Literary Landmarks

Rowan Oak, the home of southern author William Faulkner, was rededicated over the weekend after undergoing a $1.3 million restoration. The Oxford, Mississippi home is now open to the public and draws thousands of visitors each year to the place where Faulkner wrote many of his famous works.

Speaking of literary landmarks, I also read that the gritty and sometimes dark real-life landmarks featured in Irvine Welsh‘s Trainspotting are now becoming a tourist attraction for the port area of Leith in Edinburgh, Scotland. The walking tours have become so popular that many wonder if they’ve begun to overshadow some of the city’s more classic literary roots.

A little closer to home, I recently took the opportunity to visit the grave of Edgar Allan Poe while spending the weekend in Baltimore. The experience was appropriately gothic and uneasy, as we carefully navigated the pathways between half-sunken tombs and broken headstones. Early last year I visited Richmond, Virginia and the house where Poe lived during the time he spent in that city. After visiting both places, I definitely have a better appreciation of the scenery behind some of Poe’s work — all modern developments aside.

Do you find that you seek out literary landmarks when travelling — whether it’s an author’s home, a grave or even the backdrop for a story? What landmarks have you been able to experience and which are on your list of must-see places? What do you think is the motivation for visiting these literary landmarks? A history lesson, maybe? An added insight into an author’s work?

By the way: if you’re not up for travelling or if Rowan Oak isn’t on your list of literary destinations, you can always visit it online. The University of Mississippi offers a nice virtual tour along with an interactive timeline of Faulkner’s writing.

10 Responses

  1. LandmarksWhen I was in Chile

    When I was in Chile I wanted to visit Neruda

  2. LittourismNot only do I seek

    Not only do I seek out literary tourism but use it as an excuse to travel to places I want to go. Littourism is a great way to spend time in a foreign place, or a way to see something new in a place all too familiar. It reveals the passing of time and can create a monumental interest in learning more about the non-fiction world of different people and far different times. Being there creates a vicarious link to authors, possibly long gone, that puts the work on another level. I might suggest leaving your less bookish friends at home as they might not enjoy the subtle pleasures of walking past an apartment building where Baudelaire used to reside. But it might also encourage them to read. Littourism is also a good reason to wander through cemeteries, which are surreal places to be (if you’ve come across the right one).

    Some of my more interesting literary tourism:

    I visited Elie Wiesel’s house turned museum in northern Romania, a must see if you are ever in Siguet u Marmatei, though probably not worth a pilgrimage. The view of Ukraine is priceless for those without the price of a Ukrainian visa. What is worth the pilgrimage are the castles and towns in Transylvania. The Dracula of literary fame is not quite as interesting as his ancestor in Romanian history Vlad Dracul.

    My apartment in Prague was on the street (Dlouha) that Kavalier lived on as a child in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (Chabon). And everyone in Prague will tell you that Kafka used to live in their building. Also in Prague is Vaclavske Namesti, the famous square where all the communist fiestas went down, and the sight of an historic Ginsberg streaking.

    Walking through Dublin is a ridiculous barrage of literary references to the abundant sect of Irish writers, though many of the sights are a letdown. The writers’ museum has an intense history of tons of Irish legends. And the library in Dublin is a reader’s worst nightmare, shelves and shelves of old leather bound tomes, barricaded by red velvet ropes and glass cases. It could all be a mirage for all you get to actually lay hands on.

    Shakespeare and Co is a great bookstore in Paris with a little brother store in Prague. It was a library and publishing house (Ulysses is to her credit) to the famous lost generation of American expats. Paris is overflowing with literary tourism from Verlaine/Rimbaud to Hugo to Hemingway/Miller/Stein/Fitzgerald. I think it would have been amazing to go through Paris with a list of places your favorite people used to frequent. The Villa Borghese always interested me but I have never searched for it. All these dirty little hotels Henry Miller and George Orwell spoke of must have existed at one time or another, and I’d be interested in seeing what they meant by true poverty. But on the other hand the vision in my mind is so clear that the actual place would pale in comparison. Oscar Wilde’s grave in Paris at the Pere Lachaise cemetery is adorned with the lipstick and panties of many loving fans, and a short walk from Jim Morrison’s and Balzac’s tombstones (in the most famous of stunning cemeteries). Some of the rest of the French giants are buried in the Pantheon (Dumas, Hugo, Napoleon).

    London has a neighborhood of some interesting booksellers a few blocks north of the National Gallery.

    Istanbul has a couple things to see, but as with most of the worthwhile tourism, you have to find someone to unlock it. I went to the old apartment of Orhan Kemal but had to get someone in a coffee shop down the street to unlock it. Fortunately they called a girlfriend of theirs who translated the entire museum for me.

    The city of Heraklion on the island of Crete has the tomb of Nikos Kazanstakis with the inscription, “I have nothing, I want nothing, I am free.” And the rest of Greece can be used to track down every ancient Greek sight. The cave where Zeus was born is on Crete.

    The newest mecca on my list is The Woody Creek Tavern in Woody Creek, right outside of Aspen where Dr Hunter S Thompson used to spend his time. I grew up near there and it means a lot to the region that the place is still there.

    My list:

    Alexandria, Egypt to discover the world Lawrence Durrell describes in The Alexandria Quartet, though I hear he never set foot in the place but got his inspiration from CP Cavafy’s poems!

    Morrocco/Algeria to explore the elusive world of Paul Bowles and Albert Camus. The writing is so mysterious there must be something of the unknown there.

    I can’t wait to hear what good stuff you all have seen, hopefully in areas I can reach easily.

  3. Jamelah’s Literary World
    Jamelah’s Literary World Tour

    I don’t know that I ever actually traveled somewhere specifically because it had ties to something I’d read, but I often found, once I arrived at these places, that they had literary history. I guess all of my literary tourism was accidental. Here are some of the places I happened upon:

    — Venice, Italy (which it seems I’ve mentioned a lot lately) is full of all sorts of artistic landmarks, literary or otherwise. Legend has it that one of the palaces on the Grand Canal was the home of Desdemona, who was immortalized as the tragic wife of Othello in Shakespeare’s play. I don’t know how true that is, but I used to pass the palace every day on my way to and from class. The reports always differed, so I never got the exact location, but Byron used to hang out there somewhere. There’s a famous bar where Hemingway used to drink, but it’s a pretty expensive tourist place these days, so I never actually went there. Walked past it on several occasions, however.

    — Verona is the city where Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet, and la casa di Guilietta (Juliet’s house — or at least the house people say was Juliet’s), complete with a balcony overlooking a small courtyard, was overrun with people when I went there. It’s actually become quite a love shrine, with lovers’ graffiti scribbled over every available (and unavailable) spot on the wall. There’s also a square in Verona with a huge statue of Dante, because it’s supposedly near the place he lived when he wrote The Divine Comedy.

    — Shakespeare set a couple of plays in Padua, but I didn’t see any specific Shakespeare-related landmarks while I was in the city. I don’t know if there are any. I did go to the university (which has to be the setting for something, or at least should be, because it’s perfect for that sort of thing), but the tour was entirely in Italian and I was relatively new at learning, so I only understood about a third of what the guide said. There were all kinds of Galileo’s things there, however, and literary or no, Galileo was pretty fascinating.

    — There’s Florence, the home of the likes of Machiavelli and Petrarch and I think Boccaccio, though I didn’t seek out any specific landmarks. I was only there for a day and a half, and Florence is kind of overwhelming. I’m sure I missed all sorts of things in Rome, because, well, it’s Rome. I did have a drink at a (shockingly expensive) bar that some writers apparently hung out in once upon a time, though I don’t know what writers, so that’s not that great of a story. Except it was about $14 for a beer and are you kidding me?

    — I always wanted to see the Blue Grotto in Capri because I read a story about it when I was in tenth grade, but the day I went, the water was too high so it was unsafe. I did get to go past it (and have several near death experiences!) that day, so I guess there’s that.

    — When getting off the train in Prague, it’s impossible to avoid the hotel owners who stop you and try to convince you to stay at their establishments. One guy in particular kept telling me that Kafka used to live in the building, but like Rubiao said, I think everyone says that. My friend and I bartered a better deal out of someone else (who never mentioned Kafka), though, so I guess I’ll never know. I hadn’t read any of Kundera’s books when I was there, but when I read them now, it’s kind of cool, because I can picture the city and the places he writes about very clearly in my mind.

    — The photograph is long gone now, but when I was lost and wandering around Vienna, I paused next to a statue of Goethe long enough for my friend to take a picture. I was probably doing something stupid, because that’s what I do in pictures.

    This has gotten kind of long, and when I think about it, I realize that most of the landmarks I’ve sought out when I traveled have been architecture or paintings or sculptures, and I really haven’t gone to any specific place based on anything I’ve read, I don’t think. This may be weird, because I’ve read a lot and I sometimes think it would be cool to see things mentioned in books, or the places where certain writers came from, but I guess what it comes down to is that when I went to certain places, there was so much to see that I had to prioritize my tourism, and often, when it came to literature, the self-created mental pictures were enough, so I went for other things. Because there’s really nothing worse than having a long-standing mental picture destroyed by reality. At least sometimes. I think.

  4. Travel and InsightsI too have
    Travel and Insights

    I too have visited Poe’s grave three years before I actually started writing. He’s the first American heavyweight, an original with his creation of the detective story, his imagery, and of course, The Raven and Anabel Lee. Baudelaire translated him. The reason I went was that I was in Baltimore and it was something to do that didn’t cost anything but bus fare.

    I first went to Telegraph Avenue in ’81 to see what was left of the 1960s and was unimpressed but found Moe’s Bookstore, a used bookstore that also stocks textbooks and new titles, I never went to City Lights Bookstore until 20 years later to take my wife to a genuine landmark.

    I read the Tiananmen Papers, in Seoul, a month after I went to Tiananmen Square and my visit to Beijing put all the events of 1989 and their scale into place. That visit was very beneficial.

    I like Camus’s The Fall and A Happy Death and some of William Burroughs writing style but don’t believe it’s necessary to visit North Africa. Another writer I like is Robert Stone and he was from New York and if I was to stay there, it wouldn’t be due to his novels.
    Like Fitzgerald, I was born in Minnesota and lived there only two years longer than him but my life there gave me no insight into his work; but my life there and in Texas, did give me insights into McMurty’s The Last Picture Show. While reading Winesburg, Ohio, I know that I have insights into many of the background having grown up in one of the places that was pioneered last at the edges of the American frontier.

    Knowing that Faulkner had been a roommate of Sherwood Anderson’s is one of the biggest factors in his desire in portraying the inner psychological drama but I was only bored enough once to read The Hamlet, which actually wasn’t too bad. I’d pick up my copy of Brothers Karamazov before I’d read any more Faulkner. Having worked with guys from Missippi was useful for me reading The Hamlet but it’s themes are universal.

    It’s good to drive coast to coast once in the USA to get an idea of the size of the country and north to south but this got me no close to understanding The Dharma Bums though I think it does work OK as a novel. One can understand One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich without visiting the gulag but without doing time, one can never completely understand its despair. Travel can’t really get you into an author’s head but it can give you insights into a book or novel.

  5. Way Down SouthAfter reading
    Way Down South

    After reading J.S.F.’s ELIC, I went on a trek through New York to follow in the footsteps of Oskar Schell…

    Okay, seriously, I’ve been to Hemingway’s house in Key West a couple of times. I don’t think it was a huge writery experience for me because I picture him writing in Ketchum, Idaho or in Paris. Plus, too many cats! I’ve also been to Oak Park Illinois many times, but never to his birthplace.

    I would like to visit Woody Creek, Colorado & see the place Hunter S. Thompson wrote from, but it’s kinda creepy since his people still live there. I wouldn’t want to visit a place where someone’s family still lives.

    Another place I’d like to visit is the bar(s) where Bukowski’s “Barfly” was shot, as well as the actual bar he hung out in, but I think I read someplace that none of those locations still exist.

  6. I almost forgot! I used to
    I almost forgot! I used to shop at Vonnegut’s Hardware just on principle! I also did “drive-bys” of the author’s home, usually on enroute to the club – because it was on the way. Sort of.

  7. Hemingway FestivalThere is an
    Hemingway Festival

    There is an annual Hemingway Festival in Key West. They host readings, fiction contests, and the highlight, of course, is the Hemingway look-a-like contest. Most of the entrants are from the Hemingway look-a-like society. I’ve been several years in a row and still cannot tell if they are serious or not. The most exciting event in the contest is the Runing with the Bulls. The entrants line up on Duval Street outside Sloppy Joe’s (the bar where Papa Hemingway made his nightly stand), wearing white with red sashes, traditional atire for bull running Pamplona style, and then barmaids, bouncers and personel from various local bars push paper machee bulls on grocery cart wheels after the small group of Hemingway look-a-likes, and the crowd cheers.

    Then, you can catch some live music at Captain Tony’s, which is the original Sloppy Joe’s, and now is nightly home to marauders and modern pirates on rum.

    The Hemingway house boast itself the home of the largest collection of six toed house cats in the world. The original six toed cats were a gift to Hemingway from a friend in Africa, and now they overrun the house. See the chair H. used to fish for Marlin! It is an African birthing chair made of wood and leather. See the furs and heads of mounted game that lets you know you’re in the house of a great adventurer! See the original painting gifted to H. from Picasso (that was stolen a few years ago by a guy who pulled up to a Ft Lauderdale dock in a houseboat and started asking around if anyone wanted to buy an original Picasso). Then, have some drinks on Duval Street, enjoy fine shopping at one of the areas many boutique souvenir shops, and perhaps get yourself a shirt that says: “Bad liver! Must be Punished.”

  8. Zane Grey, would you
    Zane Grey, would you believe?

    The first literary genre I really loved was the western, and even though but at some point stopped reading them, as a teen I read oodles of books authored by Zane Grey.

    In the 70s, during a trip along the Tonto Rim in Arizona (an awesome place to be tripping), we saw signs pointing the way to Zane Grey’s “cabin” so we decided to get off the beaten path and check it out. We wound up on back roads ad at the end had to hike up to the location of the cabin. It was completely unspoiled and the scenic view from up there among the ponderosa pines was incredible. I still have slides of that view and of the cabin, of course. I could see how an author could go there to get away and write. It was completely secluded, difficult to get to and very quiet.

    The cabin was rustic. I climbed up on the porch and had a peek through the windows seeing a huge fireplace, overstuffed leather upholstered chairs and a table. Very basic, yet comfortable.

    I assume by now it has been turned into an attraction and probably has easy access and lots of lost charm. I still remember enjoying the feel of peeking through the windows into the house where Grey supposedly wrote some of his books.

  9. Traumatized by LeacockWhen I
    Traumatized by Leacock

    When I was a kid — I dunno, about 4 maybe? — my family made a pilgrimage of sorts to Orillia, ON, CA, where the noted Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock lived. and we did a tour of his house. but all I knew was that we were wandering around in someone else’s house. I imagined him upstairs somewhere — at any moment he’d come down, get angry, and kick all of us out.

    Eventually, someone must have told me he was dead, but that only made things worse — I imagined him upstairs in his bedroom, dead. Leacock still gives me shudders.

    So there: Leacock is way scarier than Poe.

    BTW, I’m now living in the land of literary tourism. In Dawson, about 6 hours drive from here, you can see the cabin (technically, half the original cabin) Jack London lived in during the gold rush, along with Robert Service’s cabin. and about a block away from where i am right now, is Sam McGee’s cabin — seems he wasn’t cremated after all.

  10. Milledgeville,
    Milledgeville, Georgia

    Milledgeville, Georgia and its environs are home to three major authors: Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker and Joel Chandler Harris (of Uncle Remus fame). There are several sites in relation to these authors both in Milledgeville and nearby Eatonton. This middle Georgia town is located on the antebellum trail and has many fine old homes (think Gone With The Wind), is home to the old state hospital (pretty spooky), and the old state capitol of Georgia. When I last visted Georgia College in Milledgeville they had a nice O’Connor collection. Well worth a day trip if you are in the area (about 2 hours S.E. from Atlanta).

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