On August 10 this year, I set out with my husband to do something I have dreamed of for a long time: take a driving tour around New England. The goal: to visit as many great authors’ homes as we could manage in our eight-day tour of southern Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts.
We basked in the ever-changing views of the beautiful New England countryside, passing by rolling hills, pine-covered green mountains, marsh, forest, and rocky shoreline, stopping often to visit the old homes and sites where authors wrote some of the most treasured literature in America’s history.
This trip was a lovely and thought-provoking experience. Many of us revere our favorite geniuses, whether writers, artists, athletes, actors, or directors, for the intellectual thrills, pleasure, and meaning they bring to our lives through their excellent productions.
But I know for me, this reverence makes it difficult to regard my most admired authors exactly as fellow humans. After seeing where they lived and wrote, where they made their homes, a bit about how they lived, often in humble circumstances, my perspective is changed.
Treading the beautiful old wooden floors we found in almost every home, the very boards my favorite writers trod back and forth when stuck for a word or a phrase, reminded me of something.
These writers were indeed geniuses, but they were also just people–humans a lot like me. They had to figure out where to live, what to eat, what to wear, when and where to write.
They had family, friends, enemies, and fellow townspeople. They had other passions besides writing—perhaps a garden, a fondness for hiking, a favorite grandchild, a well-loved chair, a treasured view. Their homes were decorated with pretty wallpaper and draperies, bright paint colors, beloved art, and above all, books, books, books!
The minds of the great authors whose homes we visited might tower above most of ours, but they lived their lives on a human scale. Experiencing that humanness viscerally gives me even more affection for their works. It’s so much clearer that these writers speak to me, and to all their readers, not as gods issuing proclamations from the clouds, but as fellows sharing their thoughts at our elbow, as friends writing us letters from their desks, just down the street.
Not that these writers were just like average folk in every respect. Seeing their homes all together in this way made it plain that there are certain things they had more in common with each other than with the non-writing public. In a moment, I’ll talk about what these great writers seemed to have in common, and how knowing about these similarities enhances how I read their literature.
First, though, here’s the Author Home Tour Itinerary!
Among other historical sites and beauty spots, here are the homes we visited, in the order we saw them. Our actual journey took longer than the days listed because we stopped to see other sights, but with no other stops, it would be possible to tour these homes in five days. (Links are provided to house museum websites):
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house in Concord, MA
Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, Concord MA
The Old Manse, where Hawthorne lived with his new wife Sophia for three years, Concord, MA
A replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, Concord, MA
Emily Dickinson’s Homestead and her brother’s home next door, The Evergreens, in Amherst, MA
New England Authors at Home
As I think back over all the homes on our Author Home Tour, what I remember first are the floors. Almost all the homes had splendid, old wood floors, returned where possible to their original condition by loving museum curators. It’s so easy to think of each writer pacing back and forth and hearing their feet tap and creak on the wood. Our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide at Dickinson’s house pointed out that there was a ridge worn into the floor making a trail between Dickinson’s bed and desk, perhaps worn by the poet herself as she paced the room pondering the next phrase.
Thanks to dedicated curators who have been working to remake or preserve these homes as they were in their writers’ day, we can see exactly how most of them looked when the writers lived there. Most were very pretty, homey houses with bright décor. Dickinson and Alcott both had pink flowered wallpaper in their own rooms, with windows to let in much light. Longfellow’s boyhood home was decorated throughout with brightly figured, striking wallpaper and window hangings.
Art and Favorite Things
All the homes contained art that seemed personally meaningful. Alcott’s sister May, a European trained painter, had painted a beautifully detailed picture of an owl, Louisa’s favorite animal. On Emily Dickinson’s wall were hung engraved prints of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), successful and intellectual women writers whom she admired and found inspirational. In Longfellow’s sitting room was an engraving of a portrait of George Washington, who was a friend of Longfellow’s maternal grandfather, from the time both fought together in the Revolutionary War.
Emerson’s study and sitting room had a copy of a painting of the Three Fates that he was much taken with when visiting Rome after his first wife’s death. Though Hawthorne was a renter in the Old Manse, he joyfully rummaged its attic for interesting art objects, and proudly and humorously brought out a large stuffed owl to display in the sitting room. Though not strictly décor, his wife Sophia also added her long-lasting mark on the house by scratching several messages into the study windowpanes with her diamond wedding ring, still visible today. One commemorates a snowy day when her toddler daughter looked out the window with awe at the frost and ice. Another suggests that she knew her husband would be famous, recording for posterity: “Nathaniel Hawthorne: His Study.”
Melville had an old whale harpoon made into a poker to rearrange his logs in his study at Arrowhead Farmhouse. When the family moved into the ramshackle old house, his wife disliked the large, rough, inelegant stone fireplace and wanted to remodel. Melville, however, loved the age and warmth of this structure and wouldn’t let her change it, going on to write a long semi-humorous essay about his attachment to it, called “I and My Chimney.” (Read “I and My Chimney” here.)
As a wealthy woman, Wharton could design and build her entire home as a work of art that expressed her exquisite taste and design theories. She defied then-current late Victorian taste for dark and heavy-looking interiors, instead creating symmetrical, balanced open spaces decorated with pastel colors, white friezes, and lots of natural light. After designing and building The Mount, she became known not only as a celebrated author but also as the writer of the first published book of American interior design.
Books Books Books!
Above all, these houses were full of books, books, books! There were so many shelves crammed in to so many rooms, upstairs and downstairs, even in the back hall. In our current era, when so many are urging and celebrating a massive downsizing of our possessions and collections, I have felt rather apologetic about all the bookshelves deployed around my house. But no longer! My numerous groaning bookshelves give me a direct human link with the very authors whose works help to fill them.
Wealthy Edith Wharton’s collection, of course, far outpaces me, and all these other authors too. Her wealth allowed her to indulge her bookish tastes by owning 5,000 books, many of which have just been re-purchased by the Edith Wharton Restoration trust to be housed once again on their original shelves.
The only exception to homes with large libraries, naturally enough, was Thoreau’s small cabin on Walden Pond. The original cabin does not exist, but we know what it looked like and what it contained from the replica near the original site, and from Thoreau’s own descriptions in Walden, or Life in the Woods. As the original dweller in the first self-constructed American Tiny Home, who urged on his fellows “Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!” he could not have had a huge library there, though we know for sure he retained a precious copy of Homer’s Iliad:
“I kept Homer’s Iliad on my table through the summer, though I looked at his page only now and then. Incessant labor with my hands, at first, for I had my house to finish and my beans to hoe at the same time, made more study impossible. Yet I sustained myself by the prospect of such reading in future. I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived.”
(Thoreau, Walden, Chapter 3, “Reading”)
Nature Just Out the Door
Though most of these homes were located in small towns, all of them offered views of nature right outside their doors. Now, as I close my eyes to recall our chain of visits to these homes, the view in my mind’s eye is greeny, piney, and tree-ish. Indeed, all of these authors loved Nature. They wrote of drawing inspiration from walking through natural settings or simply sitting still in contemplation of nature’s wonders.
Numerous poems document Emily Dickinson’s love of her garden, which provided her spacious mind a microcosm of the entire created universe. Robert Frost loved to hike; he lived many years in his Vermont Stone House, which included a beautiful forest on the property. Longfellow was raised in a house on the last street in Portland, Maine. The front door opened on a town, but the back door opened on country, since the family owned a farm that stretched a good way out from their back door.
Indeed, if not for the woods, orchards, and waterways near Concord for Louisa May Alcott to run through, or for Emerson to pace while pondering life’s meaning, or for Thoreau to surround himself by, or for Hawthorne to go boating and fishing along, we may never have seen Little Women or “Nature” or Walden or “Young Goodman Brown” come to be. For these authors, nature was the source of serenity, spirituality, and inspiration.
Where and How They Wrote
For me, the highlight of every author’s house tour was seeing where these authors made their magic: the rooms they wrote in, the desks they used, the very views they saw when they lifted a pen to ponder a word choice. Given their mutual love of nature, it’s not surprising that most authors had desks that faced out a window, with views of trees, ponds, or gardens.
Melville, famously, had one of the grandest views, staring out at beautiful Mt. Greylock in the Berkshire Mountains while drafting the great Moby-Dick and his next novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. The mountain’s humpy shape reminded him of whales. Though he dedicated Moby-Dick to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, he dedicated the strange and tormented Pierre to the mountain itself! Read more about that in this NY Times article.
Both Emerson and Frost wrote on tables centered in spacious windowed rooms. Frost faced greenery out the window; Emerson faced his books. Interestingly, Emerson was enamored of rocking chairs, which were scattered throughout the house, his favorite one pulled up to the table as a desk chair.
Edith Wharton, exceptional here as in other ways, did not write at a table or desk but in her bed each morning, relaxing in her dressing gown free from corsets and other restrictions, dropping her pages to the floor as she finished them. However, she was not exceptional in one way: her bedroom had a beautiful natural view, in this case of her lovely manicured gardens and the Berkshire mountains beyond.
Thoreau’s sturdy desk was one of the larger pieces of furniture in his tiny Walden Pond cabin. Alcott, Dickinson, and Hawthorne, on the other hand, wrote on tiny desks that were no more than large shelves projecting from the wall. Alcott’s and Dickinson’s desks faced outward, but Hawthorne’s was tucked next to the cozy study fireplace with his back to the window. He was often dissatisfied with his level of productivity, so perhaps he faced the wall to avoid distractions.
Hawthorne describes his study in his charming introduction to the story collection “Mosses from an Old Manse,” reminding us that Emerson had also written great works in this home during the year he lived with his step-grandfather in this old Emerson family property:
“. . . . [T]here was in the rear of the house the most delightful little nook of a study that ever afforded its snug seclusion to a scholar. It was here that Emerson wrote Nature; for he was then an inhabitant of the Manse, and used to watch the Assyrian dawn and Paphian sunset and moonrise from the summit of our eastern hill. When I first saw the room, its walls were blackened with the smoke of unnumbered years, and made still blacker by the grim prints of Puritan ministers that hung around. . . . They had all vanished now; a cheerful coat of paint and golden-tinted paper-hangings lighted up the small apartment; while the shadow of a willow-tree that swept against the overhanging eaves atempered the cheery western sunshine. In place of the grim prints there was the sweet and lovely head of one of Raphael’s Madonnas, and two pleasant little pictures of the Lake of Como. The only other decorations were a purple vase of flowers, always fresh, and a bronze one containing graceful ferns. My books (few, and by no means choice; for they were chiefly such waifs as chance had thrown in my way) stood in order about the room, seldom to be disturbed.”
Hawthorne, “The Old Manse”
Hours and Hours of Writing
Hawthorne’s description of his years at The Old Manse conveys plainly how sensitive writers can be to their environments, and how carefully they arrange them. As each stop on our author home tour made clear, where these writers wrote was only one factor in their success. One of the biggest contributing factors to their achievements must be, simply, how much they wrote. Indeed, most of these writers wrote and wrote and wrote.
Melville would lock himself in his study for hours. Alcott trained herself to write with both hands, so when her right hand was too tired to go on, she could simply switch to her left. This amazing trick enabled her to put in 14-hour writing sessions, after which she might collapse for days before recovering to go on. I don’t think it’s known exactly how many hours a day Dickinson devoted to her poems, but in the course of 36 years or so, she wrote almost 1800 of them, which has to tally up to many hours each week spent writing. Scholars think she wrote almost a poem a day during her most productive periods.
Meetings of the Minds
Even though these writers spent much time alone, writing or contemplating nature, they were far from isolated from stimulating human minds and relationships. All of them were very well educated and well-read in the latest thinking: science, news, ideas, and literary trends. Most of their homes were full of the latest periodicals and leading publications. Emily Dickinson, who is so often said to have been reclusive and isolated, read extensively among all the latest publications her father brought into their home, in part because he wanted his daughters to be informed.
Besides keeping in touch with contemporary minds through reading, most authors shared and discussed their thoughts, ideas, and lives with each other. Emerson, as founder of the Transcendental school of philosophy, drew truth-seekers from all over the country to visit and confer with him. He was also a kind neighbor and supporter of his intellectual neighbors, providing Thoreau with work and land to build his cabin, living next door to Hawthorne, and inviting a young Louisa May Alcott into his study to talk about his favorite books.
Thoreau amused and talked with Alcott as they took nature walks through the Concord woods. Hawthorne had roomed with Longfellow at Bowdoin College and remained friends with him; it was Hawthorne who gave Longfellow the idea to write about the plight of the Cajuns, which eventually became Longfellow’s poem Evangeline. While living at Arrowhead, Melville met Hawthorne, who was then a fairly close neighbor. For a time the men were good friends who had a world view in common; Hawthorne would often ride on horseback several miles over to Melville’s farm and spend the night in Melville’s small guest room.
Edith Wharton was a very close friend of one of America’s greatest writers, Henry James, and also entertained many writers and thinkers at her small round dining table at The Mount. Robert Frost also sought support among fellow writers; at first unsuccessful at publishing most of his poems in America, he moved his family to London to meet the famous Ezra Pound and his circle. They welcomed and encouraged him, helping him get his first book of poems, A Boy’s Will, published. From that book he went on to publish four American Pulitzer Prize winning books of poetry.
Dickinson the Recluse? Not Exactly. . .
Even Emily Dickinson, though she rarely left her home after 1860, was not truly isolated. Before becoming reclusive, she lived an active life with many friends, who found her witty, informed, and charming. Her brother Austin married one of her best friends, Sue Gilbert; the couple lived right next door. Austin and Sue’s home became the intellectual salon of Amherst. To their sitting room, the couple invited university professors and students from Amherst College, the town’s most intellectual people, and famous visitors to Amherst, such as Emerson. Through her 20s, Dickinson was frequently in their home, conversing and entertaining guests with her piano playing. After she retired behind the closed doors of The Homestead, she kept in close touch with intellectual friends through writing many letters back and forth.
Sources of Genius
Like everyday people, and yet not exactly like them, these authors were set apart by certain things they had in common with each other that not everyone could say they share.
Like me, they lived in their homes, decorating them with objects personally meaningful, worrying about money or familial problems, and enjoying their friends and their families. Also like me, and no doubt some of my readers, they had a deep and abiding love for books, reading and collecting many.
Less like me, and perhaps less like today’s average person, they had a truly intense love, even a personal relationship, with the natural world, looking to nature for peace, solitude, inspiration, and spiritual meaning. They also had an advantage most of us don’t have: each other. Of the writers who lived near one another within the same generation, they conversed, shared, and challenged, giving each other ideas as well as ideas to react against. They also had a staggering devotion to writing, many with a near-obsessive need to write.
The Essence of their Achievements
But I think the overriding quality that all these writers shared is so rare, that it is truly the essence of their great achievements. Unlike most of us, these writers pondered the significance of everything, no matter how slight, trying to look at the experiences and material of life as if no one had ever seen it before.
The smallest object or impression could be meaningful. The most familiar experience could be approached in an entirely original way. While living their lives on a human scale in these pretty homes, these writers’ minds were anything but small. They devoted themselves to search for unique significances, and then to finding the most powerful or winsome ways to communicate their vision to others.
To that dedication we owe thanks for hundreds of literary works we rightly treasure to this day, prized for their beauty and for the ideas both grand and uniquely simple that have become woven into the history of our common mind.
Thanks to my whirlwind tour of their once-intimate spaces, I can now regard these authors less as gods and more as friends speaking at my elbow. Yet paradoxically, I revere their large and uncommon minds no less. Perhaps, though not gods, they have after all partaken a little more of godly nectar than is common, making us all the gainers.
Emerson sketch. Samuel W. Rowse [Public domain].
Melville Arrowhead Sign. By Midnightdreary [Public domain].
Sitting Room of Old Manse. See page for author [Public domain]
Melville portrait. By Joseph O. Eaton and an unknown etcher (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Thoreau photograph. D. Maxham [Public domain].
Alcott photograph. George Kendall Warren (d. 1884); restored by Adam Cuerden [Public domain].
Hawthorne portrait. By Charles Osgood – [Public Domain], via Wikipedia Commons.
All other photos by MJ Booklover.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.