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A Traveler's Guide to Literary Locations Around the World
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I embarked on my first pilgrimage when I was twenty years old. In frigid, early-winter Montreal, where I was a third-year philosophy student, I struggled to explain to the girl I had just started dating my reasons for going on the trip. She was not convinced. Neither was I. And yet I felt I had to go—to “find” something, as the cliché goes, but even more, looking back, to lose something, too.
A week later, there I was: all alone atop a naked rocky peak as dawn lit up a quaint lakeside village far below, snowy mountains shimmering all around me. Shivering with cold, provisioned only with a bar of chocolate, and deliriously happy, I pulled out the book that had brought me there in the first place: a collection of William Wordsworth’s poetry.
The village at my feet was Grasmere, in the English Lake District—where Wordsworth lived for fifteen years (before moving a few miles down the road), and where he is buried. Once, when he left town for a trip abroad, Wordsworth called Grasmere “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.” Looking down at a still, peaceful world cloaked in snowy silence, I fully agreed.
In the year since my first exposure to Wordsworth’s work, I had read through his poetry over and over, especially The Prelude, his epic autobiographical poem about all the influences that had mysteriously, quietly, and unalterably shaped who and what he became. I was transfixed by its language and consoled by its assurances that nothing is really lost, everything counts, and all will be fine in the end. Like many twenty-year-olds, I thought what Wordsworth calls the “terrors, pains, and early miseries” of young adulthood would last forever. Who was I, and what would I become? Wordsworth promised the hidden workings of nature itself would see that these burning questions resolved themselves.
None of this, of course, explains why I went to Grasmere. I suppose I wanted to see the influences and impressions that had shaped Wordsworth—the peaks and valleys he explored as a boy, the meandering river that taught him constancy and change, the lakeside patch of thousands of daffodils he thought fondly of “in vacant or in pensive mood”—and, if only for a week, to make them my own.
Yet despite the exhilarating sunrise walk to the top of Helm Crag, the rocky peak jutting out over Grasmere, the terrors, pains, and miseries that had plagued me in Montreal seemed to have hitched a ride in my knapsack. Those days were a roller coaster of the highest highs and the lowest lows. As I sipped hand-pulled pints at the local pub, walked the fells (as locals call the district’s barren hills), toured Wordsworth’s famous Dove Cottage (which, incredibly to me, still had his two-hundred-year-old mirror), and sipped a few more pints, I struggled with the gnawing fear that I was somehow doing it wrong, that I wasn’t communing as fully or as deeply as I should have been with Wordsworth, or Grasmere, or the fells.
I should have trusted Wordsworth more. In hindsight, I see the trip was a turning point. I came back different—a little calmer, stronger, more “worthy of myself,” as The Prelude puts it.
In the decade since, I have spent much of my spare time making similar trips to places featured in some of my favorite books: poetry and prose, fictional or otherwise. Only now I am not alone. The girlfriend I left behind in Montreal—a fellow editor at the student newspaper—has since become my wife. She enjoys visiting authors’ homes and other literary places at least as much as I do and has gamely consented to book-based excursions through the United States and around the world, from New Hampshire and Colorado to Poland and Greece. (Without her intelligence, indulgence, and Harry Potter expertise, this book, and everything else I have done, would have been impossible.)
Why do we search out places from literature? Most obviously it is to see how our mental image of it, shaped by the author’s descriptions, matches up with reality. In our mind’s eye, we map our conception of the place as it is described in the book onto what we see before us, and tally up how much is the same and how much is different, and of that which is different, how so.
Yet when we search out places from books, we are not simply looking for particular buildings or vistas or even atmospheres that made it into the work. There is something weirder and more magical going on. We want to see how the artist has transformed banal reality into the stuff of art. There is something even a little religious about it—thus the aptness of the word “pilgrimage.”
When we travel to places featured in books we love, we are not only looking for how the place has impacted the book but how the book has impacted the place. After devouring a work that seems as if made only for us, it can be thrilling to see the fictional world so fully imagined in our minds recreated and saluted in this, the physical world—as in a statue of one of the characters (like that depicting Ignatius J. Reilly, from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, in New Orleans) or in a museum devoted to the author and his world (as in the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California). Such experiences extend the world of the book and allow us to live in it again, along with our fellow devotees.
In her 1956 essay, “Place in Fiction,” the Mississippi-born writer Eudora Welty argued that literature is necessarily based in lived experience, tinged to a greater or lesser extent with local color. Novels are more than four-hundred-page postcards from a particular time and place—but they are that, too. “The truth is,” Welty concluded, “fiction depends for its life on place.”
According to Welty, the grounding of a story in a certain city or milieu is precisely what helps the reader to believe the story is “real”—whatever that means. As Welty wrote, “The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work.” We suspend our disbelief—not only while reading the novel but even long after we have put it down.
The place where a story is set, then, is a sort of medium through which author and reader can trade thoughts, the setting for a meeting of the minds across all barriers of time and space and condition. It fosters one of the deepest connections possible. Among other things, literature is a form of cross-cultural communication. “Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another,” Welty wrote. Armchair travel is not lazy, Welty argued, but noble—liberal in the truest and broadest sense of the word.
Literary tourism has seen a remarkable boom in recent years. According to the United States Department of Commerce, “cultural heritage” tourism has nearly doubled in the last decade, while tourism agencies have found that travelers who search out the “fictional underbelly” of a place tend to stay longer and spend more money. Unsurprisingly, literary tourism has also become a major source of study and investment, explored in academic journals and books from fields such as economics and the digital humanities, and in countless reports by regional planning associations.
Having a major new book take place in your town can utterly change the local economy: just ask the business leaders in Forks, Washington, the setting of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight trilogy for young adults. There, the local Chamber of Commerce bought a red Chevy truck to stand in for the one from the books. The city of Boston has launched a “Literary District,” complete with special talks, guided tours, and app-driven guides that direct travelers to various fictional and cultural-historical destinations. There’s also been an explosion of literary festivals devoted to local authors or even single works. “Bloomsday,” the granddaddy of them all, celebrates June 16 as the day on which James Joyce set the action in Ulysses. From its first official celebration in Dublin in 1954, Bloomsday has since gone global.
Efforts to commemorate works of literature can, however, trigger a backlash if the book in question doesn’t command whole-hearted support from the local community. In Monroeville, Alabama, plans to massively build up tourism related to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird have run into criticisms that the project would turn the town into a “Disneyland for racists.” A museum devoted to Sinclair Lewis in his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, recently closed, apparently undermined by lack of support in the area for a writer who poked fun at its backwardness and conformity. And activists in Boston and elsewhere have complained that designating particular neighborhoods as “literary districts” is a great way to ensure they become so expensive that no living, struggling writers can afford to live there.
Still, there is little threat that the mysterious alchemical process by which the base metal of reality is turned into the precious gold of art will come to a halt anytime soon. The literary destinations of the future, the homes of Nobel Prize winners yet to be born, the settings of world-renowned works yet to be written, may be in far-flung, out-of-the-way places that few outsiders have yet thought or even heard of. Who in Grasmere, in 1799, could have guessed that the handsome young poet who had just moved into the old abandoned inn at the edge of town would be the future poet laureate of the realm, and put their humble little hamlet on the map for centuries to come? Who in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, in the early 1980s would have thought the local law professor would someday make their city world-famous with a blockbuster series of novels about a ladies’ detective agency? Who near you today, as you read this, will tell the world what it was like to be a live human person in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, in the place where you now are? To ensure the job is done and done well, you may have to do it yourself.
From the Central Park carousel in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to Henry David Thoreau’s cabin beside Walden Pond to Marcel Proust’s enchanted bedroom at his aunt’s home in the French country town of Illiers-Combray (renamed in homage to the author), readers can readily imagine—in exact, even eerie detail—the sights and sounds and smells of these places. But they can also be seen and heard and smelled in real life. The entries that follow describe some of the most famous and beloved places in literature—how they feature in the relevant work and what can be seen by visiting them. My hope is that this book will not only be read and passively enjoyed but also actively used in shaping your own literary pilgrimages, whether close to home or on the other side of the world. Mutual understanding being at a low ebb, as Eudora Welty noted so many decades ago, it is worth remembering the power of both art and travel to help us speak more reliably to one another, to make us more worthy of ourselves.
UNITED STATES: NORTHEAST
Odd Occurrences at the Standpipe in Derry
It, by Stephen King
Stan Uris, the dweebiest, most logically minded, only Jewish member of the Losers Club in Stephen King’s classic 1986 horror novel, It, likes to bird-watch. His favorite spot is a bench in the town park of Derry, near a shallow pool where birds often come to bathe. The bench is at the base of a hulking water tower called the Standpipe, which one character says is “as white as you imagine the robes of the archangels must be.” People used to go up to the top for the sweeping views over the quiet town, but too many drownings meant the staircase had to be closed.
One day while he is bird-watching from the bench, Stan notices the Standpipe is levitating off the ground. The door opens, though there is nobody else around. Stan approaches to take a closer look. He enters the dark tower and begins to tiptoe up the stairs. Suddenly he hears footsteps up ahead, sees weird shadows slinking around in the dark. The door at the bottom slams shut. He hears a voice call out on behalf of “the dead ones,” those children who drowned in the tank. Stan, gripping his birding guide tight, starts to call out bird names at random to ward off whatever is in there with him. It works—the door opens to let him out.
Stan has had his first encounter with It, the shape-shifting homicidal entity from a universe not our own.
As Stephen King fans well know, the real-life inspiration for Derry is the author’s hometown of Bangor, Maine, where his Gothic-style house stands behind an iron fence into which are carved fearsome, horrible shapes. The writer’s fans flock from all around the world to see the house and to visit local places that inspired his fiction, like the Thomas Hill Standpipe, the inspiration for the water tank in It, built in 1897. King reportedly wrote most of the novel while sitting on the bench at the foot of the tower and across from the birdbath. The standpipe is only open to the public four days out of the year—once in each of the seasons. On other days one can sit on King’s favorite bench and wait for the tower to levitate. If the door randomly opens, though, maybe think twice before venturing in.
Sweet Hours in Amherst
The Poetry of Emily Dickinson
In 1830, Emily Dickinson was born in the ornate Federal-style house her grandfather had built two decades earlier, and she lived in that house for most of her life. It was there, at a small table in her large corner bedroom, shut away from the world, that Dickinson wrote her famously austere poems.
Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room;
Within its precincts hopes have played,—
Now shadows in the tomb.
Only a handful of her poems were published in her lifetime, but after Dickinson’s death in 1886, her sister found a stack of pages locked away in a chest. Dickinson’s house, and her brother’s next to it, have been preserved as a museum, and visitors can even pay to rent her “mighty room” by the hour.
The Mallard Family Finds a Home
Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey
Sometimes it’s hard to figure where to put down roots and when to call a place home. That’s true for bipeds of all kinds. At the opening of Make Way for Ducklings, the beloved children’s book written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey and published in 1941, the Mallard family is looking for the ideal place to settle down. After scoping out the great sights of Boston from the air, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard decide to give the Public Garden a shot.
The place seems nice at first—leafy, watery—but it turns out to be too busy: Mr. Mallard is almost killed by a passing cyclist. They again take to the air and keep looking, finally picking a spot on the banks of the Charles River. There they hatch eight baby ducklings: Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack. Mr. Mallard—bored, perhaps, with the duties of domesticity—decides it’s a good moment to take a little gander upriver and see what’s there. He agrees to meet Mrs. Mallard back at the Public Garden in a week.
Mrs. Mallard spends her time alone with the ducklings teaching them everything they’ll need to know—how to fly, how to swim, how to dodge bicycles. When the day comes to meet up at the garden, Mrs. Mallard leads her ducklings across the river. Thanks to a little help from Michael, the friendly policeman who feeds the ducklings peanuts, the waterfowl safely waddle their way through Boston’s busy streets to the Public Garden. Reunited, the family decides after all to make its home on the island in the garden’s lagoon.
McCloskey got the idea for his award-winning book—which has sold more than two million copies and counting—while attending art school in Boston in the 1930s and spending a lot of his time in the Public Garden. Later, he worked on it in his Greenwich Village studio apartment, to which, one day, he brought a crate of live ducks to serve as models.
The city of Boston and the commonwealth of Massachusetts have wholly embraced Make Way for Ducklings. In 2000, over the objections of representatives from the city of Springfield, who thought the honor should go to a work by local author Dr. Seuss, McCloskey’s book was voted the official children’s book of Massachusetts. Every spring since 1978, the city has hosted an official Duckling Day in which young children and their parents dress as ducks and follow the Mallards’ route through the streets.
The most famous tribute to the ducklings, of course, is the thirty-five-foot-long sculpture of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings that the artist Nancy Schön installed in the Public Garden in 1987. One of the city’s iconic tourist attractions, the sculpture is a favorite spot for families from Boston and around the world, a point of pride for the city. The ducks are often dressed in sports jerseys when local teams are in the playoffs.
Interestingly, the sculpture has also played a role in high-stakes Cold War diplomacy. In 1991, First Lady Barbara Bush gave her Russian counterpart, Raisa Gorbachev, a replica of the ducklings statue in a show of goodwill during the negotiations that led to the START treaty for military disarmament. The pieces of sculpture, including the cobblestones, and workers trained to install them were flown to Moscow by the United States Air Force. The replica can still be seen in the city’s Novodevichy Park, along with a cemetery of Russian notables, a sixteenth-century convent, and, of course, plenty of live ducks. For some, despite all that has come between Russia and the United States in recent years, the message initially meant to be sent with the gift still holds true. “People are people everywhere,” Tanya Malkova, a Moscow resident, told a Boston radio station in 2017. “So, the ducks in Boston and the ducks in Russia—they’re the same as people are the same everywhere”—looking for a place to call home.
Life in the Woods Outside Concord
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau writes early in Walden, his classic account of two years in a pond-front cabin on the edge of Concord, Massachusetts. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
A former Harvard student and schoolteacher, a part-time philosopher and other-time pencil-maker, and at all times an avid naturalist, Thoreau decided, in the summer of 1845, to relocate to the shores of Walden Pond when his neighbor and mentor, the great sage Ralph Waldo Emerson, offered him some lakefront property for a writing retreat. Thoreau was working on his first book—the rambling travelogue, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers—and needed some time away from it all. He built a one-room cabin, largely from discarded planks, at a spot with a view of a nearby cove. From July 1845 to September 1847, Thoreau lived in the cabin a mile from his nearest neighbor—reading, writing, maintaining a small garden, absorbing the teachings of nature, reducing life to its barest terms.
After his return to Concord, Thoreau worked on his book about “Life in the Woods,” as his subtitle had it. Published in 1854, the strange, unclassifiable work sold modestly at first. Over time, however, it became a quintessential national text. “In one book,” the poet Robert Frost once observed, “he surpasses everything we have had in America.”
The cabin Thoreau lived in was broken down and removed not long after he vacated the property, and the precise location of it was forgotten—a cairn of stones placed by latter-day admirers marked only a rough approximation. In 1945, exactly a century after Thoreau took up residence at Walden, an amateur archaeologist unearthed the original hearthstone. The site is now indicated by standing stones and a small plaque.
In the twentieth century, Emerson’s descendants deeded the property to the state, and in the 1970s, after several battles to fight development at the pond (including one proposal that would have leveled much of the woods for a parking lot), a state park opened. More land in the area was preserved in 1990, when Don Henley of The Eagles, inspired by his reading of Thoreau in college, formed the Walden Woods Project. The project’s nearby Thoreau Institute promotes environmental awareness and the ideas and writings of its namesake.
Today, visitors continue to arrive from all over the world to get a glimpse of what many consider the birthplace of the environmental movement. There are two replicas of Thoreau’s cabin that can be visited in Concord, one near the parking lots at Walden Pond (constructed in the 1970s with cutting-edge porous-asphalt technology) and the other on the grounds of the Concord Museum, across the street from Emerson’s house. The museum also boasts Thoreau’s original bed, chair, and desk. Between the two sites is a lovely 1.7-mile walking path, the Emerson-Thoreau Amble, which winds through forests and fields for a brief taste of the ever-enchanting (and ever-changing) New England landscape.
“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature,” Thoreau wrote in one chapter of Walden. “It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
Walden Pond itself is open for swimming, fishing, and canoeing in warm weather, and for cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing in the cold. In truth, it’s not even necessary to go all the way to Massachusetts for a sense of what Thoreau found so appealing about the simplicities of cabin life. The website Walden Labs offers information about how to build your own replica of Thoreau’s dwelling—without electricity or plumbing, mind you—and for roughly the same amount he doled out, less than $1,000 in today’s dollars.
Finding Freedom in 1840s New Bedford
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
New Bedford, Massachusetts
In the early 1840s, New Bedford, Massachusetts, looked like a forest of masts and sounded like a Babel of foreign tongues. It was the whaling capital of the world, and one of the richest towns in New England. Every day it sent and received ships that prowled the world’s seas for the precious whale blubber used to make such products as lamp oil, candles, and fertilizer. Like many dynamic port cities, it boasted a diverse array of inhabitants.
- "For some readers, the printed page isn't enough. With this book, they can continue the story by going to the source, whether than means Forks, Washington (Twilight), Segovia, Spain (For Whom the Bell Tolls) or London (White Teeth)."—The Washington Post, 2019 Holiday Gift Guide
- "Literary sites to be added to any reader's itinerary, including Thoreau's Massachusetts cabin, the Monroeville County Courthouse where Atticus Finch made his case for the defense, and the Mexico City cafe that inspired Robert Bolaño."—The New York Times, 2019 Holiday Gift Guide
- "If you like exploring real places related to literature, this book is a good place to start."—GeekDad
- "Booked provides full-color photographs of 80 famous literary locations, including To Kill a Mockingbird's courthouse in Monroeville, Ala.; the inspiration for Pride and Prejudice's Pemberley; and Memoirs of a Geisha's Kyoto Bridge."—Publishers Weekly, Spring Announcements feature
- "[Booked] will whet your appetite to visit the places you have read about. With color photos and engaging descriptions of Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, Jame Joyce's Dublin, Basho's Japan and scores of other places, Booked will inspire you to put down your book and head into the world."—The Star Tribune
- On Sale
- Apr 23, 2019
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal