I grew up in the hotbed of American literary history, about halfway between Boston (the birthplace of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, and the publishing powerhouse of Ticknor & Fields) and Concord, Massachusetts (where pilgrimages to the homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott compete with the serenity of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond). It’s easy for modern readers to feel disconnected from writers of the past but these scenes establish a sense of place that puts you as close as possible to a handshake with them. I have often found myself in one-way conversations next to simple stone markers in cemeteries too.
But is an appreciation for The American Scholar or Little Women truly enhanced by standing next to that author’s front door? Certainly, I haven’t gotten a better grasp of Hawthorne’s use of ambiguity or Poe’s sense of irony by visiting their homes (or their graves), yet I’m continually drawn to these places. Some would argue that a visit to an author home is an invitation for disappointment if that person is expecting some profound moment of realization or inspiration. Perhaps this is true, but it occurs to me that my interest in American literature is not just about ink on a page.
Though I call myself a “literary historian” by trade, I am also quick to point out how much I dislike history (do I contradict myself?). The general image of history is one of dusty, oversized textbooks filled with dates demanding memorization, scenes of battles, military strategy, and political movements. The potential for both difficulty in understanding all this stuff and being completely bored with it is immense to students in particular. What brings me back to the past, however, are the people and their stories. Knowing Hawthorne as a husband and father may (or may not) change someone’s reading of The Scarlet Letter, or learning Poe’s relationship with his foster father may (or may not) affect one’s impression of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I think what’s more important is understanding that these texts did not just materialize, but that they came from a living, breathing human being.
In my varied work as a tour guide, blogger, public lecturer, and living historian (I impersonate Poe, Hawthorne, and the young version of Longfellow), my hope has been to remove the barrier between the reader and the author. I offer an invitation into Usher’s house, Young Goodman Brown’s forest, or the village blacksmith’s workshop. I want modern readers to move past stereotypes of classic American writing as being too difficult or too boring. Literature, after all, is more than just text, but the stories of people – whether they are fictional characters or once-living authors. What keeps these dead authors “living” is accessibility, interest and, hopefully, a little bit of enjoyment.
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