I suppose magical thinking is involved in why I like to visit the homes of famous authors. There’s something about seeing the desk where this person scratched away with a quill or the view from that person’s window that makes you feel a bit closer to understanding their literary points of view—and maybe a little bit of hope that being in the midst of their possessions will impart some of their genius.
Years ago, I came across a book called Literary Places in the U.S. that I carry with me on road trips in case we have time to drop in somewhere. I use my Android to get me to these places and verify their current hours, but I like having the book in hand to jot down highlights of the tour. My first notes were made at these 3 author homes in New England, a great place to start any literary tour of American authors.
1. Emily Dickinson Museum, Amherst, Massachusetts
Emily’s bright, cheery room in the Dickinson homestead is where she did most of her writing, inspired by her garden, which the museum still keeps up. On display the day I visited was a chocolate wrapper, on the back of which Emily had scribbled some notes, and a reproduction of one of her famous white dresses. A well-curated bookshop occupies a portion of the first floor, and the tour—which includes her brother’s home next door, the other significant place in her life—is led by knowledgeable guides.
2. Herman Melville’s Arrowhead, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
In addition to the study–with a gorgeous view of the Berkshires–where Melville wrote Moby-Dick, don’t miss the massive fireplace in the dining room that inspired one of his short stories (the text of which was later inscribed on the mantel by Melville’s brother). Also on display are his opium chest and dozens of family photos. A shop in the old barn sells Melville memorabilia and the work of local artists.
3. Mark Twain House, Hartford, Connecticut
Yes, Sam Clemens grew up on the Mississippi, but in 1871 he and his wife built a huge quirky house in Hartford’s intellectual neighborhood in the West End, and hired Louis Comfort Tiffany to design the interiors. The home’s library became the center of family life, but Clemens did all of his writing in the billiard room at the top of the house. The exhibit is fascinating, a research library is available to scholars, and a nice cafe and classy gift shop invite visitors to linger. When I was there, a special exhibit on Victorian clothing included Twain’s Oxford robes.
Major bonus: Twain’s next door neighbor was Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose house was one of the first Victorian home restorations. Today it’s an historical center that features many of the original furnishings, including Stowe’s writing table and oil paintings.