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.