Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Writer's Home: John Greenleaf Whittier

What does the bookish life look like? Some people visited Amesbury, Massachusetts, seventy-five years ago with that question in mind – enough people, it seems, that custodians of the Whittier Home had postcards printed for sale to its visitors.

In the 1930's there might well have lingered about a writer's house like this a kind of nostalgia. Sturdy hardcover readers that visitors would have encountered in their grade-school classrooms regularly featured writings by John Greenleaf Whittier. Here was the flavor of daily life in New England much as Thornton Wilder tried to evoke it for theatergoers in his 1938 play Our Town.

The wallpaper as it appears in the old postcards is still on the walls of the Garden Room. I saw the old green paper in the poet's study this past weekend. Likewise, the guide pointed out, the rug on the floor is the very one across which the poet had walked.

I got to stand this past Sunday by the window beside which the poet had rocked sunny days and snowy.

But then so had any visitor to the house in the 1930s.

What I would like a chance to do is stand by that window at night – lie in a bed upstairs later and listen to the house settle through the night – wake up at three o'clock and hear rain on the roof – drink a first cup of coffee on the steps to the backyard in the early morning. Unfortunately, I probably know all the practical reasons why the custodians of such literary properties cannot allow an overnight visitor, even one willing to pay generously for the privilege.

I bet a modest guestroom with a firm, modern mattress and a private bath would sell, though.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Nearing Summer's End

One of my brothers collects random pieces of old hotel china. He and I have not spoken of the exact nature of the lure these items have for him. His decorating instincts are impeccable, though, and mismatched plates and saucers appear in just the right places on walls or atop side tables in his New Orleans home.

My brother has not put into words for me the imaginative place to which these old dishes invite him. I can hear him say, "They're just fun."

I suspect there might be something lost for him in anyone's attempt to probe the secret behind a vanished hotel or its dinnerware. He may not even think there is a secret.

He might sigh with a hint of exasperation if he knew I was writing about the whole situation.

Hotels that are no more suggest long seasons that will never come back.

The Checkley House no longer stands on a promontory in Prout's Neck, Maine. A vivid evocation of the life that once swirled on the beaches below it came from the brush of Winslow Homer. The painter's studio was not far from the Checkley, and it was a member of his family who later linked the hotel to Homer's 1890 canvas Nuit d'été.

That summer night is over.

All the summer nights that guests at the Checkley had the good fortune to enjoy are over.

An old postcard is a way to summon a ghostly glimmer of those days and nights.

A piece of old Checkley House china might do the same.