Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Sunday Question

What was your most memorable literary pilgrimage?

In a previous life, I worked part-time at the Old Creamery Grocery in Cummington, MA to support my writing habit. While there, I instituted a few fun, quirky diversions for customers. The most popular and long-lived was The Sunday Question. I would choose a (hopefully) thought-provoking question, and ask everyone who came up to the register for their answer, then record and post them as a matter of interest. I tried to alternate the serious with the nostalgic with the downright silly. I asked customers to name the best gift they’d ever received, one thing they would do to save the world, the kitchen utensil they couldn’t live without. After people got used to being asked to actually think and speak when they came up to the register, it was a hit. People would come in just to weigh in on the Sunday Question.

So, in the same spirit, I’d like to begin asking you all a literary Sunday Question every week.

Today, I write from a hotel in North Adams, MA, where my beau Sparky and I are having a weekend mini-break, going to museums (MassMoca, the Clark) when we are not eating, sleeping or reading. Driving through Pittsfield yesterday afternoon, we went by Herman Melville’s farmhouse, Arrowhead, and I started musing about all the literary pilgrimages I’ve taken. And this morning, I open up the New York Times to pull out all the fun sections, and the first thing I see is a photo of Emily Dickinson’s Homestead in Amherst shot in the gloaming, light blazing from her second floor aerie. I take it as a sign. My first Sunday Question will be: What was your most memorable literary pilgrimage?

Of course, in western Massachusetts we are particularly blessed. You can hardly set your foot where some writer has not stepped before you. I live in Wilbraham,which is usually only known as the home of Friendly Ice Cream, and even there, H. P. Lovecraft visited for extended periods of time in the 1920’s. He suposedly set one of his most famous stories, The Dunwich Horror, on Wilbraham Mountain. Amherst has the Emily Dickinson Homestead and Robert Frost Trail. Great Barrington can claim the W.E.B. Dubois boyhood home. Melville and Hawthorne first met on a picnic in Stockbridge, where Hawthorne rented a cottage (I think sadly lost to time, or at least not open to the public). The aforementioned Arrowhead, set amongst the whale-backed hills near Greylock, was where Melville wrote Moby Dick. I’ve written in Edith Wharton’s bedroom at The Mount, had tea overlooking her extensive gardens. A little further afield in Hartford, CT is the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe compound. And in Brattleboro, VT, Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book. His home, Naulakha, is owned by the National Trust of Britain, and can be rented by the week.

I think my best literary pilgrimage, though, was in England. First, to the British Library where I wandered around ogling hand-written manuscripts. Ulysses was big and very messy, I remember, but Jane Eyre was tiny and beautiful, looking like the words flowed from Charlotte Bronte’s pen without a blotch or stain. (It amazes me in this world of easy cut and paste that writers copied their work over and over until they got it right. It amazes me that any books got written at all.)
After London, I took trains then buses up to Yorkshire, to the tiny cobblestoned town of Haworth, and the Bronte’s Parsonage. It was a revelation. The beauty of the moors on the lovely stretch of spring days I wandered there. The isolation. The parsonage itself with gravestones nearly leaning against it like broken teeth.The black leather sofa where Emily breathed her last. And all the young Japanese girls, swooning everywhere. Charlotte, particularly, was a cult figure in Japan. You’d be lightly tripping o’er the moors and come upon signs in Japanese, tasteful signs, but even so. There were no signs in English. I guess native English speakers were just supposed to know whereTop Withins is (the inspiration for the Earnshaw farm in Wuthering Heights).
Altogether, it was an incredibly inspiring trip. Oh, and for your info, I just checked out the Bronte Parsonage Museum website, and they’re having
a writing contest -- poetry, short story, or essay inspired by the Bronte’s lives. The deadline is January 2011. I think I’ll go for it.

What about you all? Write a comment describing your fave literary pilgrimage site. John Steinbeck’s Salinas? Hemingway’s Paris? Eudora Welty’s Jackson? Let us know...

~ Chrysler


Elaine Vega said...

My most memorable literary pilgrimage was in 1995 to the Jack Kerouac Commemorative in Lowell, Ma. As a single parent, I often had second jobs to make ends meet and that year I had a part-time job as an inspector of apartments that were subsidized by the state. I loved the freedom to explore obscure communities and to schedule my own time. This job took me to Lowell, the birthplace of the author who egged on my rebellious spirit well past my teens. I was determined to fit in a visit to his memorial.
I had two apartment buildings to inspect that day located on opposite ends of the city. Luckily they were owned by the same partnership and the two principles, both businessmen in their 40’s, were inexplicably excited about meeting me at one building and taking me to the other. They were equally (and almost as bafflingly) excited about showing me Lowell.
When I told them that I was most interested in seeing the Jack Kerouac Commemorative I really didn’t expect them to know what I was talking about. But they enthusiastically brought me downtown to Kearney Square and the three of us stood, finally in silence, in awe before eight triangular marble columns inscribed with the poetry that is Kerouac’s prose.
Allen Ginsberg once said that the commemorative "would remind everybody that there once was a soul." My two escorts seemed as transfixed as I was before the evidence of this unique soul, standing in the heart of this Massachusetts mill town.

Santha said...

Ernest Hemingway, Key West. Homestead to countless felines and a studio office kept precisely the way it was left.