American Writers at Home. Text by J.D. McClatchy; Photographs by Erica Lennard; Library of America and The Vendome Press, 2004; 224 pages; $50.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
American Writers at Home affords an unprecedented opportunity to visit the private homes where our greatest writers crafted their masterpieces. In the process, it opens a window onto the writer's life that will forever change the way you read. As he wrote Moby-Dick, Herman Melville imagined that his study had become a whaling ship's cabin. In pencil tracings still visible today, William Faulkner plotted the intricate webs of his fiction on his study walls. In these and myriad other ways, the imaginations of the 21 writers profiled in this book transformed their surroundings, even as those surroundings shaped the character and context of their classic works. The photographic and literary portrait in this elegant and engaging book reveal as never before how important place -- a sense of home -- has been in the creation of our greatest writing.
Ranging from Carmel to coastal Maine, and including writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Frederick Douglass, and Louisa May Alcott, American Writers at Home takes readers on a tour of the American literary heritage that is both grand and intimate. We ramble through the turn-of-the-century estates of Edith Wharton and Mark Twain and nestle into the humbler homes of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. We are admitted into private -- and in most cases remarkably unchanged -- spaces that bore witness to genius, where Edna St. Vincent Millay's dresses still hang in the closet and Nathaniel Hawthorne's thoughts remain inscribed on the windowpane in his study.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
J.D. McClatchy was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in 1945. Formally educated at Georgetown and Yale and informally educated by his own reading, conversation, and study, Mr. McClatchy is the author of five books of his own poetry, editor of numerous collections and interesting anthologies (Poets on Painters remains one of my favorites), an opera librettist, and since 1991, editor of The Yale Review, a publication that with his leadership has gone from troubled to somewhat triumphant. Literary executor of the estate of James Merrill, McClatchy is one of the two editors, with Stephen Yenser, of Merrill's Collected Poems and Collected Prose.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Village Voice: "America has always been a nation of isolatos, solitaries striking out on their own," argues poet J.D. McClatchy in the text accompanying American Writers at Home. "Europeans could never understand...why we headed off into the unfamiliar, why we built our cabins on the pond's edge." Erica Lennard photographs the cocoons that famous writers like Walt Whitman and Flannery O'Connor fashioned for themselves in those dark, pre-iPod days of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Bathed in honeyed light, these images are so sumptuous they might be mistaken for layouts from a shelter magazine dedicated to gracious, cozy old houses. Instead, they provide an excuse for McClatchy's meditations on how dwellings and solitude shape the creative process. If these houses look like museums, that's because they are. When regular people die their things are ransacked, most precious possessions parceled out or tossed away. But these show homes halt and preserve a moment in an illustrious writer's life, like an insect trapped in amber. We see Eudora Welty's desk as it apparently looked while she lived: littered with manuscript pages, calendars, and correspondence. Or the corner of Faulkner's pantry, where the camera finds a wall covered with names and numbers scrawled above a black rotary phone that will never ring again.
The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts): None of Lennard's photographs have people in them, but she manages to make the homes appear inhabited, with the careful placement of a garment, lit candle, or blooming houseplant. Care was taken to show the tables or desks or even beds where each author worked. There are samples of the handwriting of the writers, where it was available -- very telling. Dickinson's hand, for example, was large and sloping. The large format shows off the photos, many full page, very handsomely.
The essays are full of wonderful details. An example: McClatchy discovered that Alcott's home, Orchard House, includes a bust of her father by Daniel Chester French, who was once a student of Alcott's sister, May. The differences in wealth and comfort are interesting -- as in the contrast between Arrowhead and the Mount.
The Boston Globe: Asked where he wrote, Ernest Hemingway once replied, "In my head." True though that is for every writer, the domestic setting of creativity is endlessly interesting to readers and to other writers.... Standing in Melville's second-floor workroom at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, where he wrote Moby-Dick, or looking at the photograph of it, one is reminded how even the gigantic works of world literature are created in small, private places, with the tapping of a typewriter or scratching of a pen.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: On the day that we talked, Mr. McClatchy was in his office in Manhattan and I was at home in California. An interview with Professor McClatchy, for me, is like an afternoon in one's favorite seminar. I have spoken with him many more times than are seemly. But I can't help myself. In this newest book, the professor refers to the "American isolato."
I asked, "If you were teaching a class of mildly intelligent youngsters, how would you define this isolato?"
"Well, as I said in the introduction, that's the characteristic of Americans, going back to why people moved to America to begin with -- to escape a past. Or to escape a set of circumstances which preclude a future. Or the future is going to be exactly as it was for all the generations before them. So that any sense of discovery and of freedom is precluded by the society, the circumstances in which they live. America has always seemed to provide a hope for exactly that kind of freedom and opportunity. I know it sounds like an ad, but it's true. And I think that's still true. And then that becomes -- how could it not? -- a theme in our literature as well.