I was in the grip of helpless desire.
While looking for an apartment to rent in Barcelona, I came upon a description of a flat in an ancient house where Miguel de Cervantes might have stayed, where he might have written Don Quixote, or parts of it. A Moorish window looked out toward the port, from which he may have watched ships come and go at the harbor where the galley Sol had been supposed to deliver him, had not pirates intervened. But that’s a longish story.
I was ensorcelled by the prospect of living for a few days surrounded by the stones that once echoed to Cervantes’ footsteps (did he rise at night and pace, watch the moon, lace his fingers behind his back and worry at the bone of his writing?) In the House of Cervantes, might I have been granted insight in a beam of sunshine, or felt the ghostly hand of mentorship on my shoulder?
This desire to visit the homes of writers, to see their desks and typewriters, to walk up narrow staircases and look out at landscapes they once knew (though altered by time, redevelopment, even physical relocation) is a kind of magic. It depends on proximity, the stir of air if you stand in the exact same place. Touch the windowsill, brush your hand across the banister, read the titles in Thomas Jefferson’s library or Ernest Hemingway’s. The essence of the person may still be there.
“Abracadabra,” the magician said.
It is nonsense, a hash of syllables it might seem, but the incantation has a long history. Supposed to have come from Aramaic, the language of Jesus, it is compounded from words that mean “I have created” and “by my speech.”
“So let it be written,” in the stern words of Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh, “so let it be done.”
The restaurant magician pausing by the table with his patter and his balloon animals, disappearing coins, scarves, and flowers—an entertainer—repeated the word once whispered into the divine ears of Roman emperors. Abracadabra, inscribed as a magical triangle and worn on the body, was believed to be proof against malaria.
As this word of power was whittled to a single letter, so the disease would abate.
We use magic words. Every writer employs pretty much the same box of familiar words scrabbled up from a handful of letters. How many times did Poe employ man and shadow, death and dark, but never to the same effect as Thomas Wolfe or Emily Dickinson? Our individual vocabularies—estimates vary widely, but let’s choose the one that ventures 20,000-25,000 for a college graduate—means that we have a finite slate of words from which to combine and recombine, barring unfortunate expeditions to the thesaurus. A scanty lot, perhaps—yet all the multiplicity of life on earth is made up of a few base pairs of proteins endlessly recombined—G-A-T-C in ribbons and strings of meaning.
Poor timing. I missed out on the Key West Literary Seminar, making a last-minute dash to the Keys at the end of winter break, present on the island during the week of the event but unable to attend as registration had long been closed.
Writers were circulating in the two-mile-long bounds of the Conch Republic, but they were elusive as manatees. Unlike the emblematic roosters, they did not announce their presence, though I did spot some at a reception.
Still, after years of conferences and workshops, what new knowledge could I expect to be imparted? Perhaps only the proximate magic of being in the same room with Margaret Atwood, to hear her set ordinary words aflame.
I remember sitting on the floor in a stuffy hotel meeting room at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference a few years ago, and hearing Robert Olen Butler speak of writing out of “the white-hot center” of our being. There was no amulet to hold—no potion to consume, Alice-like in innocence—yet the phrase burrowed into my mind and it sparks sometimes, sparks until my own words like duff catch fire.
Of course, I visited the Hemingway house.
We stayed just a few hundred feet away from the front gate, a walk up Olivia from Seascape (I could see Hemingway’s trees from my patio!) and then left on Whitehead.
A high wall encloses the grounds, erected by Hemingway for privacy, and now also serving as the base for a “cat fence” to keep the blooded felines inside and the neighborhood strays out. I’d met some of this royal family at the back gate before I ever went in the front entrance, there to encounter Rudolph Valentino, a marmalade prince who faced resolutely away from me and the rest of the unseemly rout of tourists on his porch.
Forty-odd descendants of Hemingway’s famous six-toed cats still rule the grounds. Some are polydactyl and some are not. They come in all colors, and are pampered with cat condos and other retreats, along with the right to sleep on Hemingway’s bed. Many of these familiars, descendants of the ship’s cat Snowball, are named for movie stars long since reduced to dust and celluloid. The cats enjoy a long and happy life, surviving into their late teens with the kind of excellent medical care we would all devoutly hope to maintain.
I took the tour, listening to the guide’s memorized patter about the urinal from Sloppy Joe’s that had been dropped there by Papa and disguised by his wife as a garden fountain. I dutifully looked at the penny pressed into the concrete at one end of the first in-ground pool in Key West, where Hemingway had exhorted the money pit to “take the last penny I've got!” I stared at the deep-sea fishing reels and the books, the Spanish furniture and the chandeliers, the trophy mounts—all this bric-a-brac invested with meaning.
And I climbed the stairs to the writing studio, where entrance was denied. I cupped my hands against the glass and looked to see the chairs and desk and typewriter, kept as though Ernest might return sometime and take up an unfinished tale. From the landing, I could see the lighthouse that would have spun its reliable beam across his nights.
Oh, Hemingway was not my first.
My parents had been big on history and so our Sunday drives in Western New York included pauses at roadside markers, while our annual trip to Maine was punctuated by stops at forts and historic sites. I don’t recall any names, now, but surely writers were among the notables who would have been noted along the way.
Some years ago, I went to Baltimore and made a midnight visit to Edgar Allen Poe’s house, admitted through triple-locked doors and allowed to ascend the ship’s ladder of a staircase to the garret, where he wrote in a setting uncomfortably close to a Premature Burial. At his tomb, I left silver coins on the marble, and the haul of change from just a single night made it clear how many would-be writers hoped for his intercession in some literary elsewhere.
I’ve bounced some of the corners of O. Henry’s life, from his time as William Sidney Porter clerking at a drugstore in downtown Greensboro, NC, to his mustard-colored house in Austin, twice relocated from its original bearings but still home to his writing desk. I’ve seen a bit of the New York he would have recognized, though not “the booth” in Pete’s Tavern.
Mark Twain has a deep resonance, thanks to my grandfather’s chance encounter with the great man on a train, and his decision to buy the complete authorized edition of his works as a result. I learned to read on those green-bound volumes, and they have traveled with me from Randolph, NY, to Morgantown, Fairmont, and Farmington, WV, to Reidsville and Greensboro, NC. I suppose that if I ever move onto a 30-foot sailboat, they won’t be coming along, and that would be a real loss.
Someday I’ll see his home in Hartford, but I can tally a visit to Elmira, NY, now rebranded as Twain Country. You can visit his famous study at Elmira College, walk around Quarry Farm, sit in the church where he sat, and even play the “spectacular Mark Twain Miniature Golf Course, with 3 waterfalls.” I only went to the graves, in Woodlawn Cemetery, where he was buried beside his wife’s family after being hauled from Redding, CT, upon his death on April 21, 1920. Twain’s grave is in fact, twain, as the 12-foot-tall monument is also dedicated to his musician son-in-law Ossip Gabrilovitsch. They say that visitors to Twain’s grave leave cigars in his honor, but I remember only a green sadness communicated not by the stolid granite, but perhaps the trees that had tasted his grief at the death of wife and daughters.
At Thomas Wolfe House in Asheville, I carried away a souvenir. Just like the Victorians who plucked bird’s eggs and bought toothpick holders and commemorative spoons, I kept a memento: an underwing moth, found dead on the steps, which I affixed to the “calling card” that advertised Mrs. Wolfe’s boardinghouse. The card and its small orange-banded wings remained about my writing desk for years before falling apart.
I’ve walked the Literary Walk in Central Park, the Philosopher’s Walk in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Seen Robert Ruark’s Southport haunts and the Flannery O’Connor-haunted landscape of Milledgeville, Ga. Always, with a bit of self-consciousness. Who was I, who hammered on words like an apprentice tinsmith, to seek out the places of the great? To walk the cobblestones of Paris, the streets on of Zola and Balzac, Hugo and Diderot, Baudelaire and Verlaine? Anywhere in Paris, anywhere, could surprise with a word once breathed into the air and remembered in the bricks. I looked into Shakespeare and Co. and shopped the bouquinistes, but avoided the cafes where too many supplicants have rubbed the remains of Sartre and Camus and de Beauvoir from the zinc. My closest encounter came not at a house or bookstore, but in the crypts under the Pantheon.
There in the cool darkness, the sounds of the city fallen away, I played at shadows with Rousseau and met the bemused smile of François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, the humanist and satirist and defender of liberty —inhabiting the statue in a way that a spirit perhaps can never haunt a house that echoes to a hundred human souls before, during, and after the writer’s tenancy. Voltaire surely would be amused at this searching after the past, touching the relics. A doubting Thomas of sorts, who must put my hand against the physical in order to contact the spiritual.
Sometimes I’ll be driving and will see a roadside marker, just as I used to from the back of the Plymouth station wagon, and the name will stick for a moment and fly past. I’m left pondering historic personages and near-forgotten poets, who they were, how they played with words.
Here and gone.
If you’d like to read more about writers’ homes, visit Best Historic Writers Homes, Writers Houses,
or check out A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers Homes.
Valerie Nieman worked for three decades as a journalist while honing her skills as a poet and fiction writer. Her third novel, Blood Clay, was published in 2011. It was a finalist for the John Gardner Prize and won the Eric Hoffer Prize in General Fiction. She is the author of a collection of short stories, Fidelities (West Virginia University Press), and a poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake (Press 53). She has received an NEA creative writing fellowship in poetry, two Elizabeth Simpson Smith prizes in fiction, and the Greg Grummer Prize in poetry. A graduate of West Virginia University and the M.F.A. program at Queens University of Charlotte, she teaches writing at N.C. A&T State University and is a regular workshop leader at the John C. Campbell Folk School and the North Carolina Writers Network. Visit her website at valnieman.com.
© Copyright Valerie Nieman 2012