Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Where Writers Live

“In Baltimore! We were lost. In Baltimore!” He paused to let Baltimore sink in. “Can you believe it?”

I could. He and a friend had wanted to see Edgar Allan Poe’s house. A spur of the moment decision, it lacked prudent preparation such as buying a city map or knowing the hours the house was open for visitors. As the question of belief required no answer, I waited for him to go on.

“It was raining. A helluva night, man. We found the house, though, after wandering around like mice in a maze. Jeezus. We walked up and pounded on the door.” He laughed, rubbing his balding head. An elderly woman answered the knock, he told me. “The place was open only by appointment, but she let us in. It was fantastic! Poe’s house! Poe!”

Lost in mid-sixties Baltimore. A rainy night. Rapping at the door. His Poesque tale rid me of the little desire I had to see Poe’s house for myself. What could the house offer that my friend’s story didn’t? Later, after I came to love Poe’s tales, the idea of seeing the writer’s artifacts struck me as a bizarre notion, as if visiting Cezanne’s studio would deepen my admiration of his Mont Saint-Victoire paintings.

Several years ago, when my wife and I had finished wandering through the historical museum of Wellfleet I asked our pleasant docent where I might find Edmund Wilson’s house. “Why, isn’t it a coincidence. You’re the second person this week to ask me that question.” You’d be wrong to think I was testing her. I listened carefully to the directions she gave us.

The sun shone, the late summer air was warm, and the beach crowd free. In the end, we didn’t bother with Wilson’s house. His journals would be within reach when we returned home from vacation. Browsing through them, I came across this entry about visiting Robert Lowell during one of his manic phases. Lowell

began telephoning in all directions and inviting people for dinner and for after dinner. Elizabeth [Hardwick] had counted on only four people. He invited his little mistress, and other young people—I suppose to cover her up…. It was already impossible for him to talk to everybody without flying off into a “free association.” I had told him I didn’t much believe in Frost’s poetry—in fact, that I thought him “a dreadful old fake” [Randall Jarrell writes that this was Wilson’s worst error of critical judgment]; but—or perhaps, in consequence—he called up the Frost’s and invited them to dinner. He told Mrs. Frost over the phone that I was a great admirer of Frost’s, and Mrs. Frost said that her husband would be so glad to hear it because he thought I wasn’t.

At dinner Lowell told Frost that Wilson wanted to ask why his reputation was “so greatly exaggerated.” Frost apparently took this in stride, discussing with Wilson various New England poets to Wilson’s satisfaction. The evening turned Wilson around, at least in his estimation of Frost’s intellect.

When a writer and his friends live in your library, why visit his empty house?

But I’ve no interest in arguing for my preferences. If Julian Barnes needed to make a pilgrimage to Rouen to visit Flaubert’s haunts, I’m happy for it; Flaubert’s Parrot is a terrific novel. Seeing a painting in Emily Dickinson’s house helped Barton Levi St. Armand solve the mystery of one of her images. Perhaps visiting a favorite writer’s home could offer a surprise or open an unexpected vista. Perhaps it could.

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