By Jem Bartholomew
Virginia Woolf worked in a small lodge under a chestnut tree at the bottom of her Sussex garden. In the drawers beneath her desk, Hilary Mantel kept seashore pebbles, crystals, fossils, tarot cards and the last letter of a deceased friend. In her neat and cosy parlour filled with crimson furniture, Charlotte Brontë would pace up and down as she thought late into the night. Seamus Heaney kept a bottle of stout on his desk, but didn’t arrange his room too perfectly, for fear he’d find ‘the writing had absconded.’ Charles Dickens decorated his large mahogany desk with figurines – toads fencing, a monkey with a pillbox cap – and other trinkets to turn over in his hands while writing.
Why do these facts fascinate us? And why do we preserve, reconstruct, and visit authors’ houses at all – do they take us closer to the text, or are we merely learning more about the life of a writer through their home?
The preservation of writers’ homes, like a fly in amber or human bodies frozen in bogs of peat, sits on an uneasy fault line between knowledge and hagiography, information and voyeurism. Perhaps the attraction is the sense that ideas bounced off the walls, characters and plot lines floated in the air. That, like dust particles, remnants of those same ideas might still hang suspended in the room, and by proximity inspire us. We like to peel back the curtain: what were the domestic rituals behind the sentences, the social lives behind the stories? Who washed the dishes, what kind of mop slicked the floor, were the rugs and ornaments arranged with care? The used, obsolete objects of writers still hint at their previous owners. Furniture cushions appear worn and dented, as if the author had just stepped out for a stroll.
Intrigued and uneasy about the purpose of writers’ homes, I travelled to Camden, New Jersey in August, a short subway ride over the sparkling Delaware river from Philadelphia. It’s here the American poet Walt Whitman spent his last nineteen years while working on final editions of Leaves of Grass. His small row house at what was then 328 Mickle Street, worth $1,750 in March 1884, has recently had a lick of cream and yellow paint.
The guide, sporting beige slacks and a goatee, welcomes me in. A quiet woman named Andrea and a couple – a curious wife and bored-looking husband – join the afternoon tour, which begins with a video. Whitman is ‘considered one of America’s greatest poets,’ it tells us, adding his writing embodies an American ‘rugged individualism’ and ‘egalitarian spirit.’ Then we’re ushered room-to-room to browse Whitman’s belongings and letters. Several chairs are pointed out as Whitman’s originals. Though Whitman’s friends complained of the simplicity of the house, he found it delightful, playfully calling it his ‘shanty.’ And it was here, we learn, some sixty yards from the Camden railroad, that Whitman enjoyed writing to the sound of trains. His poem ‘To a Locomotive in Winter,’ for instance, celebrated steam engines as a marker of motion and power as the nineteenth century hurtled to a close.
But as the tour continues upstairs, we seem to step away from the poetry. We enter Whitman’s bedroom. Our guide points out Whitman’s battered walking boots resting against a single bed. Tucked beneath its narrow frame sits the authors’ circular wash basin. Here, Whitman would slide onto the floor to be scrubbed and washed by his housekeeper, Mary Oakes Davis, no longer able to manage the short walk down the hall to the bath. It’s here, we’re told, Whitman died on 26 March 1892, aged 72. It is unclear what acts of literary service this unleashing of ghosts accomplishes. I begin to feel strange, almost unwelcome. Far from enhancing understanding of his poetry, the set-up of the room strikes me as exuding a sense of death’s inevitability.
The room has been frozen in time since Whitman’s passing with the help of records left behind by photographer John Johnson, who visited Whitman in 1890 and carefully documented the house in images and writing. The ‘little tin mug’ on the top of the stove, the ‘white wash-jug and basin’ by his bed, even the papers scattered about the room in ‘a sea of chaotic disorder and confusion’ are exact recreations of Johnson’s work – stamping this one day in eternity. ‘For us, it’s just a wonderful thing to have for the restoration of the house,’ the tour guide says. The reconstruction of Whitman’s death room speaks of the friction point of what authors’ homes are – shrines or museums? Centres for knowledge or pilgrimage?
Waiting on the subway platform on my way back to Philadelphia from Camden, I bump into Andrea. This isn’t her first time visiting authors’ homes. ‘I’ve visited Mark Twain’s house, Louisa May Alcott’s house, today was Walt’s turn,’ she says. Visiting authors’ homes helps unearth new things in their writing, Andrea says, and she usually rushes home stimulated by a desire for further research. ‘It’s really interesting to see Walt’s belongings, especially his shoes. I think his shoes will stick with me forever,’ she says. Does she ever feel authors would be troubled, I ask, to know what’s happening after their deaths? Not Whitman, Andrea thinks, who she characterises as welcoming, though others might not be so agreeable. Her curiosity always outweighs her hesitancy. ‘I have this fantasy – like, the whole world, but nobody’s here. And I can go into everybody’s houses and check it out. Like a voyeur,’ she says. ‘You have permission, where otherwise you’d be sneaking in.’
The sun is beating down as I exit the train and walk to my next stop: the house Edgar Allan Poe rented for roughly a year in 1843, part of his six-year stretch in Philadelphia. It’s a red-brick house with cream-shuttered windows that open out like bird wings. On a perch, out front, is a raven statue, though his famous poem 'The Raven' was published in 1845, after he had left the city for New York. Since 1962, the property has been maintained by the US National Park Service as the last remaining Philadelphia residence of Poe.
‘Hi there, welcome,’ a park ranger says as I enter. Inside, the walls are grotesque — blackened and green with flaking plaster. It bears none of the preserved charm of Whitman’s house and relies heavily on illustrations or text boxes to illuminate the house’s history. The floorboards don’t creak so much as wail underfoot. Labels and notices dot the walls. A description in one room says Poe’s wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, may have been cooped up here while suffering from tuberculosis.
After Poe left in 1844, the house cycled through countless owners and renters until, in 1933, it was purchased by the Richard Gimbel Foundation for Literary Research as ‘the Poe House.’ Yet it seems as if no one knew quite what to do with it, until finally it was declared a National Historic Site in 1978. One gets the sense that the house, which Poe spent no longer than twelve months in, was shoehorned into a national mythology as America tried to carve out its literary lineage in the twentieth century. ‘Poe was a literary pioneer, inventing modern detective fiction and contributing to science fiction,’ the US National Parks website reads. The video at the Whitman house, too, staked its claims to national legend. One function of authors’ homes is to tie them to nationalism, and the building of cultural identity through literary heritage, in ways that might have perturbed them. For Whitman and Poe, these two unhappy authors’ residences have been metamorphosed into an American mythology.
Dickens’ status as a British national figure complicates the role of the Charles Dickens Museum too, curator Emily Dunbar says. Housed in a Georgian terraced house near King’s Cross, the museum was the authors’ home between March 1837 and December 1839, where he wrote Oliver Twist. By 2012 an estimated 30,000 people were visiting each year. The most emotional room for guests, Dunbar tells me, tends to be Dickens’ study, where the famous ‘Dickens desk’ – a mahogany beast with a 45-degree angle writing platform – sits below red walls and gold-rimmed paintings. Visitors to the Dickens Museum in London might be surprised to learn, however, that the famous Dickens' desk never crossed the threshold of his former home until the twentieth century. In fact, it was an object Dickens bought twenty years later, long after he had moved out. There is always an element of reconstruction within authors’ homes.
Travelling back on the coach to New York at sunset, I found my thinking had shifted. Authors’ homes do help us get closer to the texts we love, and we delight in the curiosities of writing habits. But I also felt that I had seen behind the red-draped curtains of a Broadway production, dispelling the magic. All those pulleys and levers and stagehands bringing the play closer to real life had been exposed. This is not in itself a cause for concern; at certain times, however, this did seem to spill into voyeurism and nosiness – must the privacy of the dead be the business of the public just because they wrote literature people adore? I was reminded of a quote by the journalist and critic Janet Malcolm, who wrote that biographers of authors are akin to ‘professional burglars,’ who rifle through drawers and diaries and bear away with their loot. ‘Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world,’ she writes in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Looking at the sad washbasin and scuffed brown boots of Whitman, I was confronted with how authors’ homes embody the ‘voyeurism’ and ‘busybodyism’ Malcolm warns against.
As the Whitman tour came to a close, we arrived in the back parlour where Whitman’s body was displayed to close family in an open casket. Our guide tells us that there was a knock at the door. Doctors had arrived to perform a post-mortem, to the displeasure of some family members, and set about slicing open the lungs of the dead poet to investigate the cause of death. They discovered he had lost seven-eighths of his breathing capacity and was suffering with bronchial pneumonia. This was a fact about his body Whitman would never know himself. Even stranger, he would never know that thousands of guests would be standing in his parlour while learning it. The anecdote struck me as a typical form of voyeurism that Susan Sontag highlights in On Photography: ‘To photograph people is to violate them,’ she writes, ‘...by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.’ When we visit the preserved homes of great writers, are we symbolically possessing writers – in the interests of the nation, of ‘literature,’ of curiosity? Are we taking ownership of their space, their mind, body?
The doctors left Whitman’s home after the three-hour job was done. The inner business of his body became the knowledge of the world. And, in tramping into authors’ intimate spaces and rifling through their habits and belongings, perhaps we, who visit writers’ homes, are more like these postmortem doctors than we’d prefer to admit. Finally, we are shown Whitman’s original death notice, which was pinned on the door in 1892. It serves as a grim epilogue to a tour which, by this point, doesn’t feel like a shrine or a museum. Instead, I feel like an intruder prying into a sick man’s final years.
JEM BARTHOLOMEW, a freelance writer, is still in his mid-twenties.
Art by Ellie Moriuchi