Retreat to community center: preserving The Mount

Last summer, listening to a free audiobook version of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence was what saved me from the bland hell of putting letters in order by date and picking out rusty staples that came with the much more interesting territory of processing a large personal archival collection at the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. (I was in charge of imposing order on the chaos and whimsy of the personal papers of Ray Stannard Baker, noted Progressive Era muckraker and the subject of my honors thesis, for those of you even remotely interested in my archival adventures).

Back to Wharton. So, in the rarefied air of Special Collections, I clung to the excitement and intrigue that Wharton’s really cutting portrayal of New York City high society provided me. Jane Austen, but later, and with decidedly more zing and shock value: I liked it. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to go out and see Wharton’s country retreat, The Mount, which is in the Berkshires.

For anyone who likes Wharton, it’s a fun visit. There’s a guided tour, which covers the essentials of her biography and elaborates on some of those charming eccentricities that writers only reveal at home. For example, Wharton apparently was more than a little obsessed with symmetry in designing her home: there are plenty of nonfunctional doors which are there only to sit opposite ones that do and the like. The tour also includes a good deal about her unhappy marriage (and its possible generation of writing material) and her friendship with Henry James, another American writer who, like Wharton, also spent much of his life abroad. When the tour finishes, there are several more rooms of exhibits–more on Wharton’s marital (and extramarital?) life, and some about her involvement in World War I charity efforts.

But, above all, I left The Mount with a renewed respect for the importance of local preservation efforts. Wharton’s estate–which was a private residence and then a girl’s school after the Whartons left–was in shambles when, providentially, a group of artists from local theater company Shakespeare & Company took an interest in the house, which had been serving as their summer home. They formed a community group that created Edith Wharton Restoration and began an extensive and ongoing rehabilitation process to preserve the house and open it to the public.

I do find it a little ironic that Edith Wharton, who lived her life at the very top of American society, should be so commemorated by a kind of community organizing, but I have to admit that the results the Edith Wharton Restoration project has achieved so far are impressive and beautiful. The place has clearly become a nice public resource, and not just for its status as an author’s historic home. The Mount hosts summer theater, music, and other events, mostly related to the Berkshire summer art community, and its grounds and gardens are free for the public to wander and enjoy some really fascinating art installations.

The Mount isn’t a retreat for a rich writer whose career focused almost entirely on the wealthy and the privileged anymore. It’s been reclaimed.

PS. The Mount is also part of the shameful 5% of National Historic Landmarks devoted to women–so there’s another reason to go. (And an indictment of our disappointing preservational tendencies…).

Link

Politics have I Tumbl’d

Full disclosure: I have a Tumblr. Not only that, it’s a mish-mash of political and cultural (and yes, literary–that always seems to creep in there) things I find fascinating. Please don’t hate me–I don’t post memes/inspirational quotes/hipster photographs too often, and I actually do write political pieces and stick them on there. It’s a real blog, not a curated cesspool of wacky/weird/quaintly beautiful things that are just so, so me. Repeat: that’s not what it is. What it is is a way for me to keep engaged in and keep critical of the current political conversation. If you’re at all interested in that, click the link above and find out what I have to say.

That said, I’m actually considering migrating some of it over to a new WordPress address, because there are some things about the Tumblr user interface that haven’t been working for me so well, and partly because I’m getting tired of apologizing for doing something so foolish as tumbling. Anyone out there have any advice/experience doing that? 

Rich writers

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Longfellow House and Washington Headquarters National Historic Site, Cambridge, MA.

Writers’ haunts abound in New England in general and Massachusetts specifically. Lucky for all of us, many of the famous ones have been turned into museums, where you can check out the Desk They Wrote Their Famous Novels On and The Room They Slept In With Their Spouse, Who Was The Inspiration For That Character. Put like that, and visits to writers’ houses seem a bit cultish, a bit religiously motivated, but if we’re being serious about why these places attract people, it’s the visceral I-am-in-their-place-where-they-were-so-brilliant feeling you get when you touch the one thing you’re usually allowed to touch in these places–the bannister going up the (uneven, creaky) stairs (although technically that applies to any famous person’s home you visit, really).

One thing besides the devoted super fan dynamic that you get from visiting writers’ houses is a real sense of how they lived day-to-day. And one thing that strikes me is how often the writer’s place in the American literary canon is misleading. We have such visions of some of our writers as these everyday, workingman American gods–Mark Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman. The true voices of the people, the true diviners of American character.

Visit their houses and you get a different story, as I learned in visiting the Longfellow House Historical Site earlier this fall.

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A real whale of a day

13852-new-bedford-new-bedford-whaling-museum-2 Pardon the horrific pun. I’d say I’m allowed to make it, since this post is about the historical and scientific goodies on offer at New Bedford, MA, the former whaling capital of the world, but I think non-witticisms like that aren’t really forgivable, ever.

I had been to New Bedford before, plenty of times, and spent hours with whatever parent or grandparent had decided to take my brother and me to see the New Bedford Whaling Museum and assorted historic buildings/cobblestone streets that surround it. But this time, things were different: 1. I was no longer ten, and therefore the half-size-but-still-huge model whaling ship replica and the massive whale skeletons on display were not the only things that tickled my fancy and 2. I had read Moby Dick, which is understandably their go-to text for framing quotes and making connections between whaling and other recognizable cultural issues (slavery, race, religion, natural world, science–I mean, god Melville, was there anything you didn’t put in that damn book?). Continue reading

A trek through Wild

Haven’t done a book-related post in a while, and I finished the book itself quite a while ago, so it’s high time to get this one out there. 

I picked up Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about thru-hiking a sizable chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail, because it had a pair of hiking boots on the cover and was written by a woman. I’m always on the lookout for books dealing women and the outdoors, and this one presented itself, nicely wrapped in its New York Times bestseller-dom. What I got was far more than just a tale of a woman in the woods, however; Wild also meditates beautifully on loss, family, and the process of making oneself anew. Continue reading

JFK, Jackie, Camelot: keeping the myth alive

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A Camelot-style Cape Cod photo: always with the big grin for him and statuesque pose for her.

My visit to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which is in South Boston, was an education in the potency of Camelot, American-style.  You just don’t know the charm or power of two beautiful people until you see a museum devoted to them, and then you know.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I ought to begin with the usual details: the JFK Library and Museum is in South Boston, as I said, right on the water (beautiful location), across a spacious parking lot from the Massachusetts State Archives (which include the Commonwealth Museum, featuring copies of the original royal charters for the colony, Massachusetts’ copies of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, the state constitution, and a shortish exhibit detailing some important bits in the state’s history. Definitely worth a visit, especially for proud MA residents!). There’s a free bus from the nearest T stop (JFK/UMass) to the museum: no braving the wilds of Boston in an automobile. Continue reading

The job marathon continues – a personal post

Last month, I wrote a lengthy (and very cathartic for me, I assure you!) post about my job search, which shows no sign right now of resolving itself. In between cover letters and endless tweaks of my resume, I’ve used this past month to do a whole lot of thinking about why exactly I felt so frustrated about not pinning myself down to a particular career field, contrary to popular wisdom about imagining your perfect job/career and then figuring out what networking/applications/internships/skill acquisition things have to happen before you achieve your goal. I lamented my seeming lack of specificity or direction–although I did enjoy spreading myself wide and sucking up information about a variety of fields. I was the advocate for jacks-of-all-trades! I was sticking it to the man! Continue reading