Home's influence on our interactions with artistry
Part of the ongoing series on Identity and Nature
Saturday, I flew home. Well, I flew with my family to one of my homes, the original home-place: Massachusetts. I come from outside Boston in Lexington of Revolutionary War fame. (If you’re looking for a historic Halloween costume, here’s how to make a tricorn hat.)
Besides a childhood that was often bombarded by tricorn hats, I willingly lost myself in the history of American literature, both created and set here, as well as the artists and filmmakers who have worked here. I was less interested in the battles reenacted on our town green and surrounding areas once a year or the soldiers in the cemeteries we laid wreaths on during band parades on various holidays, and more interested in the gravestone markings of Alcott, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and others in Concord at Author’s Ridge, a place my mother and I have made pilgrimage to occasionally after a coffee in Concord center.
I’ve lived abroad for fifteen years, but I come home regularly and for long periods of time when possible. This time, I’ll spend almost a month, visiting Minnesota, where I have family, and New York, where I’ll officiate my friends’ wedding. Due to limitations of my former teaching schedules, it’s the first trip back in those fifteen years that is during the autumn. If you have been to Massachusetts in fall, you’ll know why this is significant. Although some places I’ve lived enjoy fall foliage’s changing hues, there is nothing like October in New England. Crisp, windy air. Ripe apples and pumpkins you can pick yourself. The crunchy sounds of leaves on a morning run or walk in the hills.
It was also my birthday on Sunday. It was additionally the first time I have had my birthday in Lexington since my twenties. 42 is pretty good so far. I wanted to make something of the year’s seemingly random significance, perhaps especially because 40 had been in quarantine and 41 in lockdown. Flying cross-Atlantic defied these realities, reminding me of my journeying life (in mind and in body). And then a good friend who was also born in 1980 reminded me that while Elvis died at 42 (what a great film that was - my take in the link), Minnesotan Robert Pirsig sets out in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to arrive in San Francisco on his 42nd birthday…and reach a kind of enlightenment. Bring it on.
Because of the jet lag (and the child with jet lag, which is much, much worse…), I’m going to make today’s newsletter more fleeting. I’ll probably come back to many of these texts. In the meantime, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions about our topic today.
Transcendentalists and Concord, Massachusetts
A decent historical overview of Transcendentalism’s roots can be found on the History of Massachusetts website and a good overview of its philosophy can be found on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Transcendentalism is part religion, part philosophy, part political movement, and part artistic (writing) movement that is grounded in individualism, idealism, and the divinity of nature. The ideas originating by the authors in Concord were also a kind of social justice. Stanford summarizes its origins here and initial impact, although the impact continues on today:
Stimulated by English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume, the transcendentalists operated with the sense that a new era was at hand. They were critics of their contemporary society for its unthinking conformity, and urged that each person find, in Emerson’s words, “an original relation to the universe” (O, 3). Emerson and Thoreau sought this relation in solitude amidst nature, and in their writing. By the 1840s they, along with other transcendentalists, were engaged in the social experiments of Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden; and, by the 1850s in an increasingly urgent critique of American slavery.
If you want to journey along the route of Transcendentalists, you can follow this list of sites from Culture Trip. Many of these places are along the Minuteman National Historic Park Trail (not to be confused with the Minuteman Bikeway, which is a fantastic bike trail made from an old rail line leading from Bedford and Lexington to the closest metro station to Boston in Arlington). I have run along this trail many times; it is beautiful all times of year even if you are not that interested in the historical elements.
In addition to Concord sharing fame for the start of the Revolutionary War, it is also the birthplace of transcendentalism and continues to be a home-place of many writers. If you go, you must visit The Concord Bookshop and Haute Coffee next door, which definitely lives up to the name and provides a space under old New England wooden beams to enjoy a chat or a writing session. The bookshop is over eighty years old and has a large local author section. It also often hosts events, such as author talks and signings.
My favorite Concord texts:
Walden and “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” by Henry David Thoreau (who coined the term civil disobedience when he chose not to pay taxes in response to slavery and the Mexican-American War; you can visit Walden Pond as well and walk the places he did in order to avoid society’s materialism and conformity)
Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, of which there are many…and shall be discussed later. Perhaps start with “Friendship” from the first series or “The Poet” from the second, or go right for the most famous: “Self-Reliance”
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (the house visit is also fun)
If you choose to engage with early American literature, it may be helpful to think of it in conversation with European literature of the time as well as World Literature (basically, any literature at all…). As it was forming an identity and style of its own, it also a “hybrid,” like all literature, a word used by Edward W. Said and borrowed from Homi Bhabha in Culture and Imperialism. In discussion of American literature within the frame of postcolonialism (both as former British colonies and continued colonizers of the native peoples and nations), he talks about “some notion of literature and indeed all culture as hybrid…and encumbered, or entangled and overlapping with what used to be regarded as extraneous elements” (p. 384). He thinks it is essential that we do not place identities as reflected in the arts in silos, stressing the importance of a matrix of influences and making it a bit silly to talk about our literature and theirs, as if a ‘world literature’ is something else.
*If you are new to these ideas and interested, I recommend also taking a look at French(ish) philosophers of the twentieth century: Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault, as well as the (still alive) Indian literary critic and Columbia professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
And why not continue the pilgrimage onward to Henry James’ residence in Boston on beautiful Mount Vernon Street? The Bostonians can give you more local color if you’ve only read his works that take place abroad, but Daisy Miller is my favorite if you haven’t read it before. James’ wit and use of satire make for clever tales but those that are ultimately grounded by human relationships.
You can’t visit Nathaniel Hawthorne’s home, but you can visit The House of the Seven Gables, eponymous setting of Hawthorne’s novel. He was born in Salem where The Scarlet Letter takes place. I used to love teaching this tale of morality, with so many questions about gender relationships and culture and tradition. Students have strong opinions about this text. Salem-set drama The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, is another teaching gem, making this setting a great field trip for English teachers. (Check out how some students finally cleared the name of the last Salem ‘witch’.)
Slightly farther in the Berkshires, you can visit Arrowhead, the Herman Melville House Museum, which also hosts quite a few artist talks, as well as The Mount, home of Edith Wharton. The Berkshires is also home to Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood each summer. But it may be even more interesting to take a trip out to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, or New Bedford to understand more of Moby Dick and whaling culture.
Throughout Massachusetts, you can visit many writer’s historic homes as museums, as outlined in “Boston: the Birthplace of American Literature.” There are additionally many a poetry reading and literary event at Longfellow House in Cambridge.
Speaking of poets, there have likewise been many famous ones in Massachusetts. Here are some short autumn quotes from two of them to build on the autumn poetry last week:
From Emily Dickinson’s “Besides the Autumn poets sing”:
Still, is the bustle in the brook -
Sealed are the spicy valves -
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many Elves -
From Robert Frost’s “October”:
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.
Is it the strong contrast of four distinct seasons that make this place a rich space for creation? Or the fact that it is not-New York and not-Vermont, but something in between?
How does home influence the literature and art we ingest and, therefore, create? Is there something in the nature of the place we grow up that changes our own artistry?
Will my son, a third culture kid, have a limited access to an orientation of artistry…or will he have an advantage — multiple home places and cultural spaces?
Ok, I’m signing off for today to create my own autumn poetry. We are heading to an apple orchard! Next week, I’ll add more about Massachusetts art museums, films, and theaters. Thanks for reading!
Kathleen Waller is a novelist with a PhD in Comparative Literature. She previously taught literature, cultural studies, art, ethics, and epistemology to high school and university students for twenty years. For more information: kathleenwaller.com
Reading from your link Emerson essay on Friendship:
'A man is reputed to have thought and eloquence; he cannot, for all that, say a word to his cousin or his uncle. They accuse his silence with as much reason as they would blame the insignificance of a dial in the shade. In the sun it will mark the hour. Among those who enjoy his thought, he will regain his tongue.'
That last sentence might be wise comfort for some of us. Thanks Kate
Autumn leaves...orchards...AND the home of Louisa May Alcott? I am sold! I would love to visit New England, and you have evoked it so wonderfully in this piece that I am now more determined than ever : ) Regarding how home influences the literature and art we ingest/create - that is something worth pondering. I certainly think that where you hail from has a strong influence on the way you read and see art. I live in the city of Sheffield, in the north of England, which is said to be the greenest city in Europe. Our trees outnumber people, and the city is said to feel more like a village in the friendliness of its citizens. I feel that these kinds of stories have left indelible marks on me and the way I write, as well as the kind of writers I enjoy reading and the artwork I covet, which often reflect city life as well as nature. Great post - and happy birthday! : )