Windows on their worlds

From Thoreau’s pond and Hawthorne’s gables to Hardy’s study and the Brontës’ moors: Dale Salwak draws on his own literary pilgrimages to open students’ eyes to the sense of place underpinning great literature

May 10, 2012

When I announced in one of my literature classes that I needed to spend a week in Concord, Massachusetts, to complete a chapter for a book I was writing, one student said, “Why bother? That’s why we have the internet. You can do your research that way and save yourself a lot of time and money.”

Although expressed completely without guile, that student’s seemingly practical acceptance of the computer over see-touch-feel strangely disquieted me. I told him: “I’m going there because life is not found on the bloodless internet. Life is found in the place.”

For decades, acting on this belief has deepened my insights into the reading and study of authors whose work becomes better illuminated by experiencing first-hand the physical spaces they knew and drew from.

I want to see the fully textured physical and psychic landscape - its warp and woof - where some of my favourite poems, essays and novels were conceived and written. I want to see the beds the writers slept in, the tables where they ate, the desks they wrote at, the halls they paced and the windows they must have stared through when the words didn’t come.

Because some of my students are indifferent to their literary heritage and the magic of books and the places they render, and because few of them have either the means or the opportunity for travel, I have sought in my classes for many years to use my own experiences of place to clarify topics and provide context for our discussions.

Every journey outward is a journey inward. My students might know what the lines of poetry or the scenes in novels say and suggest, but I want them to move beyond the verbal surface of what they read. Only by standing where the authors have stood do we bring home the physical realities of their lives and times. Perhaps even more important, only then do we connect our own experience of reality with the one they strove to create in their work.

I tell them of my unabashedly romantic pilgrimage to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s two-storey clapboard mansion where, with the curator’s permission, I touched the bed on which the “sage of Concord” had drawn his last breath; or upstairs at Orchard House where I lingered at the semicircular fold-down shelf-desk upon which Louisa May Alcott had composed Little Women in 10 weeks; or the Church of the First Parish from which I walked to Author’s Ridge atop Sleepy Hollow cemetery while imagining the funeral processions for Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau.

Memory and imagination - the indispensable tools of writers - are sheltered inside the walls of homes, says Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space. We never know what hints, pointers, suggestions or promises we will discover about our readings, our thoughts and dreams, when we analyse the homes and environs where some of the richest minds in history created their work.

Surrounded by their space, we may catch a glimpse, as they once did, of humanity in its depths. “Behind every door,” writes Anna Quindlen in Imagined London: A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City, “there are stories, behind every one ghosts.”

And so I describe for my students the powerful resonance I felt within the brick-built walls of Chawton Cottage, where from the flurry of family life young Jane Austen collected impressions later used to build the interior scenes for Pride and Prejudice. The novelist Barbara Pym mentions running her hand over Jane’s desk, wiping off the dust, and thinking, “Oh that some of her genius might rub off on me!”

I relate how upon entering Max Gate villa, Dorchester, I sensed the pain, the isolation, in the two miserable attic rooms where Emma Lavinia Gifford lived and died while her husband, Thomas Hardy, wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure in the study directly beneath.

And I reveal how I stood at noontime at the approximate spot where, in 1941, Virginia Woolf had left her hat and cane on the ground, placed large stones in her overcoat pockets, and walked to her death in the River Ouse near her home in Sussex. This connected me emotionally, I explain, to the reverberating undercurrent of suicide by drowning in her last lyrical novel, Between the Acts, particularly the lines: “Water, for hundreds of years, had silted down into the hollow, and lay there four or five feet deep over a black cushion of mud…fish swam - gold, splashed with white…poised in the blue patch made by the sky…It was in that deep centre, in that black heart, that the lady had drowned herself.”

Discussions that follow provoke useful questions as we speculate about the ways geography and place may have informed literature. What does it mean, for example, to say that Dickens will forever be tied to London as Evelyn Waugh is to Oxford or as Emily Bronte is to the Yorkshire moors behind Haworth Parsonage and as Shakespeare is to Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire?

Every place has an open-ended question inside it. What was going on in Wordsworth’s mind as he sat lost in nostalgic contemplation in the green seclusion of the Lake District? His poems capture the spirit of the locale, but if we really wish to grasp the poet’s inner knowledge of the work’s landscape we must visit there, as I have done, and experience in this privileged place the deep, fairy-tale mystery the poet himself felt.

No website or video can capture this magic: the shaded, plain wooden bench perched on a path above the garden; the buzz of bees feasting on nearby apple and wild rose; the warm breeze wafting gently from the valley spread out below, bearing with it the cleansing scent of fresh-mown hay.

It’s my hope that discussions such as these will not only engage my students but, ultimately, prompt them to set out with high expectations on their own journeys to make an on-site connection with important writers. Seeing the mantel in the room where Hemingway wrote or the pond Thoreau lived by, for example, just might kindle or renew an interest in the books that resulted.

My love of place goes back to 1957 when as a youngster I made my first journey with my family to Salem, Massachusetts. In a bookshop I picked up a small blue copy of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables from a table, opened to the start of chapter one, read the first sentence, and knew I had to have it: “Halfway down a by-street of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst.”

Having just come from visiting the house, the passage struck a very deep chord within me. When I returned to Salem, after an absence of four years, I realised in the silence of my heart how the dark ancestral house remained to the syllable the scene Hawthorne had described. I can still connect the novel with my memories of its musty smells and haunting sounds and sights, and when I return, as I now do every two years, I find there the shadows of my former self.

I kept my copy of that volume, published by Classic Books, with my pencilled annotations in the margins and endpapers. Since then I have been immensely curious about this enigmatic, shy, consummate artist whose solitude and mystery and marriage to Sophia attract thousands of visitors to his homes in Salem and Concord annually.

There is another, more personal reason for my love of place. The day Hemingway died, my father said, “Well, there’s someone I won’t meet.” And so he did the next best thing, encountering him through the words about him by other writers and the places he’d lived and worked.

Now being able to visit where Hemingway spent his days in Key West, Florida, moves me to think about the critical spirit as we learn that he did the majority of his work while here, including A Farewell to Arms. Standing at his gravesite in Ketchum, Idaho, I realise this will be the closest I’ll ever get to shaking his hand.

To some of my colleagues all this is but a fool’s errand, a snooping obsession bordering on literary idolatry. “What if the places aren’t accurate?” someone says. “What if the guides aren’t telling the truth?”

It doesn’t matter. After I visit these places I itch to read the books again because the reading will be infused by a new, more pungent essence that emanates from experiencing their homes and villages. No matter how much altered by time, the places these authors captured and drew from continue to live in their work.

“Our emotions are somehow stirred in those places,” said Cicero, “in which the feet of those whom we love and admire have trodden.”

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