Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Blueberries

I went to Maine a few weeks ago, reading the first novel by Elizabeth Gilbert, Stern Men (thanks to Shelley) and I'm finishing it now. While I was in Maine, reading a lovely, hilarious novel about two lobstering islands (roughly based on Vinalhaven & surrounds), I was thinking about two things: lobster and my favorite professor from college, David Gross. Gross was the Mainer who introduced me to Sarah Orne Jewett and Carolyn Chute. Ends up, thanks to him, I've spent much more time reading about Maine than actually visiting it (and thanks to Chute's enormous tome, The Beans of Egypt, Maine). I hope to remedy this now that I'm a little closer.

Despite the Gilbert book, and plans to stop in Salem (for a later post), I had not planned on a terribly literary vacation. Even devoted literary tourist has to get a vacation from herself (and the subject of her dissertation). We camped at Camden Hills State Park--an amazing campground and the just kind of place, with its trails and ocean views, that didn't inspire me to read much on our trip. The world was too crisp, cool and full of sail boats to let me sit around and read much.

On our trip we took the Mt. Battie Auto Road, a popular destination within the state park. Atop Mt. Battie is a medieval looking tower built as a World War I Memorial and from which you can see all of Camden's harbor (see above) and a good & beautiful bit of Penobscot Bay. But if you turn around and look inland, you see lovely green hills and farms laid out against the grain of the hillside. And if you look under your feet, you can find both Edna St. Vincent Millay and blueberries.

In 1910, Millay wrote most of her most famous poem, "Renascence" inspired by the view at Mt. Battie (or at least that is what the marker says), which begins:

"ALL I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked the other way,
And saw three islands in a bay."

The "three islands" in the bay include the islands that Gilbert used as models for her fictional lobstering communities, Courne Haven and Ft. Niles. And though I love the book, the central character, Ruth, is torn--or unable to articulate what it is that she loves--about her island home. And it seems that Millay (only 18 when she wrote the poem) could answer a good bit of that. In "Renascence," Millay goes on

"Over these things I could not see:
These were the things that bounded me..."

Millay's angst later in the poem is so perfectly how I felt at 18, and seems so in tune with Gilbert's Ruth, also an 18-year-old , that it's a wonder she didn't begin her chapters with epigraphs from Millay instead of quotes from the natural histories of lobsters.

Oh yes, and as we hiked around the top of Mt. Battie, we found these (above) under our feet--a real subject of my literary fascination since grade school when we read Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal. Mythical wild blueberries--not just fictional after all.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Allman Brothers' House Museum?

In the tradition of sites devoted to the very place where genius was born, where great works were penned....places like Mark Twain's study in Elmira, Hemingway's typewriter stand, Louisa May Alcott's tiny wooden desk, and Thoreau's cabin, we finally have the Allman Brothers' House Museum.

In December, the Macon, Georgia house will be opened to the public for the first time. Just when those crazy academics were arguing the world could not take another house museum, welcome to "The Big House."

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ernest Hemingway's Houses....

How many museums can one person have dedicated to celebrating his literary accomplishments? Seems many.

I'm happy that CBS news recently took American viewers inside (via video) Hemingway's house in Cuba. I, for one, see this as a literary destination worth making my way to. I only wish I could have gotten there before the preservationists. It looks a tad too tidy, too perfectly restored to the "Hemingway Period" for my current tastes.

But Hemingway has so many house museums, that you have to be amazed at the Hemingway literary tourism industry. His fiction hardly seems domestic to me.

He has a Birthplace in Oak Park, Il., the Key West House, and the last house he lived in in Idaho, which now belongs to the Nature Conservancy in Idaho. And of course, there is the Cuba house.

And yet, the Kansas City, Mo. house where Hemingway lived while working for the Kansas City Star seems to have burned to the ground last year with little notice. There must be others waiting to be restored by an enterprising spirit. Perhaps you can always have one more.

It makes me wonder, which literary figure as the most historic sites/house museums?

Monday, April 27, 2009

On Becoming a Docent...

I recently took the last step to become a volunteer docent at the Rosenbach Museum and Library here in Philadelphia. For years now, I've been visiting historic houses, and thinking snide thoughts about those terrible docents (none of which you'll find at the Rosenbach, BTW). The docent who told Seth and I at Monticello that there were no special passageways, doors, or "servant" spaces built into the house, the docent who goes on and on about rope beds and the origins of "Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite," the docents who insist that we all think back to that simpler time in the past--all the times I wanted to break away from the drone and explore the house on my own.

Now I'm one of them. Despite all my academic training and deep knowledge that the past was, and is, never simple, I think the mode of the house museum tour is hard to break (see Linda Norris's excellent "What Makes Historic House Tours So Boring"). I found myself, on my test-tour, slipping into "this painting was painted by a famous and important painter," which of course reflects no critical reflection on what made Thomas Sully a sought-after portraitist in his day or what makes him interesting today...and what the heck counts as "important?" Thankfully, the education coordinator at the Rosenbach pointed out when I was stuck in the meaningless "way-back-machine" mode of the historic house tourguide.

I think I finally felt the "trap" of the tourguide in Henry James's "The Birthplace." I suddenly have new sympathy for the long-time live-in guide at the Poe House (before it came to the NPS) that told people in a hushed voice, quite incorrectly, that, "This is the doorknob [added in 1920, long after his residency] that Edgar Allen Poe touched." Perhaps she couldn't help herself?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dunbar House and Ephrata Cloisters in Trouble

The Paul Laurence Dunbar house, which was closed recently because of budget shortages (the state of Ohio cut its funding), is slated to reopen thanks to help from the Ohio State Historical Society.

I worry that many literary sites will be facing similar cuts in the coming months. Pennsylvania is considering closing a number of its historic sites to save money, including the Joseph Priestly house and the Ephrata Cloisters, one of my favorite state historic sites.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why History Does Matter at House Museums?

An article picked up yesterday by the Chicago Sun-Times points out one of the troubling facts about house museums and historic sites in general in the U.S.--that very few acknowledge the existence of slavery. Although the article focuses on plantation houses that are open to the public in South Carolina, historic sites in the North are just as bad at acknowledging slave contributions to their history. Tours of Independence Hall don't tend to mention that many signers had slaves waiting on them as they argued the finer points of the constitution.

In the article, the curator of the Lane House is quoted as saying, "It's just awkward" because "there's very little good you can say about it [slavery]." But I don't necessarily go to historic sites to hear about "the good" and I don't believe most historic tourists do either. In fact, the author of the article, Kristin Collins, implies that plantations and historic sites that do a good job interpreting the history of slavery see more visitors than sites that ignore it.

Collins points out that "talk of slaves takes a back seat to discussions of architecture, furnishings and gardens" at historic house museums.

Why does it matter whether historic sites and museums attempt to interpret slavery? In a now famous series of surveys that the late Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen wrote about in their 1998 book, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, the authors found that Americans care very much about the past and trust the stories that museums tell. “Americans put more trust in history museums and historic sites than in any other sources for exploring the past... [museums gave] visitors a sense of immediacy—of personal participation—that [they] associated with eyewitnesses; they evoked the intimacy of family gatherings; and they encouraged an interaction with primary sources that reminded respondents of independent research” (105). The problem with not telling the story of slavery at historic sites in the North and the South is that we just might think it didn't happen. History isn't only about architecture, furnishings, and gardens.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Margaret Mitchell House Faces Massive Cutbacks

Like Edith Wharton's The Mount and the famous and fabulous Mark Twain House in Hartford, another literary landmark is facing very hard times.

Margaret Mitchell's house in Atlanta, the apartment where she wrote most of Gone with the Wind, has had its staff cut from 15 to just 1. The site is managed by an Atlanta historical consortium, the Atlanta History Center.

The trouble facing the Margaret Mitchell house is worrisome, because the site has been used as a case study of an historical house museum that acted responsibly in a climate that's been hard on small house museums for some time. Donna Ann Harris in her 2007 book, New Solutions for House Museums (Altamira) saw the sharing of resources by multiple historic sites with a community that the Atlanta History Center facilitates as a one possible positive future for struggling house museums.

Check out a longer story on the downsizing here. If you are anywhere close to Atlanta, now might be the time to visit the house.