LITERARY SHRINES HAVE ALWAYS been sources of pride in England and France. The shortest stroll through London or Paris will pass buildings marked by commemorative plaques discreetly reminding you that Smollett or Carlyle, or Balzac or Colette lived and worked here.
In America it has been different. The homes of authors have taken second, or fifth or tenth place to Niagara Falls, Painted Deserts, hourly geysers and the homes of movie stars and ex-presidents. Returning to his native New York early in the century, Henry James wistfully noted that the house just off Washington Square in which he had been born was not only without a plaque-- "tablets in New York are unthinkable"-- but the house itself was quite simply gone-- "rudely, relentlessly suppressed."
That was in 1905. Since then things have improved. Perhaps the fact of celebrating our 200th birthday has awakened a greater interest in our surviving landmarks. Perhaps there is a delayed reaction to what Gertrude Stein once called "the disembodied abstract quality of the American character." We are hungry for concrete details, substantive evidence, hard facts about who we are and about the voices that have spoken for us.
In any case-- thanks to Leon Edel-- a plaque has been affixed to the building now standing where Henry James' birth-house once stood. Another appeared on the facade of the lower Fifth Avenue hotel where Willa Cather once sang (though it mysteriously disappeared two years ago). And now, we have a sudden quartet of books-- all eager and lively, courteous and reverent-- about our literary geography and the habitats of American writers from (chronologically) Anne Bradstreet to James Agee and (alphabetically) Sherwood Anderson to Edith Wharton.
For motorists who may have the gasoline as well as the ardor to make literary pilgrimages this year, the three volumes of A Literary Tour Guide to The United States are ideal, even essential. They are densely detailed, sometimes capriciously, even endearingly so, as when we are told that "Constance Fenimore Woolson took her invalid mother to St. Augustine in 1873." They include practical driving directions, with telephone numbers and names of present-day occupants of the houses in question. And their indices also appear to omit no name known to the annals of American authorship, with the odd exception of Gertrude Stein, who was not only born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh), but lived in San Francisco, Baltimore and Cambridge before settling in Paris. (Surely, too, there should be a plaque on the door of whatever Radcliffe dormitory Gertrude occupied that "very lovely spring day" when she declined to take a philosophy examination under William James and was rewarded by receiving "the highest mark in the course.")
Stephanie Kraft's book is something else, offering a more selective tour -- she discusses the homes of 30 writers -- and a more personal tone. Trying to be regionally fair, she has to exclude a number of big fish-- Herman Melville, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Sarah Orne Jewett-- on the grounds that they over represent New England. At the same time, she includes some relative minnows: Owen Wister (author of The Virginian and that famous rejoinder, "When you call me that, smile"), Eugene Field, James Whitcomb Riley, and Laura Ingalls Wilder (author of books which are the sources of television's Little House on the Prairie) who are of less literary than sociological, or sentimental interest.
But the special virtue of Kraft's book is its intimate, even autobiographical flavor. The late Paul Goodman (whose Westside Manhattan walkup, incidentally, should receive a plaque of its own one of these days, Goodman being a sort of urban Thoreau) once wrote: "The exact spot where the poet sat and wrote the poem has the same virtue as a saint's relic. Go there."
Which is what Kraft did. In the spring of 1978, with her photographer husband and her 6-year-old daughter, she set out in a red and white VW camper van to box the literary compass of America. Before they came home again, they had seen Emerson's modestly patrician house in Concord, with its freestanding bookshelves that could be thrown out of the window, one by one, in case of fire; Hemingway's "decrepit, Spanish colonial mansion" in Key West, with the swimming pool he claimed had cost him his last cent, in proof of which he had a copper penny cemented into the poolside deck; the gravely pillared facade of Faulkner's Rowan Oak, with the office wall on which the scribbled outline of A Fable may still be read; Robinson Jeffers' stonily aloof Tor House and Hawk Tower, built by the poet himself with the help of local masons from granite boulders hauled up from the beach at Carmel; the descendants of Flannery O'Connor's pet peacocks in Milledgeville, Georgia; Walt Whitman's self-designed tomb in Camden, New Jersey; and Mark Twain's "Gilded Age" mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, with its Tiffany decorated walls, its 18 fireplaces and an upstairs porch shaped like a Mississippi riverboat; all evidence, in Kraft's hands, for the loving defense and tender understanding of that curious species, Scribblarius Americanus, which Thornton Wilder once characterized as "insubmissive, lonely, self-educated and polite."
The resulting book-- 30 short, unacademic portraits of authors, their books and the rooms they wrote in-- is both a practical guide and gently suggestive reading for those who prefer to take their pilgrimages vicariously rather than in the flesh. I read it one chilly fogbound evening on Martha's Vineyard, sipping apple brandy in front of a smoldering driftwood fire, and finished after midnight, at once refreshed and moved by the spectacle of all the brave gifted loners who have made our literature what it is over the past two centuries.
Aloneness, in fact, or lonesomeness, the sense of not belonging, is, to my mind at least, the most significant element that distinguishes Americans-- writers or otherwise-- from their European cousins. In this respect, Kraft's book has had, for me at least, a palliative value. Thanks to her, for instance, I have had the small, egocentric, but succinct pleasure of learning that when Henry James visited America in 1905, he stayed with Edith Wharton's sister-in-law on New York's East 11th Street, just beyond the windows of my own apartment, 75 years later, on East 12th; moreover, that Hart Crane-- an arch loner if there ever was one-- rented a room in a house only a few doors farther east about the time I was born. I don't know precisely why, but this knowledge makes me feel much less lonesome.