What I Hate About Writers’ Houses

Patrick Ward/Corbis
Rydal Mount, former house of William Wordsworth, Cumbria, England

On the subject of writers’ houses—taken up in the books by Richard Horan and Anne Trubek—that dark genius Robert Frost would have understood the paradox I find myself inhabiting: that I hate them in general, but soften to something like affection in the face of particular places. Frost enjoyed mocking his own, and others’, ambivalences, especially when personal feeling interfered with principle. Whether or not he also would have enjoyed hearing my footsteps in his old parlor and study is another matter; I would guess not.

There I was, after many years of living in Bennington, Vermont, finally visiting the Robert Frost Stone House Museum—which happens to be in the next town north, South Shaftsbury. Frost is buried in the churchyard of the Old First Church in Bennington, and he lived in the Stone House and another Shaftsbury farmhouse for almost twenty years. Over his long life, he also lived in about a dozen other houses all over New Hampshire and Vermont, and many of these, in the strange world of competitive writer-shrine-making, similarly have been designated “Frost houses.”

Here’s what I hate about writers’ houses: the basic mistakes. The idea that art can be understood by examining the chewed pencils of the writer. That visiting such a house can substitute for reading the work. That real estate, including our own envious attachments to houses that are better, or cuter, or more inspiring than our own, is a worthy preoccupation. That writers can or should be sanctified. That private life, even of the dead, is ours to plunder.

Once long ago someone took me to visit Shakespeare’s house in Stratford. I couldn’t go inside; it felt like snooping, it felt like preening, as if we could own a piece of him for ourselves. As far as I know, the only way to claim our real inheritance from Shakespeare is by reading and studying and memorizing—and, if we are lucky, by acting—his words.

The Robert Frost Stone House is landscaped tastefully, with a couple of handsome barns, and has been curated with modest sophistication. There are text-and-photograph wall exhibits that adorn the two main front rooms of the old farmhouse, offering, among other things, chronologies of Frost’s work, marriage, and children; a formal dissection of the poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which Frost wrote while living in this house, along with various and often contradictory statements the poet made in letters, interviews, and essays about the poem’s meaning. As well as Frost’s technical mastery, we see, as we must in any rereading of the poem, his vision of mortality. And here as well is the basic prickliness and condescension in his character that made him deny that vision—to think of insisting that the line “And miles to go before I sleep” is not about…

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