TWO SUMMERS AGO I set out from Clinton, Conn., with my wife and 5-year-old T daughter on a literary pilgrimage around America. I wanted to try to trace, through its landmarks and landscapes, the sprawling map of our nation's fiction, and to pay homage as a novelist to the men and women who created that fiction. I had a grand and very American scheme: I would visit all their homes and countrysides, all their resorts and graves. The AAA shipped me an embarrassingly large crate of tourbooks with a note, "Good luck!!!" My psychiatrist brother sent me a note too; it said, "Are you nuts?"
But nothing, naturally, could be more American than roughing it overland, on the road again; we are all Natty Bumppo's children. And while during my travels, I didn't yet know William Least Heat Moon was following those same blue highways, I did hear behind me that old national call: "Let's go and vagabondize," Melville wrote Hawthorne, and our writers have been doing so since the first words of our first international best-seller, Washington Irving's "Sketch Book," "I was always fond of visiting new scenes." I think Mark Twain must have slept in more beds than George Washington.
The huge wobbly circle of my route led me for two months over 15,000 miles of literary heritage, first south through Poe's Baltimore and Wolfe's Asheville in my native North Carolina; on through Flannery O'Connor's Georgia and into the Alabama heart of the Confederacy, to New Orleans, and then Faulkner's Oxford, Miss. And then up the great river to the Hannibal that still belongs to Mark Twain, and so on across Willa Cather's prairie, out to the West of Bret Harte, Jack London and John Steinbeck.
Finally, I straggled home from Cooperstown, emptied the car of its piles of brochures, ticket stubs, apple cores, and an enormous cairn of souvenir rocks collected by our little girl, changed the tires, and set out again, for we had much of the country's literary map left to explore, because much of it is, of course, in New England. Indeed, I am almost grateful that at the time of my junkets I didn't have available the recently published and awesomely thorough "Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States," which lists thousands of sites I would have felt guilty about missing.
The Connecticut shrines we had already seen in our preliminary forays. On the Sound in New London is Eugene O'Neill's Monte Cristo Cottage, in whose rooms the voices of student actors now echo the unhappy ghosts of the playwright's family. Nook Farm, in Hartford, is a far more cheerful place, and one of the most delightful literary landmarks in the country. There, the gabled house that "Uncle Tom" built for Harriet Beecher Stowe looks across (and perhaps askance) at Mark Twain's 19-room Gilded Age extravaganza--half polychromatic Tudor manor, half ornamental Mississippi steamboat--replete with balconies, conservatory, 17 fireplaces, 5 baths, Venetian chandeliers, Tiffany decor, the billiard room in which he wrote, and his three daughters' rooms where all the furnishings and even the toilet facilities are junior size.
Of course, Twain's house looks a shed to those who've toured the opulent Newport "cottages" in neighboring Rhode Island. Along Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive are the mansions of the robber barons--Vanderbilt's The Breakers and Marble House, where "The Great Gatsby" was filmed--that we have visited in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James. James himself was a great visitor of fine houses and had his own room at Wharton's The Mount in the Massachusetts' Berkshires. The grounds and Italian villa of this exquisite estate are still in the process of restoration, but the guides are happy to take visitors through its salons and terraces.
Here, as everywhere across the country, I found the custodians of our literary homes not only welcoming but warmly enthusiastic to share their knowledge about "their" writer--with whom they have lived so long that they are often on a first-name basis. It was initially disconcerting to be shown "Herman's bed" when I visited Melville's farm Arrowhead in Pittsfield, a few miles east of Wharton's home. It was in the pleasant study here, looking out over pastures to hump-backed Mount Greylock, that Melville wrote "Moby Dick." It was from here that he rode to call on Oliver Wendell Holmes at nearby Canoe Meadows, and to chat with the Hawthornes at Red Cottage in the scenic mountain spot Hawthorne named Tanglewood. The American Lake District of the Berkshires is only one of the hundreds of literary landscapes in Massachusetts. In fact, if we except New York City, there are probably more here than in any other state. (No doubt, natives would tell you that's because they produced more literature than any other state.)
If I had to choose for time-pressed pilgrims a half-dozen of the locales we toured in Massachusetts, I would add to the Berkshires the handsome brick house with white portico in Amherst in which Emily Dickinson spent her life on the "prickly art of housekeeping" and the extraordinary art of the 1,775 poems her sister found in her dresser drawer after her death. Spend another afternoon at Fruitlands, 30 miles west of Boston, where Bronson Alcott built his Utopian commune beside a Shaker community, and where the "Con-sociates" nearly starved (as Emerson had predicted and as Alcott's daughter Louisa May describes in her gently facetious "Transcendental Wild Oats") because they would not disturb the bugs in the fruit trees and would not burden animals with the plow--Bronson did let his wife try pulling it herself for a while.
Take a walk through Boston's Beacon Hill, where the literary Brahmins from Alcott to James lived, and then stop at the Parker House, home of the Saturday Club (whose members included Emerson, Holmes, Lowell, Howells, Dana and Hawthorne). Walk down Brattle Street in neighboring Cambridge; tour Longfellow's lavishly Victorian home, and then stroll among the handsome tombs of Mount Auburn Cemetery where most of the Saturday club is buried. Next, visit the 18th-century seaport of Salem. In the Custom House beside Derby Wharf, Hawthorne's desk still looks just as he described it in the opening of "The Scarlet Letter." Overlooking the harbor is the gloomy House of the Seven Gables with its hidden panel to a secret stairway. Next door is Hawthorne's birthplace, and down the street the old burial yard where lies his grim Puritan ancestor cursed by the woman he sentenced to burn as a witch.
South down the coast in New Bedford (and across the street from a whaling museum with a replica of a whaling ship that visitors may board) is Seamen's Bethel, the church from whose ship's-prow pulpit Father Mapple in "Moby Dick" preaches his sermon. From there, drive out along Cape Cod (Thoreau walked it), and take a ferry to Nantucket; out of its port Ahab's "Pequod" sailed in pursuit of the white whale. The Jared Coffin house in town still serves excellent food, though it is rather more expensive than it was when Melville and Hawthorne stayed there.
And that leaves the little village of Concord, the Florence of the American Renaissance. Here on Authors Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (the closest we come to a national literary pantheon) are, together, the graves of Thoreau and the Alcotts, Emerson and Hawthorne. Below the Ridge are all their homes, very much as they were when Thoreau chopped wood in Emerson's backyard, and May Alcott (Amy of "Little Women") painted pictures on her bedroom walls, while in the next room Louisa scribbled stories, and out in the barn their father gave Transcendental lectures.
Down the street from the Alcotts' Orchard House, the Hawthornes lived in the Wayside, which the Alcotts had sold them, and which their heirs sold to the novelist Margaret Sidney. In earlier, poorer and happier days, the Hawthornes had rented from Emerson's relatives the Old Manse, beside that rude bridge that arched the flood where the embattled farmers stood. "Mosses from the Old Manse" was written in the same study in which Emerson composed "Nature." In this remarkable setting, only one house is missing--the little cabin Thoreau built for himself on the shore of Walden Pond. There is a replica at the Thoreau Lyceum, but the true monument to the man who "went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately" is the high mound of pebbles and rocks piled by thousands of pilgrims on the clearing where his small shelter stood.
The literary associations of northern New England (New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine) are far less dense, and perhaps less well known, and often recreational: Washington Irving went to the White Mountains in New Hampshire for the same reasons people go today--the natural beauty and cool summers. Of course, it takes a Hawthorne to write "The Ambitious Guest" after climbing Crawford Notch, and "The Great Stone Face" after viewing the Old Man of the Mountains near Franconia.
Probably no one but an absolute idolizer of Robert Frost would tour Vermont and New Hampshire solely to track down literary landmarks, traveling all the way to Lake Winnepesaukee to see the marker in Central Harbor where the pine tree used to be that Whittier wrote his poems under, or the plaque in nearby Plymouth where the inn in which Hawthorne died once stood. Anyone who is already visiting the quaintly perfect village of Woodstock may note that Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson got divorced there, and those stopping at Dartmouth College may recall that Fitzgerald got drunk there during the Winter Carnival he was supposed to be scouting for a movie script. But while the memories of writers are rich in these states, they are probably best seen in passing on a summer's drive across the southern border.
Starting on Route 9 in western Vermont at Bennington College (where Auden, Malamud and Ellison have taught), we passed Frost's Grave in the Old First Church Cemetery in Old Bennington, and crossed over the Green Mountains to Brattleboro where, of all people, Rudyard Kipling lived for years in The Naulahka, a mammoth shingled lodge of his own designing, overlooking the Connecticut River Valley. There, secluded gardens, English servants in redcoat livery, and his own personal post office protected his privacy while he wrote "The Jungle Book."
Over the river in central New Hampshire looms Mount Monadnock, on whose summit Thoreau spent the night, and near whose base, in Jaffrey Center, Willa Cather is buried. To the east is Wilton where all those Boston Brahmins with three names (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Dean Howells) resorted, when they weren't off shore on the Isle of Shoals hobnobbing with Thomas Wentworth Higginson (famous for loyally misunderstanding Emily Dickinson's poetry).
To the west are Dublin Lake where Mark Twain and Amy Lowell took vacations (separately, of course), and beyond that e.e. cummings' Joy Farm on Silver Lake. In this region is the 500-acre MacDowell Colony in Petersborough; invited artists are provided in cabins with the three necessities of life--bed, board, and quiet. Thornton Wilder, who wrote "Our Town" there, is said to have modeled his Grover's Corners on Petersborough.
Vermont and New Hampshire are Robert Frost's domain; he taught at schools and colleges throughout the region, and was fond of buying local farms, several of which are open to the public. East in Derry is "Frosty Acres" where he lived from age 28 to 36, milking his cows at midnight, and writing poems like "Mending Wall" and "West-Running Brook" while learning he could not make a living as a farmer. In western Vermont, near South Shaftsbury, are two more farms. Further north, in Ripton, is his last home, the Homer Noble Farm; pilgrims can drive to it from Middlebury College and Bread Loaf on the Robert Frost Memorial Drive, then picnic at the Robert Frost Wayside. Area, then hike the Robert Frost Interpretative Trail through white birches and little brooks and plaques quoting his verses posted along the way. Poems are also posted down the path of the nature walk beside his farm north of Franconia in central New Hampshire, which serves as an arts center and a museum for the poet's memorabilia.
Well Frosted by now, we started on the surprisingly long trek across New Hampshire and Maine towards the ocean. (The best roads in upper New England run north/south, not east/west. Only in summer should one even try to go sideways.) We travelled past Chocura in the Ossippee Mountains where a grief-stricken Henry James sprinkled the ashes of his brother William into a stream, and headed for Maine. Anyone coming east from New Hampshire on route 302 on a summer Sunday can jog over to Raymond and tour Hawthorne's boyhood home in what was then a forest wilderness. Another jog takes you to Gardiner and Edwin Arlington Robinson's home at 67 Lincoln Avenue; his ashes are in a nearby cemetery beneath the hill where Mr. Flood and Miniver Cheevy drank.
After a visit with Maine friends at what they called their "camp" (three wonderful big-porched houses) on what they called a "pond" (a huge lake), we started down the coast from Bar Harbor on Route 1 and stopped at the Whitehall Inn in Camden, snug below Mount Battie on Penobscot Bay. It was here that the young Edna St. Vincent Millay first recited "Renascence" at the hotel's summer party, so impressing a guest that he helped arrange to send her to Vassar; in the parlor are Millay scrapbooks, manuscripts and photographs.
Further south, near Thomaston, is a lavishly appointed replica of Montpelier, the estate of Henry Knox, George Washington's youngest general and brightest strategist, and presumably the model for General Pyncheon in "The House of the Seven Gables." Continuing along Route 1, passing Boothbay Harbor where Thomas Wolfe vacationed, we came into Brunswick, home of Hawthorne and Longfellow's alma mater, Bowdoin College, where Calvin Stowe taught while his wife was writing "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the inspiration for which came to her during a (probably long) sermon at First Parish Congregational Church. Her home is now a restaurant named "Harriet's Place." In Portland, Longfellow's boyhood home may be toured, and in nearby South Berwick are houses open to the public that are associated with the fine regionalist Sarah Orne Jewett.
At the southern tip of Maine cluster the coastal resorts to which writers fled in summers when the Hamptons were still potato fields: Booth Tarkington to Kennebunkport; Sinclair Lewis to Ogunquit; in Kittery Point, William Dean Howells, who vacationed in so many places and visited so many friends (as he tells us in "Literary Friends and Acquaintance") that I'm astonished he got any work done. I know I've spent two years now on the trail of those acquaintance, and the writers who came before, and those who followed after, and still I have miles to go before I sweep my notes into print.
Yet to follow in the path of such vagabondizers is to come close to the America whose landscape they created and whose people they imagined. And as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about this country's dream, "if I came at the end of it, that too is a place in the line of the pioneers."