When you read poems or novels, you may wonder how much they reflect the authors' own experiences - particularly when their work is strongly rooted in a sense of place. Think Willa Cather and the Nebraska plains, or Langston Hughes and the streets of Harlem.
For ex-Vermonter and literature enthusiast Thomas R. Hummel, writers' firsthand experiences of place are fascinating in themselves - and have become the subject of his beautifully produced coffee-table book A Journey Through Literary America. Now settled with a family in California, Hummel grew up in Burlington and earned his bachelor's in English and German literature at Middlebury College in 1990. It was partly his fond memories of the Queen City that inspired him to look into how this country's writers experienced the places they wrote about.
For the book, Hummel wrote absorbing bios of 26 American writers, four of them poets, whom he chose from an original list of 50 authors "who wrote with a descriptive sense of place." Photographer Tamra L. Dempsey drove 15,000 miles over the course of a year to shoot the houses, neighborhoods and skylines that helped shape those authors' writing. The subjects of her gorgeous, mood-evoking shots range from Flannery O'Connor's Georgia farm, Andalusia, to the fields that inspired Robert Frost (the only Vermont author featured), to the rocky Pacific coastline where Robinson Jeffers built Tor House out of stone.
Um, Robinson Jeffers? The 1920s poet, whose work was profoundly shaped by place, "was once one of the most famous poets in America. Then his work fell by the wayside," Hummel explains by phone from the printing house where he works in Marina del Rey, and which also printed his book. Including Jeffers "was an attempt to bring him back into the American canon, in my own small way," he adds with a laugh.
Other choices are more obvious: Hawthorne and New England, E. Annie Proulx and Wyoming. Hemingway is included for his connections not to Paris or Spain but to Walloon Lake, Mich. On the other hand, Emily Dickinson did not make the cut, Hummel recalls, because "hers is not really location-based writing."
A Journey Through Literary America is not a guide to literary landmarks. (The book doesn't clarify, for instance, that Emerson lived at the Old Manse in Concord, Mass., for only a year, in 1834, while Hawthorne's family moved in later, in 1842, and stayed for three years.) "We were investigating the locales that inspired great American writers, as opposed to the spots where they laid their heads," Hummel says. ?
His essays on these locales and their immortalizers blend historical details - such as moments in war or politics that predate an author's arrival, or trends in art history that helped shape an authorial viewpoint - with a sense of each writer as a person. Emerson wooed his second wife, Lidia, by letter, then "rechristened [her] as the more poetic 'Lidian.'" Faulkner and Hemingway, who both "wanted desperately to be heroes in the Great War," "each saw a good tailor and returned [from noncombat roles] resplendent in a uniform that was better than standard issue."
If the book's arresting photographs threaten to upstage its text, that's only fitting: Hummel originally "figured the photographs were the key thing, and I'd write short little blurbs about each writer. But when I started reading the authors, I realized you had to do them justice," he says.
He hopes the book inspires others to read American fiction - and possibly become writers themselves. Readers are invited to compose their own place-based recollections for the My Hometown Writing Contest, to be judged by Hummel, his editor, Malena Watrous, and his sister, Maria Hummel, a novelist and former Bread Loaf fellow who teaches writing at Stanford University. "There's a lot that anybody can say about the place where they grew up, and there should be a venue for that," says Hummel, a nascent writer himself. "And, who knows, there might be another book in that, too."