Drafting Rooms

Exploring the quarters where America’s literary greats took shelter to write

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 American Writers at Home

 By J.D. McClatchy

 Photographs by Erica Lennard

 The Library of America/Vendome Press; $50

Given the pilgrim heart of so much American writing—the sense that meaning exists Out There, at the end of a long journey—I was surprised to see, while thumbing through American Writers at Home, how many of our canonical writers lived in plush and tufted surroundings. The surprise is heightened by J.D. McClatchy's introduction, which points out that one criterion for choosing the 21 sites in the book was "to focus on houses where writers actually wrote." Many of these houses, which range from the baronial (Edith Wharton's The Mount) to the merely comfortable (the farm dwellings of Robert Frost and Flannery O'Connor), were not so much the spoils of success as the sources.

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
During her two years at The Mount, Edith Wharton wrote The House of Mirth.

Credit: David Dashiell

Still, the search for meaning often does lead home, and the lives of great writers can be tentative and insecure even after worldly success appears. So Mark Twain, whose riches came out of youthful travel books, would ensconce himself in heavy Gilded Age splendor in Hartford. There he wrote, of all books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the ultimate lighting-out-for-the-territory novel. It is easier to understand, perhaps, how Eudora Welty, who slept for 75 years in the same Spartan bedroom in the house her father built in Jackson, Miss., became one of the fiction writers we most identify with the idea of place.

So many of these houses feel Victorian in their decoration. The pages are filled with what seems like acres of elaborate wallpapers, bringing to mind Oscar Wilde's famous words, as he lay dying in a Paris hotel room: "Either this wallpaper goes or I do." But as McClatchy, a poet and editor who teaches at Yale, also points out in his introduction, ours is still a young nation. No writer represented here but Washington Irving was born in the 18th century. Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Melville, Whitman—all were born within 16 years of one another at the beginning of the 19th century, and Alcott, Dickinson, and Frederick Douglass were born and died while Victoria reigned. Even the major 20th-century writers whose houses are here—Faulkner, Frost, Hemingway, O'Neill—had a foot in the preceding era.

A decision by the photographer contributes to the apparent sameness of some of these writers' homes. Erica Lennard chose to use only natural lighting, which gives many of the interiors, especially in the darker Victorian houses, a golden glow that is probably properly respectful, but also a little cloying. And when the captions refer to detail that has faded into the shadows in the photographs, we get an inkling of what might have been lost from view.

All but two of these houses—Edna St. Vincent Millay's Steepletop and the Eudora Welty House—are open to the public, and those two are likely to be at some point. Both the photographs and McClatchy's excellent brief biographies of each of the writers give us as viewers and readers the same wistful feeling that actual visits to historic houses also give—that sense of yes, this is where a significant life unfolded, but no, nothing like life itself will ever happen here again.

Eudora Welty House

Perhaps because Welty is the most recently dead of these writers, the pages devoted to her house seem to evoke her presence most dramatically. I visited Welty once at 1119 Pinehurst St. in Jackson, on a pilgrimage that many journalists had made before me and that Miss Welty endured with characteristic graciousness. Pinned to the screen of her front door was a note in her careful hand apologizing to uninvited visitors for her inability any longer to sign the books the faithful had long brought to her door. Inside, the rooms suggested a similar sense of an old woman letting go of habits she had kept for a lifetime. Her mail, her books, her newspapers had gathered in alarming piles on the furniture, on the floor. Some of that clutter still exists, according to McClatchy and the photographs. Let's hope that a well-meaning curator does not take a broom to it, sweeping Miss Welty irretrievably into literary history.

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