I was a reluctant pilgrim. Standing there in awe and terror as my buddy O'Connor pounded the great man's door, I thought--there has to be a more civilized way of doing this. An admiring letter with a subtle request for an invitation? A well-planned chance encounter on the streets of Sag Harbor? O'Connor knocked again. This was barbaric. I was ready to run. John Steinbeck might be on the other side of the door, might open it, and I would be turned to stone.
But I was also ready to go for another reason. Being there, seeing the stand of trees around the house, the cove where his boat swung at anchor, the scene, in fact, from the wonderful opening of "Travels With Charley," when a hurricane is bearing down on the author's home--this was enough, just to see it. The pilgrim doesn't expect to see the saint, and probably wouldn't be able to handle the vision if it occurred. To walk where the saint walked is the blessing.
I was 18 then--just. Saints, pilgrimages and visions were easy to apply to writers, scenes and books. Before I could get my feet moving, a beautiful woman opened the door, saying Mr. Steinbeck was not in. But then we saw him behind her and O'Connor called to him. He came over and spoke with us for a minute. I mumbled something, but O'Connor was eloquent, saying he had read all his books, it was a privilege to shake his hand. O'Connor, who, the day before, seeing me reading "East of Eden," had asked, "Any good?" (meaning, Any sex?), who handled a book in the manner of non-readers the world over, turning it in his hands, wondering where the way into the thing might be.
"Nice guy," he said as we drove away. "Got the big bucks."
I looked at the house, the trees, the glint of water. It may have been a time-killing goof for O'Connor, but he'd started my steps on the road. Since then, wherever I am, I go to writers' houses. The only condition is they must be dead.
Not long ago I was walking a path curving up along the bluff overlooking the bay at Laugharne, South Wales. The path is called Dylan's Way and leads to the writing shed and "sea shaken" house where Dylan Thomas lived with his family, wrote and was happy the last few years of his life. Below, the bay was calm, there were wind sounds and soft waves, and across the way, I realized with a start of pleasure, was wooded Sir John's Hill, which Thomas saw whenever he looked up from his work. It was here, looking at Sir John's Hill, where he heard "Death clear as a buoy's bell." And here, where he wrote,
It is the heron and I, under judging Sir John's elmed
Hill, tell-tale the knelled
Of the led-astray birds whom God, for their breast of whistles,
Have mercy on . . .
John Ackerman, author of the best interpretation of led-astray Dylan, wrote that "Over Sir John's Hill" and several other poems are "marked by retrospection and meditation as well as allegory, so that a particular landscape may become legendary."
I once lived in a whole city of legend. That was Dublin in the late '70s, and now I know what Hemingway meant about the moveable feast. I was a young man, lucky, and it has stayed with me wherever I've gone. Dublin is a Vatican of literary holy sites, the Martello Tower, Sandycove, the most venerated. Joyce lived there briefly in 1904 with Oliver St. John Gogarty and an armed English lunatic. The latter dreamed of black panthers and would open fire on them in his sleep, ricocheting bullets around the stone walls of the round tower, badly rattling pots and pans and the nerves of young James.
I went out to Sandycove one summer morning, and it was there that the humor of pilgrimage began to crowd out the transcendental. In those days, the tower was a bit haphazard and pleasantly ramshackle, like Dublin itself. A bit of half-done, could-care-less. At the top were views of the "snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea," where Buck Mulligan blasphemed to the morning sky. The exhibits below were strange, and one wondered if the cause was just Irish eccentricity and carelessness at work, or Dublin jackeens having a laugh. For example, one of the featured exhibits was Joyce's tie. It was in a dusty glass case, presented as reverentially as the thigh bone of an ancient abbot--or, at the very least, a bun in Bewley's of Grafton Street. There were two young Irishmen in shabby suits supposedly in charge of the museum, both smoking, drinking tea, ignoring everyone. A couple was studying the tie in its case, rapt. This, they must have been thinking, was once around his neck.
In London, I found Dr. Johnson's house by chance, wandering off Fleet Street and into the 18th century of Gough Square. Here the drill was quiet, reserve and intense worship. Visitors were greeted by a severely composed young woman whispering, "Welcome to Dr. Johnson's house." Upstairs, where the first comprehensive English dictionary was written between 1749 and 1759, it was even more quiet. Suddenly there was raucous noise on the stairs, heavy boots, a loud voice, saying, "C'mon, we'll see what's up here." Into the room strode a man in his sixties, big-chested, fresh from a beery lunch, wearing a white windbreaker over a red shirt. Emblazoned on the back was a large American flag. He turned to the stairs and shouted, "Up here, Diane, come on up." He looked around as his wife, with the same windbreaker, same flag, huffed into the room. The man approached me. Other true believers were making for the stairs in shock. I would have followed, but he was on me too quickly.
"What's this?" he boomed. I told him a little about the place. "A dictionary! You never think of someone sittin' down and writing a dictionary, do you?" He was delighted. And it wasn't just that he could tell people about it back in Tulsa. He was looking around. He was beginning to feel it. Hooked.
I visited Hemingway's house in Key West while attending a January literary seminar devoted to him. It was an odd mix of serious scholarship, cornball Americana and staying up all night for a week. There were panel discussions, slide shows, films, papers read, a George Plimpton fireworks show and a Hemingway look-alike contest at Sloppy Joe's, Hemingway's local and still one of the great gin mills of the world. Five men in their fifties, all white-bearded, posed under a portrait of Papa. They didn't look remotely like the author, but were, the photographer from People said, "appropriately drunk."
There were also tours of the mansion where Hemingway lived with his second wife, Pauline, and their children in the 1930s. It was here he began to acquire the weight of his legend: fishing for monsters, collecting art, boxing on piers and beaches, heroically drinking followed by machine-gunning sharks for kicks. It was also where he wrote, producing some of the last, great short stories, and part of that overlooked masterpiece, "Green Hills of Africa."
907 Whitehead St. is set back on a corner lot in a tropical garden. Square, two-storied, with a wrought-iron veranda, French windows, cool stone walls and a swimming pool. Hemingway had lived like a colonial governor. I trooped in one morning with a group of high school kids on a field trip, reporters, tourists and a fair number of keepers of the eternal Papa flame. Our guide was a slim, spry, elderly man, wielding a cane like a fey British brigadier, calling both men and women "honey," and making up the facts as he went along.
I was struck by the paintings in the house--the flat color, astigmatic perspective and tortured forms of the less-than-Sunday painter. This was not Hemingway's famed collection; that, along with the good furniture, had gone under the auctioneer's hammer long ago. I asked our guide, whose work was represented. "I don't know, honey. But it's the real thing." He looked at a seascape. "I think."
I heard grumbling behind me when our guide said Hemingway and Miss Mary had kept 40 or 50 cats at the house. The flame-keepers were appalled. Mary Hemingway never lived here and, one person spat, sotto voce, "Cuba is where he had the cats. Cuba." On we went, the cane pointing to a thrift-shop table. "Ernest wrote 'The Old Man and the Sea' at that very desk." The high school kids were bored, the tourists a bit wowed, the flame-keepers close to open revolt. "Cuba! He wrote that in Cuba."
"No, honey, he most certainly did not."
William Faulkner's house, which he named Rowan Oak, is set in acres of old woods on the outskirts of Oxford, Miss. Built in the 1840s, it is a good example of Southern aristocratic architecture, the kind of house that a well-to-do planter, with ideas about columned Greek temples, would design. Here Faulkner moved in 1931 to pursue his dual obsessions: creating literature and living in the 19th century. As R.V. Cassill has written, in Faulkner's best work "the tense of hope is nearly always past."
I went to the annual Faulkner festival in Oxford one August. At first it seemed a mean Southern joke to hold the event in Mississippi's blast furnace month. But it is the perfect time to celebrate Faulkner. The monolithic heat in a place of cotton and soybean fields, kudzu and "alluvial swamps threaded by black almost motionless bayous and impenetrable with cane and buckvine and cypress and ash and oak and gum" allows you to understand the inspiration for that magnificent thicket of a style that the readers of the world cherish.
To say it was hot is to say nothing. Novelist David Martin, covering the event for the Los Angeles Times, led his piece with an homage to the inventor of the air conditioner. There was a picnic one afternoon at Rowan Oak, where a couple of hundred people gathered on the grounds to bake and turn surly while watching vats of potato salad go green. Tubs of ice and soda became tepid ponds. When the wind blew it stirred the bone-dry woods, and resinous dust stuck to your neck.
Inside it was dark, airless, claustrophobic. It seemed the place was not well cared for. But upstairs in the half-light of the author's study, a small group of people smiled in wonder at something written on the wall. It was the plot of "A Fable" that Faulkner had put there to keep track of his novel. There were two young Frenchmen happily whispering, a couple of Russian scholars taking notes, and a young woman from Louisiana and her 10-year-old daughter, both tracing, as if it were tomb hieroglyphics, the author's list of characters, scenes, dates.
It was easy to see why we were here. We were paying respects, expressing gratitude. Outside was the landscape magically made legend and here, in this room, was where it had been done.
Ambrose Clancy last wrote for the Travel section about County Clare, Ireland.
DETAILS: Writers' Homes
* The Boat House (Dylan Thomas's home, Laugharne, South Wales). Admission $4. Information: 011-44-1994-427420.
* The James Joyce Tower and Museum (Martello Tower, Sandycove, County Dublin, Ireland). Admission about $3. Information: 011-353-1-872-2077, www.visitdublin.com.
* Dr. Johnson's House (17 Gough Square, London). Admission about $5. Information: 011-44-20-7353-3745, www.drjh.dircon.co.uk.
* Ernest Hemingway House Museum (907 Whitehead St., Key West, Fla.). Admission $7.50. Information: 305-294-1136, www.hemingwayhome.com.
* Rowan Oak (William Faulkner's home, Old Taylor Road, Oxford, Miss.). Free admission. Information: 601-234-3284.