Before William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry wrote his famous short story “The Gift of the Magi,” he lived for a few years in Austin, Texas. The tiny house he rented survives as a museum. It’s tucked in right next to the giant Hilton Austin in the center of town and this property looks like it would have great potential to become a parking lot or fast food joint, and in fact it barely missed the wrecking ball back in the 1930s.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post on authors’ homes, the places where famous authors lived are often a disappointment compared to the places they describe in their books. And, a huge modern building right next door doesn’t help you envision the author’s life as it was in the 1800s. Nonetheless, if you’re in Austin, you should pay a call at Porter’s house, if only to get a taste of how people lived at the time. The price is right, too. It’s free, but please make a donation when you leave.
While he resided here (1893 to 1895), Porter made his living drawing maps for the General Land Office and publishing a paper called the Rolling Stone (quite different from the current publication of that name). Before you go, be sure to read a couple of his most famous stories–“The Gift of the Magi” or “The Ransom of Red Chief.”
Ah, the symbolism. If Porter could see his tiny home now, wedged in next to the giant hotel, I’m sure he would find inspiration for another story.
There are certain aspects of Paris that have always captured my imagination, most of them in some way related to literature. The French Revolution, for example, fascinates me, a fact I trace back to middle school when I read Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton, Madame DeFarge and her nasty band of peasant rebels all made Paris seem real to me long before I had an opportunity to actually see it. Then, Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables added to my panorama of Paris.
From Victor Hugo, fast forward to the Jazz Age of the 1920s, when artists and writers swarmed to Paris like bees to honey. If you saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you have a feel for the era when American expat writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald lived in Paris but seem to spend more time carousing than writing. That was about 90 years ago, but you can still see most of the places that Hemingway describes so beautifully in A Moveable Feast. The book is a virtual guidebook to the places he found most remarkable when he lived in Paris with is first wife, Hadley in the 1920s (and with subsequent wives later on).
The story goes that, in the 1950s, a trunk full of notes on his first years in Paris turned up at the Ritz Hotel. That gave him the raw material to write A Moveable Feast. So, take a little stop at the Ritz, near the Place Vendôme, especially at the hotel’s Hemingway Bar. During the Liberation of Paris in 1944, Hemingway considered it one of his first duties to “liberate” the Ritz bar and order martinis all around. Here at the Ritz, Hemingway asked Mary Welsh to become his fourth wife. The hotel is closed for renovations but will open this year. CoCo Chanel lived at the Ritz and one of the rooms in the Imperial Suite re-creates one of Marie-Antoinette’s rooms at Versailles.
If, like most of us, you lack the Versailles-level budget required to stay at the Ritz, consider staying in the Contrescarpe neighborhood where Hemingway lived in the 1920s. Be sure to pause at 74 Rue de Cardinal Lemoine where he and Hadley lived from 1922 to 1923, “the Paris of our youth, when we were very poor and very happy.” He describes their apartment:
Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic container, not uncomfortable to anyone who was used to a Michigan outhouse.”
This apartment is where Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, the book that made him famous. Below it is a shop that used to be a bal-musette or dance hall. It appears in The Sun Also Rises as the bal where we first meet Lady Brett. (Rest assured, you don’t have to live like a starving artist in this neighborhood. If you can book far enough ahead, try the Hotel D’Angleterre where Hemingway once stayed.) Wander Place Contrescarpe, a rough old square packed with cafes and apartments that couldn’t have changed since the 1920s. Take a morning stroll through the Marche Mouffetard (prime time is Saturday and Sunday morning), a fantastic market with produce, cheese, wine and just about anything you’ll need for your own feast, a picnic by the Seine or in the nearby Luxembourg Gardens.
If you walk downhill from Hemingway’s apartment on Cardinal Lemoine you’ll come to the Seine where you’ll see the famed expat bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., and across the street, Notre Dame Cathedral. From here, you can follow the steps of Jake and Bill in The Sun Also Rises as they circle the Île St-Louis. The stalls of the bouquinistes–sellers of antique books, magazines and a bit of tourist trash–line the walk along the river. Hemingway used to stroll here and chat with the booksellers. “I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.”
He adds, “With the
fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with the smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river.”
You won’t feel lonely in any of the many famous cafes along Boulevard du Montparnasse, either. Okay, they’re pricey and popular with tourists, but worth it if you want to sample jazz age cafe life. The Closerie des Lilas, for example, at 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse is a lovely cafe where Hemingway wrote and Scott Fitzgerald read him The Great Gatsby. La Coupole, at number 102, is a vast art deco brasserie, brightly painted by Brancusi and Chagall.
Finally, to really get the swing of the Paris of Hemingway’s era, wander the medieval lanes of the Latin Quarter where you’ll find the great jazz club Le Caveau de la Huchette at 5 rue de la Huchette. Though it wasn’t around during Hemingway’s time, it surely has much of the era’s joie de vivre. In Le Caveau’s ancient vaulted cellar you’ll find a dance floor, a swing band, and people dancing like Mexican jumping beans on a hot skillet. Sit back and watch Parisians enjoy la belle vie or join in the dancing. It’s your own moveable feast. As Hemingway concluded, “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”
From the outside where bins of books lure visitors to pause and browse on a sunny day, to the golden hued interior where books fill every nook and cranny, Shakespeare and Company positively vibrates with literary history. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway said of the famed Paris bookstore, “On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.” He could have been describing the store as it is today, in its current location at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, (formerly a monastery) across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s a place where the most current books and writers mingle with rare old volumes, where the tradition of fostering new writers merges with a heritage that reaches back to 1919 and “The Lost Generation.”
When Hemingway discovered Shakespeare and Company back in the 1920s it was located at 12 Rue l’Odeon. Its owner, Sylvia Beach, both sold books and loaned them out, which was perfect for the impoverished writer who had just moved to Paris with his wife Hadley. (Read their story in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.) In those days, her shop was the center of modernist literary culture, with writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Stein, and Joyce congregating in the “warm, cheerful place” full innovative ideas. Not surprisingly, one could find all of the books banned in England and America—most notably, Joyce’s Ulysses—readily available in Beach’s shop. After publishers rejected Joyce’s gigantic Ulysses as pornographic, Shakespeare and Company published it.
But that was before the World War II. The shop closed after the Germans occupied Paris. Hemingway himself “liberated” the store when he entered Paris with the American troops in 1944, but the store didn’t reopen until the 1950s when George Whitman a new shop, originally called Le Mistral and later Shakespeare and Company, in its current location and continued Beach’s work. Here, a second generation of writers gathered, everyone from the last modernists—Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, and Samuel Beckett—through the first Beats—Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman now owns Shakespeare and Company, which has become the world’s most famous bookstore. It still serves as a haven for penniless writers, who are allowed to sleep among its shelves for free.
I have a feeling that Hemingway would feel at home in the the store today, though he would surely miss the first Sylvia Beach… and they’d want him to buy the books.
I love the water, but as a Midwesterner, the ocean holds a special fascination because we don’t have one. Granted, the Great Lakes are big enough and fierce enough in bad weather to give the feeling of the ocean and the same waves of motion sickness wash over on me on rough water, salty or fresh. But there’s just something about the ocean that launches my imagination into overdrive.
First there are the tides. We visited friends one summer who live on a Pacific coast inlet. When we arrived we were oceanside. The next morning the water was gone and the boats all sat in the sand awaiting high tide to float them again. This was a freaky, Stephen King-like experience for a “lake person.”
The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald aside, the ocean simply carries a bigger cargo of tales, from Moby Dick to Captains Courageous to The Perfect Storm and about a zillion classic novels in between. Gloucester, Mass., a real fishing town north of Boston, offers one of the best places to hang out and absorb a heavy dose of the maritime atmosphere that makes those stories come to life. You’ll get a double dose if you attend the Gloucester Schooner Festival this weekend.
Finally, few things are more pleasurable than being sea-side, dozing intermittently, lulled by the warmth of the sun, a view of the ocean, the sound of the surf, and the coconutty smell of sunscreen on your skin. I just read a post from a blog I follow, Jenn’s Bookselves, in which she writes about how much the venue in which we read a novel, can affect our
feelings and reading experience. I nominate surfside as one of the best places to read, though it’s important to do so with books that give your brain a chance to relax along with the rest of your body. So raise your pina colada and your copy of anything by Carl Hiassen. Here’s to beach reading.
In my opinion, if you’re looking for one place where you can go to get an understanding of the United States–its culture, its history and its struggles–it’s Memphis. Robert Gordon says in It Came from Memphis, “No city has had more of an impact on modern culture.”
It’s not a fancy place, like, for example another Southern city I love, Charleston. But, Memphis moves you. The Memphis mojo makes even the most reserved person want to snap her fingers and start dancing with abandon. In fact, go to the Stax Museum, “Soulsville, USA,” and hit the dance floor there which is surrounded by a video wall. Or, visit Sun Studio where a few guys named Elvis, Johnny, and Jerry Lee recorded their hits. Try to stand still; I dare you. I predict you’ll be rockin’ before you even notice it.
But it’s not all so happy-go-lucky. Memphis was a hub for the civil rights movement and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated there at the Lorraine Motel, which is now
the National Civil Rights Museum, another “moving” place. This is mecca for anyone interested in the civil rights movement. It’s undergoing an extensive renovation and is currently featuring the exhibit, “Freedom’s Sisters.” Before you go, read Hampton Sides’ Hellhound on His Trail for background and to feel a very close connection to those events.
Then get rollin’ on the river with Mark Twain. His classic Life on the Mississippi outlines not only his experience as a young riverboat pilot but also his observations from a later trip on the river where he observes the cotton culture, the people and many other aspects of life on the Big Muddy. Take a short riverboat cruise and you’ll feel the river’s power and learn a little more about its history and integral role in the development of the country.
Need more excuses to visit Memphis? Check out a few of the city’s upcoming events including Elvis Week, the King’s birthday celebration (this year from August 10-17), and of course Graceland. The Memphis Music and Heritage Festival takes place every year on
Labor Day weekend. It’s organized by the Center for Southern Folklore. And, now through October you can visit Mud Island Park to see “Discovery: A Journey of Exploration and Imagination of America’s Waterways,” a traveling exhibit of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and the National Rivers Hall of Fame.
Looking for a creative Father’s Day gift? Think books-and-adventure.
Say “literary travel” and people usually conjure up images of following in the footsteps of the Bronte sisters in England, visiting Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, or perhaps tracing the route of the fictional Robert Langdon through Florence in Dan Brown’s latest, Inferno. Those are great ideas, but for most of us, such excursions mean a major investment of time and money. Instead, I maintain that you can concoct a lit trip just about anywhere if you find the right book and activity combo. A short lit trip doesn’t have to take a huge chunk of your budget or your schedule. And it doesn’t require plowing through high-brow literature. The idea here is to have fun.
Like moms, fathers love spending time with their kids. Unlike moms, “together time” for dads may involve watching golf or ESPN. A lit trip with dad provides just the right catalyst to propel everyone away from watching sports on TV to watching events in person or better yet, participating. Reading the same book (fiction or non-fiction) just naturally brings people together over shared stories and ideas. A literary adventure, near or far, extends the pleasure of sharing a book by adding an experience to the mix, creating an opportunity to live the book. So, it a lit trip doesn’t have to be a scholars exercise, just a way to try out new ideas, activities, and even meet new people.
At almost all of the events and appearances I do for my book Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways, men come up to me and say I should do a book for guys. Often, the books and itineraries in my book can be enjoyed by both men and women, so I imagine an Off The Beaten Page, Men’s Edition would offer much of the same sort of content but with a bit of fine-tuning… more NASCAR, less shopping. Here are a few ideas for literary adventures for guys, dads and otherwise.
A Flying Leap
Is there something on dad’s bucket list that he just needs a little encouragement to try? Sky diving was on my husband’s list for ages and he finally talked one of our sons into going with him as a Father’s Day treat for himself.
Read: Above All Else: A World Champion Skydiver’s Story of Survival and What It Taught Him About Fear, Adversity, and Success by Dan Brodsky-Chenfield. (Okay, I’m thinking you may want to go skydiving first, then read the book.)
How to Be Manly
Not so hot on extreme adventures like skydiving?
Read: Man Made: In Which a Dad Learns to Be a Man for His Son by Joel Stein. In hardback, this book had a title I liked better, A Stupid Quest for Masculinity. Stein confesses that he’s not a “manly man” and so undertakes an investigation of how to become one in this very funny book. Chapter One: “Surviving Outdoors”
Go: camping or simply take a hike.
“Baseball travel” is a favorite form of travel for many guys, with groups traveling across the country to tick off visits to both major league and minor league stadiums. (Read my post on Major League Vacations.)
Read: Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age by Allen Barra. This new book had been well received by critics.
Go: Take in a baseball game together.
The Scene of the Crime
It’s no wonder that crime is one of the most popular literary genres.
Read: Revisit the classics, books like Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon or Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. You just can’t beat those hard-boiled gumshoes. Or, pick up more recent classics like Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer or Walter Mosely’s newest Easy Rawlins mystery, Little Green.
Go: visit the people in blue at your local police department. Even small-town police departments offer some amazing behind-the-scenes tours and some even give you a look at offer their crime labs, ala CSI.
Grill n’ Chill
Cooking is a great creative outlet for just about anybody and there’s plenty of great food writing to go with it.
Read: Calvin Trillin’s The Tummy Trilogy or MFK Fisher’s classic The Art of Eating.
Go: take a cooking or grilling class together.
The sky’s the limit. Just think book and “field trip.” For any dad, the memories of a literary adventure with his kids will stay with him far longer than a Hallmark card. If the kids are too young to share adventures with dad, you’ll want to check out the funny “Literature For Dads” video from The Dad Lab. They suggest avoiding Cormac McCarthy’s The Road–not an uplifting father-son travel idea.
AND–if you have any other book-and-travel pairings that a dad would like, please send them to me. You can comment below, send links to favorite travel blogs, or email me at email@example.com with your ideas. I’ll add them to this blog. But be quick. Father’s Day is June 16.
On the prairie, the background is the story. More than most other places, the vast grasslands of the Dakotas make us stop and look for a moment at open spaces and realize that they are far from empty.
Gretel Ehrlich says in The Solace of Open Spaces, “We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We gave only to look at the houses we build to see how we build “against” space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.”
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.