- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2010

By Anne Trubek
University of Pennsylvania Press, $24.95 165 pages

Before you read this book, check out the picture of the author on the inside back cover. What do you see - skepticism or sarcasm? By the time you finish the book, I think you’ll agree with me that it is the latter. One way or the other, it is definitely a book with a lot of attitude.

In 10 chapters, each of which contains a charming pen-and-ink sketch of the house to be visited, the author goes from one end of the country to the other, in all directions. Eventually, we accompany her to Key West for you-know-who’s house; to California to visit Jack London country; Camden, N.J., for Walt Whitman; Concord, Mass., for Emerson, et al.; Asheville, N.C., for Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe; several places for the abodes of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain; ditto for Edgar Allan Poe; Cleveland for Charles Chesnutt and Langston Hughes; and, in my favorite chapter, Dayton, Ohio, for the home of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the poet who wrote, and Maya Angelou borrowed as a title, “I know why the caged bird sings.”

You may have noticed that’s only nine sites. That’s because the first chapter - “The Irrational Allure of Writers’ Houses” - serves as Anne Trubek’s introduction to her subject, as well as her explanation of why she took on this admittedly odd pilgrimage.

In June of 2009, an ad for a one-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan boasted that “one of the top 5 best novels of 2006” had been written there. Two months later, a new ad with a price tag $25,000 less made no mention of that fact. This leads Ms. Trubek to write, in what sets the tone for the rest of the book, “So much for the presence of a famous writer adding value to the property.” (She names him, and he’s not all that famous.) “Why do we preserve these houses authors live in,” she asks, “Why do we visit them?”

She offers a few possible answers, and then adds personal observations. “Writers’ house museums expose the heartbreaking gap between writers and readers. Part of the pull of a writer’s house is the desire to get as close as possible to the precise, generative ‘Aha!’ But we can never get there.

“For me,” she writes, “writers’ houses are by definition melancholy. They are often obscure, undervisited, quiet and dark. They remind me of death. And they aim to do the impossible: to make physical - to make real - acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand.”

Having asserted that point on page five, the author spends the remaining 160 pages attempting to prove it, which makes the book, in effect, an anti-literary travel book, yet very much a pro-literature book. Why read it? Well, for several reasons. For one, Ms. Trubek is a keen observer with a good sense of humor. On occasion, she serves herself a slice of that wry, but for the most part she’s putting people down, people like those who visit writers’ houses and the guides who work there, whom, she says, “never seem to get” the fool’s errand part.

Still, for the pluses cited above, she makes the trip fun, and most of her criticisms are justifiable, if often too snarky for my tastes.

Here are several of her verdicts:

c “In Hannibal, Mo., the shepherds of Mark Twain’s legacy have created a wonderland that is remarkably un-Twainian.”

c “Going to [Louisa May Alcott’s] Orchard House forced me to read ‘Little Women,’ and I loved every page, and was surprised by its nuance and complexity.”

c [On viewing the ruins of Jack London’s magnificent four-story Wolf House, which burned to the ground two days after it was finished]: “The Lyricism of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ the intensity of ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ the heartbreak of ‘Little Women’ remain intact. Our material, our things - gravestones, walls, historically reconstructed objects, even our brains - elude.”

c “I love the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio. I love it because it is full of just the longing I am seeking in these small museums … . It was preserved by his mother in a stubborn, lonely vigil to have her son’s reputation restored. … Because of this and because so few visit the house, because literary history has not been kind to Dunbar, nor history to Dayton - for all these reasons I want to praise Dunbar, extol his house, sing his songs.”

Passages such as the last one are what make this book worth buying. The author may be caustic and self-reverential, but she delivers the goods. And at the very end, she confesses: “To completely dismiss the emotional relationship a reader has with authors is to risk ending up cynical, as I was before visiting writers’ houses.”

That’s not skepticism; that’s honesty.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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