American Writers at Home

American Writers at Home. Text by J.D. McClatchy; Photographs by Erica Lennard; Library of America and The Vendome Press, 2004; 224 pages; $50.


American Writers at Home affords an unprecedented opportunity to visit the private homes where our greatest writers crafted their masterpieces. In the process, it opens a window onto the writer's life that will forever change the way you read. As he wrote Moby-Dick, Herman Melville imagined that his study had become a whaling ship's cabin. In pencil tracings still visible today, William Faulkner plotted the intricate webs of his fiction on his study walls. In these and myriad other ways, the imaginations of the 21 writers profiled in this book transformed their surroundings, even as those surroundings shaped the character and context of their classic works. The photographic and literary portrait in this elegant and engaging book reveal as never before how important place -- a sense of home -- has been in the creation of our greatest writing.

Ranging from Carmel to coastal Maine, and including writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Frederick Douglass, and Louisa May Alcott, American Writers at Home takes readers on a tour of the American literary heritage that is both grand and intimate. We ramble through the turn-of-the-century estates of Edith Wharton and Mark Twain and nestle into the humbler homes of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. We are admitted into private -- and in most cases remarkably unchanged -- spaces that bore witness to genius, where Edna St. Vincent Millay's dresses still hang in the closet and Nathaniel Hawthorne's thoughts remain inscribed on the windowpane in his study.


J.D. McClatchy was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in 1945. Formally educated at Georgetown and Yale and informally educated by his own reading, conversation, and study, Mr. McClatchy is the author of five books of his own poetry, editor of numerous collections and interesting anthologies (Poets on Painters remains one of my favorites), an opera librettist, and since 1991, editor of The Yale Review, a publication that with his leadership has gone from troubled to somewhat triumphant. Literary executor of the estate of James Merrill, McClatchy is one of the two editors, with Stephen Yenser, of Merrill's Collected Poems and Collected Prose.


Village Voice: "America has always been a nation of isolatos, solitaries striking out on their own," argues poet J.D. McClatchy in the text accompanying American Writers at Home. "Europeans could never understand...why we headed off into the unfamiliar, why we built our cabins on the pond's edge." Erica Lennard photographs the cocoons that famous writers like Walt Whitman and Flannery O'Connor fashioned for themselves in those dark, pre-iPod days of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Bathed in honeyed light, these images are so sumptuous they might be mistaken for layouts from a shelter magazine dedicated to gracious, cozy old houses. Instead, they provide an excuse for McClatchy's meditations on how dwellings and solitude shape the creative process. If these houses look like museums, that's because they are. When regular people die their things are ransacked, most precious possessions parceled out or tossed away. But these show homes halt and preserve a moment in an illustrious writer's life, like an insect trapped in amber. We see Eudora Welty's desk as it apparently looked while she lived: littered with manuscript pages, calendars, and correspondence. Or the corner of Faulkner's pantry, where the camera finds a wall covered with names and numbers scrawled above a black rotary phone that will never ring again.

The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts): None of Lennard's photographs have people in them, but she manages to make the homes appear inhabited, with the careful placement of a garment, lit candle, or blooming houseplant. Care was taken to show the tables or desks or even beds where each author worked. There are samples of the handwriting of the writers, where it was available -- very telling. Dickinson's hand, for example, was large and sloping. The large format shows off the photos, many full page, very handsomely.

The essays are full of wonderful details. An example: McClatchy discovered that Alcott's home, Orchard House, includes a bust of her father by Daniel Chester French, who was once a student of Alcott's sister, May. The differences in wealth and comfort are interesting -- as in the contrast between Arrowhead and the Mount.

The Boston Globe: Asked where he wrote, Ernest Hemingway once replied, "In my head." True though that is for every writer, the domestic setting of creativity is endlessly interesting to readers and to other writers.... Standing in Melville's second-floor workroom at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, where he wrote Moby-Dick, or looking at the photograph of it, one is reminded how even the gigantic works of world literature are created in small, private places, with the tapping of a typewriter or scratching of a pen.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: On the day that we talked, Mr. McClatchy was in his office in Manhattan and I was at home in California. An interview with Professor McClatchy, for me, is like an afternoon in one's favorite seminar. I have spoken with him many more times than are seemly. But I can't help myself. In this newest book, the professor refers to the "American isolato."

I asked, "If you were teaching a class of mildly intelligent youngsters, how would you define this isolato?"

"Well, as I said in the introduction, that's the characteristic of Americans, going back to why people moved to America to begin with -- to escape a past. Or to escape a set of circumstances which preclude a future. Or the future is going to be exactly as it was for all the generations before them. So that any sense of discovery and of freedom is precluded by the society, the circumstances in which they live. America has always seemed to provide a hope for exactly that kind of freedom and opportunity. I know it sounds like an ad, but it's true. And I think that's still true. And then that becomes -- how could it not? -- a theme in our literature as well.

"A theme reflecting the deep American need to move, to be on one's own. Take some of our greatest books. Huckleberry Finn wanting to leave home, Jim escaping from circumstances in the book. All of our books have to do with this American sense wanting to move. The Great Gatsby, as instance. Or, a writer like Eugene O'Neill who goes back to studying a family caught in a moment of time and to diagnose it somewhat.

"I think there's that sense of there being something wrong with a person who stays in one spot and that there's something restlessly right about the pioneer or the self-made millionaire. It's an American type that our writers are fascinated by -- from Hawthorne up to Scott Fitzgerald and on to Tom Wolfe, I suppose. We're a very inward-turning culture. The nature of our culture is continually churning and changing at the same time, and our history is so abrupt.

"Yet within that very short time, we have created a literature of remarkable range and depth and held it up as a mirror to ourselves. It may be that America, the nature of our country, and the way we live in it pushes people to document themselves and to examine our history in ways that may have been more leisurely in the Old World."

I suggested the lines from Eliot's Four Quartets as an interesting comment on American restlessness:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

"Yes. Eliot is someone who left, as so many of our writers do, to find himself. He said later in life that although he had spent his life in England and become an English citizen that the sources of all his work were Native American. Going back to the banks of the Mississippi and the Massachusetts coast. The rhythms of speech that he heard as a child. So there's a way in which you can't escape your home even though one tries to do that. We couldn't find Midwesterners for the book because they had all left the Midwest very quickly.

"In the old days, it was the schooling. Sinclair Lewis wanted to come to Yale; if you were Scott Fitzgerald, you'd go to Princeton. You wanted to move to a cultural city. It was the lack of culture, the lack of appreciation for what interested you."

"Also there's freedom, social freedom."

"Absolutely. The freedom of the big city to pursue your dreams. Which you'd never find at home, usually among unappreciative townsmen and parents who wanted you to work on the farm or in the family business. And that kind of pressure and that kind of suffocation, really."

"And who didn't see art as a vocation."

"Having any value whatsoever."

"Art was a pastime, at best."

"There is, of course," said Professor McClatchy, "a strong streak in American social life as well, that kind of deep suspicion of art as fancy and imported and..."

"French," I laughed.

"French, indeed. But the best American artists, their appetites were huge, and they would gobble up almost everything. And gobble it out of a mix of cultures -- that's the way our American language evolved so remarkably. From Standard English to English Plus. And our writers have been hurriedly taking advantage of that evolution all along."

"Do you use a computer when you write prose?"

"I do. I don't write letters on it, but I write essays on it. I still write poems by hand."

"I find that since I began using a computer that the computer also feels like a home. If you have to get a new computer..."

"It's like moving. As traumatic as that. I hire somebody to make everything exactly the way it was the last time. I'm slightly afraid of computers, having lost things on them and being mechanically incompetent. And I have no imagination. If something goes wrong, I can't begin to think how I might fix it myself. I call up somebody."

"So the computer doesn't feel like a home to you?"

"It feels like living at home, as if I were 20 and hadn't left home yet, and I resent the routine -- dinner at six and no smoking in the front parlor."

I mentioned that writers seemed to live two lives. "There's the part of you that writes, and then there's the part of you who pays the light bill and makes another pan of hideous lasagna. The latter part is the caretaker of the part of you who writes. When I open up the home that is my computer, I feel more at home than I do at the kitchen counter, stirring the sauce for that lasagna."

"I know what you mean. Not a day goes by that I don't sit down and do something. And like you I feel most myself when I am doing this. I like cooking and I don't mind being in the world, but I feel most myself when I'm putting sentences together."

"Recently, I watched you on TV, presenting this book to a group of notables. You wore a wonderful suit and had a grand air about you of confidence. I thought, 'Oh, how much he's able to be in the world and to swan about and not mind it at all, and it doesn't rub off badly on him.' You have not become some egomaniacal idiot."

"No. It's tiring though."

"I thought that, too. I thought you must go home at night and just put your big head on the pillow and sigh."

"After that event, then I had to go to the dinner that was given by whoever. So that's another three hours after that speech of being 'charming.' I tell you, by the time I get home, I'm really ready for my martini. But on the other hand, I feel a sense of responsibility."

"What about the home you've made for yourself, in Stonington, Connecticut?"

"There had been an idea for the book about doing an introduction with a photograph of my place and how I work, but I was very grudging of it because I didn't want it to be driven by the personality of me. I wanted to throw all the light onto the writers. How could I put my desk next to William Faulkner's or Herman Melville's? It would be arrogant and self-defeating."

"Or Louisa May Alcott."

"Or Louisa May Alcott. Indeed."

"Bronson Alcott was such a difficult father."

"But he encouraged her. She was the first to make fun of him and love him at the same time. She had a pair of very difficult parents, but to be encouraged as a young woman in the 19th Century, that was something. It was so rare, I think, that it might have been worth putting up with his other silliness."

I confessed, "I'm a great fan of Mrs. Hawthorne. I think she was a wonderful writer's wife."

"It was interesting to see the Hawthorne Concord house, where they lived back at the end of his life and also when they were first married, and really wonderfully in love in a way you don't often get glimpses of it. They were very exquisite in their physical passion for one another. And you think of him as such a cold fish, Hawthorne. She came from a remarkable family."

Sophia Hawthorne, a painter, had painted small illustrations on the Hawthorne marital bed, a bed long lost. "Heartbreaking," I said, "that that bed was lost."

"It's so interesting that when the famous writer dies, the household goods are disbursed. And you know that in 50 years people will be trying to buy back all these things. To find them all over again. It's just easier to probably put them in storage and keep them than it is to try to buy them back."

The book contains a photo of Frost's attic, empty except for a mattress on the floor. I said how sad that photo made its viewer feel.

"The whole house is a little sort of forlorn in a kind of Shaker way. But it doesn't come to life as much as the other houses do. Because the only thing they had there was a chair that they found in the attic. They say it's his. Whether it actually was or not, I don't know. His daughter, Leslie, spent some time up there, invoking her memories and then going around purchasing, I guess at flea markets and whatnot, things she remembered would have been there. Other houses, the Longfellow house for instance, give much more a sense of the life of the house than does the Frost house."

I mentioned that having read the recent Millay biography, that the photographs were evocative of scenes I recalled from her life. Quite a drinker in her last years, Millay is believed to have died after a fall down the steps from second to first floor. I said I had longed for a photo of that fatal staircase.

"I wish we had taken photographs. But Erica's style is so dark, and she only likes natural lighting. Down in the basement there, I think, there's still the maple syrup that she had jarred up in the old Mason jars. Every book, everything has been kept as it was, and they religiously have not touched anything. The curtains on the living room windows are shredded with age. It's truly ghostly. The Millay house is the other extreme from the Frost house where nothing was kept. Whereas in Millay's house, everything is there -- her clothes and lipsticks... Genuinely creepy to come across that. Her Pall Malls in her cigarette case. A little pencil and pad with nothing written on it. There were these beautiful art deco clasps on the purses and beautiful hats. Looking at the things, you could see how absolutely tiny she was. I think she was 5'1", and her shoes, her riding boots and so on, looked like doll shoes. Quite something.

"Again, I think that once we start to be serious readers we become fascinated by the personality of the authors and begin to read biographies of Hemingway and Mark Twain or Dickinson or whomever. We become fascinated by the personality. Who wrote this? You know? We become curious as to whether the circumstances of the life get transformed into chapters in a book. We know about their sorrows and their desires and their ambitions and their thwartings -- and we try to match things up.

"Still, you never can make the real connection between what happens to a person and what happens in a book. It's still a mystery. That's why the places where they wrote, however animated by the presence of the authors, still seem as if there's something really missing there. There's something ghostly about these places."

"I wonder why so many writers write in bed."

"I don't know. I do. I don't know. I'm sure Dr. Freud could say something about it. I also read in bed. I also think it's because I never have gotten a really comfortable chair, one that suits me. Maybe if I had a real, absolutely comfortable couch or chair -- but it would have to be very special. Bed is where I was read to first, I suppose, and it's the scene of dreaming. I find any number of connections that would hold a reader to bed."

"Cheever wrote up in his bedroom."

"Millay also wrote in bed."

I asked Mr. McClatchy if he knew how Wallace Stevens wrote. I understood, I said, that he composed his poems as he walked to work.

"He did. They have no manuscripts of his. He wrote entirely in his head on the walk to work. And then he would dictate his work to his secretary."

"Never put it down?"

"Never put it down. There are a few early poems, but that's all -- and then he would have his secretary correct her typescript and probably have her retype and throw the corrected one away."

"And then would he turn all that in to the publisher?"

"Yes. But all we have is the typescript that the typist made. I think this may tie in with the writing bed -- it's the physicality of writing. It's a very physical process. Whether it's Frost walking forest paths or Wallace Stevens commuting, walking to work, down a solemn avenue in Hartford. There's a story about Eugene O'Neill in California, when his right hand began to shake so much. He would have to hold it with his left hand, steady it in order to write. Finally, he couldn't even read that handwriting and stopped writing altogether. You would think, 'Well, why didn't he dictate something?' But it's clear he felt that if he couldn't physically write it, he wasn't going to write anything."

"Do you think many writers do dictate?"

"I don't know. Maybe, maybe. The Danielle Steeles who crank them out. Maybe she writes in purple ink, with a feather. But I think it's not natural -- the dictation -- and I think many writers still work in longhand before they transcribe their work to a computer."

"Poets certainly do."

"It comes out like web from a spider, you know. You feel it coming out of your fingers."

"When I edit," I said, "I read the work to myself, silently."

"Silent reading was one of the great inventions. The great moments. It's still debated: When did people begin to read to themselves? St. Augustine often used to get credit for being the first person. I don't know who it was. But yes, I feel the same way. But you feel, 'This just isn't working; this is not the rhythm I want for this sentence.' And then you go back at it.

"I tried with this book to allow myself, stylistically, as it were, to be driven -- or guided, I should say -- by detail. And to let the text go by that. Because the houses are filled with fascinating details. As a tourist, if you were going around these houses, your eye would flit from one thing and another. I tried to let the prose pick up, for instance, in the Kate Chopin house, the fact that they put animal hair in the plaster to keep insects away. Details of that kind.

"I was fascinated by the conditions under which people write and make a living. Flannery O'Connor's bedroom, where you could see the crutch is right next to the bed. She could only move two feet from her bed to her desk, and it becomes very touching to see all these things and to see how hard it is to create the conditions whereby you can write."

I said that Mr. McClatchy, in writing the text for this book, entirely avoided the tone of the "educating docent."

"Good. That's why I even wanted to put in the back something about the afterlife of the houses, what happened to them after their authors died. That always interests me. Some are sad stories; the houses changed into a school or a post office. But they're interesting; that these places have lives before and after the writers have owned them, and it was often the house itself, not just the writer, that fascinated me. They seemed alive in their own way.

"So much has been lost. Erica and I did an earlier book called The Writer's House, which is where they got the idea for this book. Our first book was about European houses. They're more beautiful and luxurious than American houses. Erica, over here, was kind of in despair: 'If I have to photograph one more brown clabbered ugly thing,' and it's true -- the American writers' houses are just not very impressive houses. Wharton or Longfellow or Mark Twain, their houses are very grand, but the bulk of them is very unimpressive."

"They're working houses."

"They are very much working houses. It reminds you that people write where and how they can, and it just happens to be spectacular work."

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