ago who created a perfect project for my class on houses in American literature and culture. He wrote and produced a film about a literature professor who was terrified to leave his house and a young woman who spent her life painting “portraits” of houses. It was a doomed love story. The professor was meant to dwell indoors reading and underlining pages of text, and she was drawn to contemplating the domestic landscape from outside it. (We spent a good bit of time on Cather's The Professor's House--so perhaps this was a modern retelling of her tale).

I have loved the idea of “portraits” of houses ever since—It seems to me to get at one of the desires we act out when visiting the places where people we admire have lived and worked. We want to see how they are reflected in their places. We want to see the domestic self-portrait that a house or study might provide.

A recent mural commissioned by NYU for their Languages and Literature building combines views of many different writers’ workspaces (Frank O'Hara, Edith Wharton, Washington Irving, Jane Jacobs, Pedro Pietra, and Zora Neale Hurston). The mural by Elena Climent, is a series of trompe-l’oeil widows through the writers’ bookshelves into their workspaces, and was profiled in a New York Times article here.

I haven’t seen the mural in person, though I will certainly make the effort next time we’re in NY. At her blog Climent has posted an image of the entire mural and a detail of Washington Irving’s desk. The article detailed her work and research is brief, but I’m curious about her research process and her experience touring these sights.

(Images here are of Washington Irving's house and study at Sunnyside, from HABS via the Library of Congress )

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Authors and Animals

If Petrarch can have a stuffed cat, then why not a stuffed raven for Charles Dickens?

The truth is, I have no idea if Petrarch stuffed his own cat (or rather, I hope paid a profesisonal to do so), or if some zealous fan fed and cared for the cat after the poet’s death and then stuffed him for the sake of future fans.

Twice this week I have encountered Charles Dickens in places where I didn’t expect to find him, once at the Eastern State Penitentiary. Dickens wrote a chapter in his American Notes about Philadelphia and the prison he toured when it was new, which was featured in the outstanding audio tour they have there. And I ran across him again today at the Philadelphia Free Public Library when I was looking for their collection of Edgar Allan Poe materials. I expected the giant stuffed raven at the end of one hallway to be Poe’s, but it wasn’t.

Dickens supposedly, while writing Barnaby Rudge, which featured a raven as a minor character, sought out a raven to do the character justice and ended up adopting one he named Grip after the character. Scholars have argued that Dickens’ portrayal of Grip was what inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write “The Raven.”

The rare book department of Philadelphia Free Public Library [PFPL], Central Branch not only has an astounding collection of Poe materials (given to them through the bequest of Richard Gimbel—a famous Poe collector), but a substantial Charles Dickens collection as well. Highlights of the Dickens collection include one of his desks (not the one that recently sold for more than $850,000) and a chair, as well as his dear stuffed pet.

Apparently, visitors to the rare book room of the PFPL there to see Poe materials are rare; the archivist I talked to today said they only see about one each month.

But with 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth, perhaps more fans will stumble upon the raven that may have inspired “The Raven.”

"Sorrow floats", as John Irving might say about one of his own stuffed characters. Sometimes you just can't get away from them.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Work in the Garden: More on Bartam's Garden

When my husband and I visited Bartram's Garden, which includes a historic house and partially reconstructed gardens, we went to see the gardens. Seth and I have been living in Philadelphia for a full month now and I think we both occasionally need to find a little space beneath the canopy of trees, or to breathe deep near a real working garden to feel that we’ve truly been outside.

The gardens were a nice relief. However, not quite as much of a relief as I imagined they would be. I imagined a giant operation, planted with practical, experimental, new world, and old world plants. There’s some of that there. There’s the oldest Ginko tree in the U.S. which is really, really big. My mom’s beautiful ginko (the most beautiful ginko ever) is a toddler in comparison. And there is a miniature kitchen garden and numerous specimen trees that an arborist would enjoy.

The site made me think of another place we went to this spring. A few months ago, when we were still living in Kansas City, we visited a place that struck an interesting balance between interpreting the work done at the site and the house where the “important historical figures” lived. Watkins Woolen Mill State Park (MO) has done a particularly excellent job of explaining the kind of work that was done in an historic woolen mill. It does less of a good job explaining that many of those “workers” were, in fact, enslaved peoples.

It is a remarkably intact site with working mill machines, industrial looms, and a working historic farm (including feisty lambs and sheep), surrounded by acres of pristine Missouri wooded hills; so it has many advantages. Whereas, Bartram’s Garden is fenced in by the Schuylkill River on one side, public housing on another, and a neighborhood in need on the other sides. The garden seemed cramped, but I realize I’m still thinking with Midwestern standards for garden space.

Bartram’s site counts a literary site of sorts, but we didn’t tour the house (I hope to have a follow-up post for when we do venture inside). Many still read William Bartram’s Travels as a way to “travel” back to a pristine American continent. But times have changed. Here the city has grown around the little park and grounds and the little bit of garden that remains is all the more precious.

The John Bartram Association has taken a proactive approach to extending its influence in Philadelphia; it offers workshops for those interested in gardening and it has a current art exhibit that brings the house into the world of "found object" art. But with so many historic homes and sites in the Philadelphia area, it seems a shame that they can't all be furnished with heirloom flowers and landscaping supplies provided by the historic Bartram's garden. Colonial Williamsburg offers "colonial" plants for sale to tourists who are interested in having a CW boxwood or CW heirloom artichoke in their gardens at home. The heirloom seed business is also booming today. Perhaps such a working garden could help provide for the historic site's future and help provide support for the surrounding neighborhoods. But it's easy to come up with fool-proof development plans for historic sites when you are a mere tourist.

Most historic sites have to put the historic house and its artifacts first, but here, the gardens, plants and walkways, vegetables, historic trees, and the work involved in collecting and maintaining them matter most.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

House Cats


At Bartram’s Garden, where Seth and I went for an afternoon out on Thursday when we needed a break from the city, we saw one of the caretakers sweet-talking and feeding a cat part of her salmon salad lunch. Later, along one of the nature trails through the wetlands along the Schuylkill River we found a little dead, contorted mouse body. I had to wonder if these two events might be related.

Cats at historic places have even been the subject of a recent debate on a small historic house museum list-serve that I subscribe to. About half the respondents claimed nothing is better for a historic house than a living, mousing cat, and the other half exclaimed “liability, liability!” After all, cat could cause a serious allergic reaction in a visitor, who would undoubtedly hold the museum liable.

As early as the 1540s, tourism to authors’ graves occasionally began to transfer to the houses where they had lived nearby. At Petrarch’s house in Arquà, visitors could see Pertarch’s stuffed, dead cat along with the chair where the poet sat and bed where the poet laid his weary head. Apparently, the cat inspired many a visitor to write an elegiac or even satiric poem. At sites today, I’ve often seen a “stuffed animal”-cat, but never a real feline once owned by the author. And I’ve never been moved to write a poem about them (but apparently a blog entry in another issue entirely).

However, cats at historic sites can have real appeal. The cats at Hemmingway’s Key West house have become almost as much a draw for tourists as Hemmingway himself. I wonder how many have been spirited away by Hemmingway fans.

A former caretaker at Mark Twain’s summerhouse, Quarry Farm, once declared to me that his elderly cat was a direct descendant of the cats that sat in Mark Twain’s lap while he wrote his most famous works, holed up in his famous octagonal study in Elmira, NY. He also implied that other descendents still keep the farm’s barns mouse free.

Cats at museums don’t worry me a bit, especially when compared to the damage that mice can do to historic sites. But I’d rather not see the taxidermy.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Edgar Allan Poe House (the New York-Bronx house)

New York’s Poe house, the "cottage" where Edgar Allan Poe lived until his death and where Virginia Clemm Poe died, is set to get a make-over. But this is its second major renovation. The house was moved from its original location many years ago and in 1975 went through a restoration. Because the house at one time was above a subway line, the house has suffered from vibrations that most old homes cannot withstand.

Because Virginia Poe died in this house, the house holds a special claim over Poe fans (especially fans of “Anabelle Lee” and “The Bells”). Poe, perhaps because of his dark short stories and sometimes-grim poetry, holds a beloved place in the hearts of literary tourists. Poe tourism may even be on the rise as new Poe fans are born every day, as teenagers often find Poe's work some of the few assigned readings to which they can relate. E.L. Doctorow put in a NYTimes piece, “All that morbidity is read and lapped up by children.”

Edgar Allan Poe lived in many houses. In 2001, the city of New York lost one Poe house in Greenwich Village to an expansion of the NYU law school. In a compromise with preservationists, NYU developers agreed to keep/rebuild the facade of the house and offer space within the larger building that houses part of the law school. Sadly, they “rebuilt” the building as a false front, using new bricks and salvaging only a 2x8 panel of original bricks that they display inside. A Times reporter likened the façade to the “Cask of Amontillado.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though they’ve bricked up the spirit of Poe inside the new law building.

All of this Poe-house musing is in service of a question, a question about lost houses, as surely despite the façade the Greenwich Village, that house is lost. How does restoration affect the literary spirit of an author’s house? Is it better to lose the house entirely? Is a restored house a lost house? These questions are not new ones, John Ruskin ruminated on the “restoration” of old buildings in Europe almost 160 years ago. It seems, he preferred ruins to restorations:

From John Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) Dutton: New York, 1963.

“There was yet in the old some life, some mysterious suggestion of what had been, and of what had been lost; some sweetness in the gentle lines which rain and sun had wrought . . .

Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end. You may make a model of a building as you may of a corpse, and your model will have the shell of the old walls within it as your cast might have the skeleton…

But, it is said, there may come a necessity for restoration! Granted. Look the necessity full in the face, and understand it on its own terms. It is a necessity for destruction. Accept it as such, pull the building down, throw its stones into neglected corners, make ballast of them, or mortar, if you will; but do it honestly, and do not set up a Lie in their place” (199-200).

What will happen in the little Poe cottage in the Bronx?

Friday, July 4, 2008

How Buildings Survive

The home that Langston Hughes grew up in Lawrence, Kansas was torn down long ago. It happens all the time. Old houses are razed to make way for new.

I’m interested in how it is that buildings survive. What we can learn from the ones that do? What can we learn from the ones that are lost? Some are saved in my new home city, Philadelphia,

because of their association with a famous person or because they are considered old enough and “historic” enough to be

important. Others, despite their associations and age, are wiped out.

I started this project, researching historic houses in the U.S., while I was living in Lawrence, Kansas, and love and family have inspired my move far from my Oklahoma roots to Philadelphia. Here it is, frankly, quite a bit easier to explore old buildings. Not necessarily just because this is a city where so many historic buildings have managed to survive, but because in this part of the country there is an expectation that it might matter whether or not they do survive. And should they survive, or should they be resurrected (as in the case of the National Park Service’s President’s House Site), it matters a great deal the kinds of stories that are told with them.


I’m most interested, currently, in the intersections of literature and places, real places and imagined ones. What makes folks visit historic places, and what makes people interested in visiting the homes of authors that they admire? What makes folks spend time walking around the small town, Red Cloud, Nebraska in search of Willa Cather or fly halfway around the world to Prince Edward Island to visit an imagined Green Gables? What makes readers invest in a Paris walking tour in search of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? And what forces contribute to the fact that I can visit the Edgar Allan Poe House, where Poe wrote “The Black Cat” but I can’t visit the house that Hughes describes in his autobiographical novel, Not without Laughter?

Here I keep track of my visits to historic sites, research, and adventures in Philadelphia.