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Voices | Sam Allis

This writer’s old house

Are these structures really hallowed ground, or just sites for literary voyeurism?

By Sam Allis
Globe Columnist / August 9, 2010

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I’ve been to a couple of house museums of famous writers. Some years ago, when I was doing a column on how Concord handles its history, I took a tour of Orchard House, the 19th-century home of the Alcott family. That’s where Louisa May Alcott wrote her classic, “Little Women,’’ while her impecunious father, Bronson, a Transcendentalist, pursued his own utopian schemes.

I guess you have to read her book, which I had not done, to fully experience the profundity of standing on the same floors that Louisa May trod, but I did gain a sense of how utopians à la mode lived.

Looking at the houses of famous writers, or prominent figures in general, is a crap shoot. The curious may walk away scratching their heads while zealots require smelling salts after they swoon. Or vice versa. You never know.

Anne Trubek has a delightful book coming out this fall called “A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses,’’ in which she addresses this yeasty subject with appropriate astringency. She traveled to more than 20 houses around the country, and has combined strong reporting with a subversive eye to demolish the commandment that says all house museums of famous writers are hallowed ground.

“Tombstones are popular, but houses are the most popular in which to engage in literary voyeurism, worship or, more crudely, lit porn,’’ she writes. Trubek calls this pursuit “a highbrow version of Us Weekly to see the pictures of Lindsay Lohan’s escapades.’’ I love that.

And then this: “For me, writers’ houses are by definition melancholy. They are often obscure, undervisited, quiet, and dark. They remind me of death.’’

Hear, hear! It interests me not where a writer produced a book. A garret room, an apartment in Gramercy Park — who cares? (I know, I know, house museum fanatics will castigate me for not appreciating the importance of these places to grasp fully the essence of the writer. Yawn.) All that matters about writers is what they wrote.

There can be the odd theme park among the houses. At the top of the list is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Fla., which is, according to Trubek, the only for-profit house museum in the country. The place has been falling apart for ages. It is famously teeming with dozens of cats, yet oglers keep paying $11 to take the tour. There are some of Papa’s trappings there, but the real attraction is its kitsch.

When Trubek was there, she reports the gift shop was stuffed with things like Hemingway placemats, cookies, hats, and pencils. Inexplicably, an autograph by granddaughter Mariel (remember her? No, I didn’t think so) surrounded by four studio shots of her in a frame, went for $115.

That said, I can sort of see why people keep coming, despite its dingy condition. Hemingway was, after all, one of the biggest literary kahunas of the 20th century. Wrong. Trubek informs me that houses have nothing to do with literary standing.

“There is no correlation between the best writers and houses. It doesn’t work that way,’’ she says. “There’s no Henry James house, no Dreiser house, no T.S. Eliot house in this country. [There is a James house in England and a Hemingway estate in Cuba.] Basically, it’s about what happens when a writer dies. A community decided to do something like Orchard House. It’s very local.’’

New York City, strangely enough, has no writer’s house museum other than a cottage in the Bronx where Edgar Allan Poe lived at the end of his life. He lived in many spots, including the University of Virginia as a student. His dorm room has been sanctified, and it has been kept clean each year by a member of a student group called “The Raven Society.’’ I’m not making this up.

At the end of the day, the question is: Would you rather see a place where a writer was born, like the unremarkable boarding house in Asheville, N.C., where Thomas Wolfe grew up — or the place where a writer wrote? I’d opt for the place where they worked, like Herman Melville’s house in Pittsfield, where he wrote “Moby Dick’’.

But this is a hypothetical. I haven’t a clue where Barry Hannah wrote “Ray.’’ I just keep rereading it.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com