Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses by Anne Trubek

Continuing my look at the quirkier side of American life, I grabbed this book off the shelf from the library based on the title alone. I like to travel to historical places while on vacation, being the type of person who shed a tear at Samuel Clemens' grave and will detour out of the way to visit a museum, monument, or shrine to a person that was of interest to me at some point in my life.

In short, I'm basically the type of person that Trubek doesn't get, as she explains that to her, the idea of immortalizing a writer by keeping their dwelling in existence (often at great expense) is a baffling one. She wrote this book as a way to try and understand the appeal, paradoxically making pilgrimages to such varied places as the ruins of Jack London's safe from everything save fire house to the run down by extremely popular Hemingway home in Key West.

Thus, despite not being entirely fond of the idea, Trubek worked her way across the country over the years, talking to tourists, owners, tour guides, and cabbies about the places where writers came to lay their head, often for periods of time the writer themselves might have preferred to forget. Though the settings and promotion often change, there's a definite theme in these visits: A sense of artificiality and a desire to capture a time period when the world around the building has moved on.

In several of the cases, there is also a monetary consideration. Every city and town hopes to draw in tourism dollars from people like me, and spending tons of cash to create a tribute to a writer, actor, or other potential draw is often at the center of a rehabilitation plan. Sadly, as Trubek correctly notes, these bets often don't work. Running a historic house costs lots of money to keep it in shape, and there's always a gamble on their popularity. For every evergreen Twain or Thoreau, there's the forgotten Tom Wolfe or Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Heck, even Thoreau's benefactor Emerson is losing his luster. The game of historical roulette too often comes up on the wrong color, leaving communities with an aging responsibility that no one wants to abandon, because hey, who wants to be the guy or girl who gives up on history?

I found Trubek's argument to be an interesting one, even if I don't exactly buy into it. She is an English Professor with a PHD, and her level of knowledge is going to be vastly higher than that of the average American (or any other visitor) who is going to these historical sites. While she might find Hannibal's conversion into Twain's fictional world disturbing, I'm sure there are plenty of people who take their kids there and enjoy the chance to be in an environment that's almost a theme park. What is so wrong with that? Why is she disturbed by people who want to go to Walden Pond or like the idea of seeing the Alcott house emphasize the parts of her life with which they are most familiar? There is a tone here that smacks of elitism, as though these writers can only be appreciated by those with sufficient knowledge about the writers. Even those who have an undergraduate understanding of Hemingway--he's a lousy writer who dislikes women--are portrayed in a dismissive light, as though it's necessary to appreciate him to really be a student of American Literature. That attitude turned me off in several places, because I find intellectual elitism to be worse than thinking Two and a Half Men is a great comedy (though only just barely).

On the other hand, Trubek does bring up some great points. The money that is spent on keeping a house preserved could be used for other things, like bringing those author's works to schools or providing economic development that will actually build a community back up in a way that tourism cannot. (She's a veteran of at least two crumbling cities, and in the course of her work sees quite a few more.) It's hard for me to argue that several hundred thousand needs spent on a house Langston Hughes lived in for barely two years when the same city's school district keeps laying off teachers. Probably millions of dollars are spent on preserving the past while our present is falling apart. We're failing this generation's next great writers while trying to keep fragile, stale memorials up for a few thousand die-hards to visit periodically. I can see why Trubek thinks this is crazy, but I also admit that I'll never forget going to Elmira, New York, where we spent several hundred dollars visiting. It's a tricky balance. Who's to say which is right?

There's also the matter of the writer's personal feelings to be considered. Would Poe really want his Baltimore house of poverty kept around for people to gawk at? Hemingway's fourth wife did not want the places where they lived turned into museums--why should we ignore those wishes? Do we really honor these writers by focusing on where they lived rather than on what they wrote? And how do we pick and choose? Which of the many houses Poe frequented deserve documentation? Is there a residency requirement? Washington Irving slept here, so let's pay a million dollars to make sure it doesn't end up as a parking lot? Where do we draw the line of obscurity? Wouldn't a memorial park to aid the community do more than trying to keep an eyesore in the public eye?

Again, Trubek makes logical points, all while also admitting that there is a strong fascination with the cult of the writer, and being where they typed your favorite book or experienced a personal loss that stuck with them until their death and influenced all they wrote. Like the writers themselves, these historical locations are desperate to make their mark and put their stamp on history. Sometimes, that stamp conflicts with the one the writer wanted, but history is shaped by those who follow. A writer might want to be known for their favorite book, but nothing is going to change that Joan of Arc will only be read by the most dedicated Twain scholars while Tom Sawyer is liable to follow us all into eternity.

This is where I think Trubek runs into trouble. She's trying to fight against America's need to prove how valid our history and culture is. Whether it's a state-erected plaque or a set of plaster dinosaurs, communities are always trying to make themselves stand out. Festivals mark events that are really inconsequential, but to those 5,000 people (or even 500) who call that place home, don't dare try to take that event away from them. (You can pry the Houston Pumpkin Festival from Houston, PA's cold, dead hands, and I don't blame them one bit.) These author's homes, as long as the author can still find a place at Barnes and Noble, will be points of pride, both for the places where they exist and for the fans of those writers. It may be foolish, it may be a bad investment, but it's (perhaps misplaced) pride in the heritage that once lost, will never return.

In the end, writer's houses and other historical artifacts only have the value we give them. America likes having as much stuff as possible, whether it's a bigger DVD collection, model trains, or porcelain dolls. There's a desire to hold on to the past, simply because it is the past. That appeal varies form person to person. A skeptic like Trubek isn't going to feel anything when she steps on the same wooden beams as her favorite novelist. I admit that I do.

While there are certainly valid points in A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses, I don't think she's going to win the day anytime soon with her desire to de-commercialize some locations and de-commission others. Still, this is a fascinating look at the idea of viewing history from the eyes of a person who doesn't see it the same way that I do. Those who are interested in the idea of historical preservation will find a lot to chew on in this book, whether you agree with it or not. In the end, the debate over writers' houses is not all that different from the debate over their writing: Those involved in the discussion will often have to agree to disagree. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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