Preservation Literature 101

Past and present mingle between the covers of 13 preservation tales.

Outermost House by Henry BestonArmchair critics like to claim that all fiction has only two plots: Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. But maybe there's a third choice, the preservation tale, where saving an imperiled building or landscape transforms a character's life. Preservation lit should not be confused with such genre standbys as Girl Gets House (think Rebecca, think Jane Eyre) or Boy Gets House, House Gets Nasty (think Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher," or even Stephen King's The Shining). Preservation tales, in fiction and nonfiction, whether in the form of novel, memoir, or children's book, are almost always battle dispatches, from many times and many fronts; they only look gentle. Consider this baker's dozen, nearly all with happy endings.

Four Infrastructure Tales and Three Fantasias

A preservationist rereading can add fizz to familiar classics. Suddenly, Moby-Dick becomes an ecofable, Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables a story of how a restoration lifts a curse, Cather's The Professor's House a celebration of the saving of Mesa Verde. And in the post-WWII years, as the preservation and environmental movements grew, so did preservation's presence in fiction.

A Horseman Riding By (1966) By R. F. Delderfield
In the tradition of Galsworthy and Dickens, all Delderfield's fine fat novels of English life teach, preach, and entertain. This leisurely trilogy combines a multi-family saga, a sympathetic portrait of the changes on a country estate from the Boer War to the 1960s, and an ardent plea for architectural and landscape preservation in south Devon, the author's home region.

Garden State (1973) By Julian Moynahan
New Jersey suburbanites facing corporate land grabs devise a well-wrought revenge, exposing as they go the perfidies of developers, academics, and politicos. It's The Cherry Orchard in reverse—and also that literary rarity, a suspenseful nimby narrative. ("The world's only novel about zoning," says Frank Popper, professor of urban planning at Rutgers.)

So Far From Heaven (1973) By Richard Bradford
Bradford wrote two novels set in the American Southwest, the coming-of-age classic Red Sky at Morning and this offbeat picaresque tale that is half lament for the trashing of northern New Mexico ("the sweet cool land of the mountains … the last beautiful place in America") and half cross-cultural romance: Texas oilman meets Hispanic activist and finds redemption through viewshed preservation. A dark, jokey, impassioned land-use novel, fueled by love of place.

Colony (1992) By Anne Rivers Siddons
Siddons mostly writes slick entertainments, peopled with privileged women who whine amusingly. This book is different: The sudsy plot is overlaid by a nuanced portrait of Maine's Blue Hill peninsula and its ecology, natural and social, especially the summer retreats of the eastern rich and the locals who tolerate them—that is, until development threatens both tribes. Probably the world's only septic-access novel. (For a downscale rendering of a similar theme, try Dazzle, a sex-and-shopping epic by Judith Krantz that tracks three super-rich sisters as they plan a Seaside-like city—with plenty of retail—for their family's vast ranch on the southern California coast.)

Marion's Wall (1973) By Jack Finney
A young couple renovating a San Francisco apartment finds a cryptic message scrawled in lipstick by an earlier tenant, a most willful silent-film actress. A story of many kinds of preservation and possession, as well as of the search for a cache of lost silent films, from Lubitsch's Great Gatsby and Sjostrom's Divine Woman to all 42 reels of von Stroheim's Greed.

Invisible Cities (1974) By Italo Calvino
When Kublai Khan asks Marco Polo to speak of his native Venice, the explorer instead describes 55 urban marvels seen on his travels, each preserved only in the telling: a spider-web city, a moon city, a city of living tombs, a city of bathtubs and naiads, a city where illuminated canoes ply a great estuary, even a city that is "set on dry terrain" but still "stands on high pilings," where "the houses are of bamboo and zinc, with many platforms and balconies placed on stilts at various heights, crossing one another, linked by ladders and hanging sidewalks, surmounted by cone-roofed belvederes, barrels storing water, weather vanes, jutting pulleys, and fish poles … a city a-flutter with ribbons." Invisible Cities has no plot or characters, just settings, every one a Venetian reflection.

The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) By Jonathan Franzen
This early work by Franzen (author of The Corrections) offers a magical-realist tour of a future St. Louis under siege, in which a scruples-free female police chief from Bombay takes over the town, uglifying the built environment and expanding her river kingdom through decidedly foul means. A paranoid's guide to urban planning, a preservationist's nightmare.

Three Memoirs by Novelists

Some people build autobiographical houses, like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello or Edith Wharton's The Mount; others capture beloved dwellings between the covers of their books, down to the 16th-century rosebushes, the gong stands and potted-meat jars, the music of sand on a windowpane during a nor'easter. Indeed, all memoirs are acts of preservation.

The Outermost House (1928) By Henry Beston
A modern Walden on Cape Cod: Shell-shocked wwi survivor retreats to a cottage called the Fo'castle and is healed by nature, then must accept that his "year on the beach had come full circle, and it was time to close my door." Beston soon after married poet Elizabeth Coatsworth and moved to Maine, but in 1964 the Department of the Interior declared the Fo'castle an American literary landmark, to honor the book's role in saving the Cape Cod National Seashore. The cottage was long rented to birders and solitude seekers until it was taken by a storm in 1978. There are no plans to rebuild it; like the path of Thoreau's walk on the Great North Beach, it remains an invisible Cape landmark.

Memory in a House (1973) By Lucy M. Boston
Just before WWII, the author buys a Norman manor in Cambridgeshire, learns it is perhaps the oldest continually occupied house in Britain, then reimagines it as Green Knowe, the riverside mansion of her novels, guarded by topiary yews and time's secrets. She found the ancient dwelling "all instantly lovable and possessed at sight" but also "ramshackle madness from top to bottom," a mélange of Norman, Tudor, and Georgian styles. The plumbing was also Georgian, some rooms could only be entered on one's knees, and there were several resident ghosts. It took her 20 years to restore the core 12th-century manor, a lifetime to understand it.

A House Unlocked (2002) By Penelope Lively
Lively, raised in Egypt, spent holidays at Golsoncott, her grandparents' estate in backcountry Somerset. With an archaeologist's detachment, she lets private life bear witness to a nation's traumas, spinning context from silver napkin rings and embroidered samplers. "I have always been excited and intrigued," Lively writes, "by the silent eloquence of the physical world—past events locked into the landscape or lurking in city streets."

Three Children's Books

Literati call them pattern texts: the books that help shape an adult self. Wildlife biologists, asked to name childhood favorites, often remember Rascal or Make Way for Ducklings; engineers are entranced, early on, by Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, or The Little Engine That Could. Preservationists are made from tales like these.

"Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep," from Martin Pippin in the Daisy Field (1937) By Eleanor Farjeon
When a wicked industrialist plans a factory complex for the Sussex Downs, village history and strong magic defeat him, preserving commonage, footpaths, open space, and the right to skip rope at the new moon. To many writers (like Farjeon, Orwell, T. S. Eliot, and Woolf), southern England in the '30s seemed overrun by gasworks and subdivisions. Farjeon's modern fairy tale appeared the same year as John Betjeman's savage paean to London's sterile exurbs:

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow,
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk,
  tinned beans,

Tinned mind, tinned breath.

The Little House (1942) By Virginia Lee Burton
This deceptively simple picture book, a Caldecott Medal winner, offers a stalwart heroine in the small pink house that could "never be sold for gold or silver" and thus witnesses her country hill covered by roads, then tenements, then skyscrapers. By book's end, rescued and restored by a descendant of her original builder, the Little House once again sits in a field of daisies, where apple trees dance in the moonlight—at least for the time being, as Burton's stylized illustrations make sadly clear.

Gone-Away Lake (1957) By Elizabeth Enright
Enright, a New Yorker writer, also created perceptive, intelligent children's books where past and present entwine. Her most unusual work is Gone-Away Lake, in which Manhattan siblings and their cousin discover an abandoned resort in upstate New York and befriend the two elderly recluses who live in its tumbledown mansions. A book brimming with summer, and an affectionate celebration of Victoriana at the height of big-box plate-glass architecture—pretty nervy, since Enright's maternal uncle was Frank Lloyd Wright.

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