Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Thoreau's Bathtub

Previous posts might've led you to believe I'm not a big fan of "literary" fiction. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm am a self-proclaimed Literary Literature Lover -- with capital Ls. I just don't believe it's the kind of book I could write... at least not at this point in my career. I still have too much to learn about craft and life.

That said, I love British and American classics -- 18th, 19th and 20th century books that have stood the test of time. (Generally these works are considered "literary"). This is one reason I find myself in Boston annually. My yearly literary pilgrimage. My annual cleanse in Thoreau's bathtub.

There's nothing quite like immersing oneself in the romanticism and history of writers' lives from another time. Over the years I've stopped at sites and seen artifacts pertaining to Emerson, Dickinson, Keats, Alcott, Hawthorne, Frost, Twain,  Longfellow, Poe, Thoreau, and many others. One of my favorite things to do is to trudge through New England, going from historic landmark to historic landmark, and taking it all in. This year, I brought my niece with me. We had a terrific time and, as usual, my Boston friends brought something new and literary to the agenda.

One of my favorite sites is the Longfellow House in Cambridge. It's a beautiful home with great historic and literary value. A home of General Washington and the Dante scribing poet, Longfellow. I've been to this site numerous times and each time I find myself affected by the history, the tragedy of Longfellow's wife's death, and the society of other writers he kept.

We also visited Orchard House in Concord -- where the Alcott's lived -- and we dropped by the Old Manse -- where Emerson and Hawthorne both resided. The tour guides and well preserved homes never disappoint. Though I've toured these sites before, the stories the tour guides tell are fresh and interesting every time. Seeing Louisa Alcott's sister's artwork painted on the walls of her room at Orchard House brings me instantly to Amy in Little Women. Life and fiction comes together so neatly in ways. I also loved learning that the taxidermied owl in the downstairs parlor of the Old Manse was named Longfellow by Hawthorne. His wife hated it, he loved it, and she often hid it from him -- the attic, behind the furniture -- but he always found it and brought it back out. In the three years the Hawthorne's lived at the Old Manse they etched messages to one another in the window panes -- early day text messages, love notes? It's just plain awesome. These writers were just people -- and walking through the same hall they roamed, listening to their life stories, is the best way to be reminded of that fact.

Another gem?  In the very room where Hawthorne wrote in the years he stayed there, Emerson stood at the same window and was inspired to write the essay Nature -- which birthed Transcendentalism. What was it about that place and that time? As a writer, I can't help but romanticize it.

One of the terrific new things I did this trip was visited the Houghton Library at Harvard. Not only were the books breathtaking -- ancient editions that go back to Gutenberg and before -- but the have amazing collections of letters and artifacts upstairs. The Emily Dickinson room houses not only the books she owned, read, and were informed and inspired by, but her writing desk, letters, and the chest of drawers her writing was found in after her death. Amazing items to peruse, to examine, and to think about. Houghton also houses each edition of Keats work and his life mask. Being able to look at Keats' still face in front of your own while surrounded by his letters and poems. It brings a smile to my face.

We swung by the Boston Public Library which is always a treat. They had an exhibition of letters from Poe, Phillis Wheatley, and so many others. I could've stayed for hours reading them all. Something about the handwriting and the language really transports you.

But there is one thing that I love to do, more than anything, when I find myself in the area. Walden Pond. There's something about having read Walden and walking through the forest paths and hanging out at the site of Henry David's cabin that seems so surreal and real at the same time. And I always walk the path from the site to the water's shore and submerged myself into Thoreau's bathtub -- because certainly he wouldn't have cleaned himself there, wouldn't he have? I like to imagine it anyway.

I love to reread the poems and stories of these writers. I love to travel to this place. But most of all, I love to piece it all together. For me, it creates a strange living history I can relate to -- something to remind myself that even the writers we edify were and are people too...who have to bathe and collect books and play and argue with their spouses... just like me. Somehow, even when I've experienced these places and stories before, it inspires me each time and in a strange way helps me to validate the writer's life I've chosen.

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