Inside the Homes of Famous Authors
Writerly abodes, from Mark Twain’s house to Edgar Allan Poe’s cottage.
Half a century after the Brönte sisters died, Virginia Woolf took a trip to the north of England to the village of Haworth to see the house they lived in. Still full of the Bröntes’ possessions, it had become a tourist attraction, but Woolf was a skeptical visitor. Why, she pondered, would it be helpful or important to visit the home of a dead writer? She thought it might be a pointless journey. But then she found herself surprisingly moved by an oak sitting stool that had belonged to Emily Brönte, author of Wuthering Heights. Woolf imagined her out on the windy moors with her stool, taking it with her to write or “to think what was probably better than her writing.” Somehow this insight had made the journey worthwhile.
I love visiting writers’ houses. I have tramped across the Brönte sisters’ moors (Church St., Haworth, Yorkshire; bronte.info), stood in Edgar Allan Poe’s basement (532 N. 7th St., Philadelphia; nps.gov) and got teary-eyed at the sight of Emily Dickinson’s cherry bureau, where she hid more than 800 poems ($ 280 Main St., Amherst, Massachusetts; emilydickinsonmuseum.org). I’ve visited Flannery O’Connor’s aviary—she was particularly fond of peacocks (US Hwy. 441, Milledgeville, Georgia; andalusiafarm.org)—and stared at the typewriter used by Margaret Mitchell to write Gone with the Wind (990 Peachtree St., Atlanta; margaretmitchellhouse.com).
In 2010 I realized there wasn’t a good website that listed the locations of all these houses. So I created WritersHouses.com, a resource for people like me who wanted to visit and learn about these places. It’s a labor of love and a constant work in progress. Every writer’s house open to the public in the United States is on the site. And it’s not just for bookworms. Trips to writers’ houses offer something for everyone, and the great homes of New England are a fantastic place to start. Edith Wharton’s grand estate, The Mount (2 Plunkett St.; edithwharton.org), in Lenox, Massachusetts, has lovely grounds that include the writer’s strange pet cemetery. I learned there that she preferred to write in bed. She would toss her papers on the floor and have an assistant pick up and organize them for her.
For design snobs, I’d recommend Mark Twain’s gingerbread cottage in Hartford, Connecticut, which is rich with details of early-American interiors, including Louis Comfort Tiffany wall designs (351 Farmington Ave.; marktwainhouse.com). Twain had the foresight to hire Tiffany before he became famous for his lamps.
New Yorkers in the mood for a bit of urban exploring can make a day trip to Edgar Allan Poe’s home in the Bronx ($ Poe Park, Fordham, New York; 718-881-8900; bronxhistoricalsociety.org). The master of the macabre spent the last few years of his tragic life in this quaint farmhouse cottage, which now sits in a public park. Elephant House—the Cape Cod cottage of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey (8 Strawberry Ln., Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts; edwardgoreyhouse.org)—is chock-full of strange and anthropological specimens and objects, among them small skulls, salt and pepper shakers, artworks and African rings. You can see one of his famous fur coats on display. Later in his life, Gorey felt guilty about his penchant for fur and, as recompense, allowed a family of raccoons to live in his attic. For me, these moments at writers’ houses are sweet and poignant, sad and true. They offer rare access to the lives that make American literature rich and vibrant.
Edward Gorey House: Gorey lived at Strawberry Lane in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, from his late fifties onward. He died in the house in 2000, bequeathing to his friend Rick Jones, now museum director, the hand of a mummy he’d brought in his move from Manhattan, having left the rest of the mummy behind.
Mark Twain House: Newlyweds Olivia and Mark began building this Hartford, Connecticut, house in 1873. He set up his office in the billiard room, laying out manuscripts on the pool table for editing. His most famous books, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, were written during these years.
Edgar Allan Poe’s Cottage: Built in 1812, this cottage in the Bronx, New York, briefly housed Poe and his young wife, who died from typhoid. The author spent the last years of his life here, wandering the woods and nearby riverfront. His posthumously published poem The Bells is thought to be a reference to those from the nearby Fordham University bell tower.
Emily Dickinson Homestead: This 1813 homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, was built by Dickinson’s grandfather. My friend, novelist Alexander Chee, recommends a visit to the nearby Montague Bookmill ($ 440 Greenfield Rd.; montaguebookmill.com), a used-book shop and café based in a 19th-century riverbank grain mill.
Pilgrimage, Random House. Annie Leibovitz’s emotive work focuses on the things we have left: the houses of Louisa May Alcott and Virginia Woolf, the view from Emerson’s window, Freud’s couch. “We don’t know Thoreau, do we?” the photographer asks. “We have only his work, and his things.”
Elephant House: The Home of Edward Gorey, Pomegranate Communications. Friend and photographer Kevin McDermott visited the house immediately following Gorey’s death in 2000 to document the surreal domestic landscapes Gorey had created. Forward by John Updike.
Edith Wharton at Home: Life on the Mount, The Monacelli Press. New this month, the coffee-table book presents Wharton’s domestic life as it explores the writer’s design of her iconic estate in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium, Belknap Press. As an adolescent, Dickinson pressed more than 400 specimens from her garden and collected them in her exquisite herbarium. She said once that she was raised in a garden: This jewel-box volume offers a rare glimpse into her life and passions. —Maud Doyle
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