Monday, January 25, 2010

Literary Birthplaces

A recent piece in the New York Times about George Orwell's birthplace posed a question that I have been asking myself the last several years: why do we visit literary birthplaces? What interest do the cradles of our literary heroes and heroines hold for readers? What can any birthplace tell you about the historical person born there?

I'm working on a chapter on spurious history of Mark Twain's birthplace in Florida, Missouri for a collection on birthplaces, and I have been thinking about Abraham Lincoln's birthplace--or rather as the National Park calls it, his "symbolic birthplace cabin." It ends up that a number of famous literary and historical birthplaces are fakes (or if you want to split hairs, symbolic reproductions, reconstructions, or other types of creative commemorations that have little to do with the real historic structures where these figures were born). Abe Lincoln's birthplace at Sinking Spring Farm, Kentucky has the added distinction of possibly being constructed from the logs of Jefferson Davis's birthplace cabin. Both cabins traveled across country, often reconstructed side by side, and were stored in the same cargo holds and warehouses until no one knew for sure which logs were which. Many had long suspected that none really came from the "authentic" birth-cabin of Lincoln. (see Pichathley)

But Lincoln's birthplace is amazing (and sits inside the giant memorial building at the left). It is a site that exists because some Americans, like Mark Twain, believed in its crucial contribution to the narrative that connects the stories of "great men" to the soil of the United States. In a 1907 plea in the New York Times, Twain argued that the Lincoln cabin was a "birthplace worth saving." In a promotional broadside he elaborated:

"Some people make pilgrimages to the town whose streets were once trodden by Shakespeare...But in most cases the connection between the great man or great event and the relic we revere is accidental. Shakespeare might have lived in any town as well as Stratford..."

He goes on: "But it was no accident that planted Lincoln on a Kentucky farm...the association there had substance to it. Lincoln belonged just where he was put. If the Union was to be saved, it had to be a man of such origin that should save it."

Each of these places, as a successful historic site, has to argue that there is substance to the connection between adult writer and infant locale, but is there? Or do we just read this intention backwards onto these historic sites?

Twain's own birthplace has as fraught a history as Lincoln's (though as far as I know wasn't built out of logs from Davis's birthplace). More on it in an up-coming post.

See former National Park Service Chief Historian, Dwight Pitcaithley, “Abraham Lincoln's Birthplace Cabin: The Making of an American Icon,” Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape, ed. Paul A. Shackel (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Gabriel Garcia Marquez birthplace to open to public

One of my favorite living writers is set to have his birthplace opened to the public after years of restoration. Next month literary pilgrims will be able to visit the much expanded house in Aracataca, Columbia.

Though there's little chance that I can get there anytime soon, I do wonder what he thinks of the historic site and its restoration.

Why preserve a literary birthplace? Why visit one?