Bare and authentic or full and fake? The dilemma of preserving writers' houses

Mark Twain's chair, Louisa May Alcott's pillows, Robert Frost's many houses and the empty home of Edgar Allen Poe

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

Every year, tens of thousands of visitors flock to the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, in order to see where he lived and wrote. Many famous writers’ homes are preserved for visitors, some of whom are devoted readers (and some who know they are supposed to read his or her books). Twain, we can imagine, sat in that chair while writing Huckleberry Finn. However, only a small portion of the objects one sees were actually there when the writer lived in the house. Most of the original pieces were either sold off or dispersed to family members.

The cost of building this 1874 house and furnishing it, in fact, was too much for Twain, and he and his family needed to sell most of it and move abroad in 1891. (Much of what visitors see there are either reproductions or ‘period’ objects that look like the furniture the Clemenses actually owned, based on photographs.) Then again, authenticity is probably less the goal than giving a certain impression of the writer and his world, as the Mark Twain House has Twain impersonators (dressed in white suits) regaling visitors with amusing anecdotes. Visitors get an immersive, rather than an authentic, experience. Should it matter that we’re not really seeing what we expect to see?

The Louisa May Alcott Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, is stronger on authenticity. One looks at ‘the actual furniture the Alcotts sat on, the pillows they embroidered, their sewing bags, May’s original paintings and sketches’, Jan Turnquist, Orchard House’s director, noted. ‘If the Alcotts were able to come back to life and walk through the doors, they would feel at home, because nothing has been moved.’ Two of Louisa’s nephews, who established the house as a place of pilgrimage for devotees of her books in 1912, ‘made sure that everything was the Alcotts’. Tour guides read passages from Little Women that describe objects and people in the house, and visitors may ‘feel like they’re walking through the book’.

Authenticity, of course, involves more than just chairs and pictures. In fact, the Edgar Allan Poe House in Philadelphia is largely empty, because its operators refuse to display anything that doesn’t have 100 per cent provenance. ‘We have no idea what kind of furnishings the Poes had,’ said Karie Diethorn, chief museum curator at the Independence National Historic Site in Philadelphia, which manages the Poe House, adding that the Poes lived hand-to-mouth, were ‘peripatetic, so they didn’t accumulate much stuff’, and when the writer died there was no estate. She noted that many visitors ‘don’t understand why the house hasn’t been restored and refurbished’. Diethorn claimed that an empty house ‘removes distractions of the material world Poe lived in, allowing visitors to focus on the literary world, his creative process and achievement’.

Perhaps the focus on authentic objects may be a disservice in other ways. Anne Trubek, author of A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), claimed that Little Women isn’t quite as autobiographical as tour guides may suggest, but ‘conflates fact and fiction. Louisa May Alcott felt oppressed by all her domestic duties and having to take care of her mother and sisters. She moved to Boston so that she could have a room of her own.’ Her father might be described less as a sane free-thinker than as an eccentric who couldn’t hold down a job. Trubek claimed that part of what makes the Orchard House interesting is ‘the story they choose to tell about the Alcotts and why they choose to tell it’. In effect, the Louisa May Alcott house may be more authentic to the experience of reading Little Women than to the real life of the author and the other actual occupants of Orchard House.

Mucking up the experience of visiting a writer’s house is the fact that writers, like most of us, have lived in more than one house during their lives and careers. There are numerous Robert Frost (1874–1963) residences that one may visit, including two in New Hampshire and two in Vermont, plus another in Michigan, one in South Miami, Florida, which he purchased in 1940 where he spent his remaining winters, and another in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The open-to-the-public Robert Frost houses make claims about noted poems that were penned on their sites, but with such an itinerant life it is difficult to know how much one location mattered more than another.

By comparison, artists’ homes and studios frequently offer a bit more information on the creative process than the homes of writers. For instance, after the sculptor Chaim Gross died in 1991, his widow, Renee, opened his studio in lower Manhattan to the public as a museum, his workshop preserved exactly as the artist had left it, ‘with his tools out, a last piece of wood he hadn’t carved yet still in the vice’. No one would think to put ‘period’ tools in Chaim Gross’s studio. Of course, the process itself of turning a studio or a house into a museum makes the place less authentic, no longer a realm of creativity but one of tribute and reflection.

In the continuum of authenticity, all historic house operators have to pick what they take to be the essential story and work around that, hoping that the physical stuff that visitors see advances rather than intrudes upon that narrative.

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  • Jacques Lamarre

    As the Director of Communications for The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, CT, I would like to take a moment to point out that much of the information pertaining to our house museum is inaccurate. I will try to address the incorrect information sentence by sentence as there appears to be something wrong in every sentence Mr. Grant has written about our house. The cost of building the Clemens’ Family’s home in 1874 was not too much for Twain as his wife’s family’s money paid for the building of the house. The furnishing of the house was not a financial strain on him either. In 1881, Twain paid Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Associated Artists to come in and design interior treatments for the house. The family moved out in 1891, after residing in the house for 17 years, because of failed business investments, not due to the construction or furnishing of the house. Many of the furnishings in the home are in fact Clemens Family owned objects. If one looks at the Drawing Room, for example, the chairs/couch, mirror, statue, clock and chandelier are all Clemens objects. Other objects in the home are from his in-laws’ home in Rochester, NY and are therefore Langdon Family objects. With the exception of certain textile items (bed linens, drapes, carpets), paper items (letters), and modern electrical lighting, all of the items that are non-Clemens or Langdon artifacts are late 19th century objects selected to reflect items that we know the family owned or were typical in Victorian homes. With few exceptions, they are not reproductions as cited. Finally, the museum does not employee white-suited Mark Twain impersonators. In fact, the museum does not employee Mark Twain impersonators at all.

    • Sam Martini

      Good reply, but I have one question. You say that you don’t employ Mark Twain impersonators, and I believe you. Do you have unpaid volunteers who do something of the sort? (White suits, etc.)
      I ask this because it seemed to me that your emphasis on ’employed’ was a little too heavy, and because, while I love visiting historic houses, it makes my toes curl when people in period costume pretend they’re actual servants or cooks, or whatever. I’d have no problem if they dressed like that, but made it quite clear they had their mobile phone in their pocket and their car in the car park.

      • Jacques Lamarre

        First, my apologies for the use of the term employee. I meant to state that we do not employ Mark Twain impersonators (white suited or otherwise). I cannot remember the last time we had one on the grounds. Our guides are all paid and give tours in their street clothes. The only exception is our upcoming nighttime servant tours when we will be using costumed actors to interpret the house from the servants’ point of view.

  • Sod the Americans with their gauche ‘immersions’ (I know the sort): I want to see authentic. [Disclaimer: I’m American myself, among other things.]

  • Gwangi

    Oh FFS – it’s the tourism industry we’re talking about here; nothing at all to do with writing (most visitors to Shakespeare’s alleged house and the one masquerading as his wife’s in that tourist hellhole Stratford on Avon will never have read Shakespeare and those who have would have done so reluctantly at school). As someone who loves Mark Twain, I feel no need to visit his house – as I don’t need to visit Liverpool to enjoy and understand the Beatles.

    Mark Twain is perfect on Jane Austen (whom he hated). I shall come out now as another Austen hater. Though no doubt some femibot will pursue me online like a terrifying Terminator of femi-fury online now!

    Twain on Jane Austen: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

    • Gwangi

      Just to add: all this worship of writers’ artefacts and homes reminds me of the relic industry of the catholic church, or perhaps of the worship of Mohammed by Muslims or of Lenin by Commies.
      I remember visiting the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. We visited a museum in which one exhibit was a scrap of wallpaper from a room Lenin once stayed in.
      But then again, someone paid thousands for John Lennon’s tooth and the Russians guard their piece of Adolf’s skull like a holy relic.
      Re writers, it is the books that matter – the work. Not the room in which Jane Austen once farted. Just tourism industry pap. Fair enough, I suppose. And I think visits to such places of interest have to be better than trips to the bingo or flying out to Thailand to sit on a beach for 2 weeks.