Top left: The House of the Seven Gables ©Novel Destinations; top right: Louisa May Alcott’s writing desk ©Orchard House; bottom left: Mark Twain’s library ©Mark Twain House; bottom right: Flannery O’Connor’s farm ©Andalusia

“We miss you…and have noticed literally hundreds of you still stopping by Orchard House since our closure to enjoy our grounds and peer through the windows,” Jan Turnquist, executive director of the literary site in Concord, Mass., told fans in a recent Facebook post. Unable to invite visitors inside to tour Louisa May Alcott’s abode, which is currently closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, instead she offered a special “virtual treat”—a guided video tour of Orchard House, led by Turnquist acting as Alcott. The cost to stream the video is $10, which can be applied toward admission to Orchard House once it reopens.

Literary travelers looking to liven up their time while social distancing can do some exploring from the sofa. Here are five more author houses with virtual tours on tap:

The Mark Twain House, Hartford, Connecticut
This 3-D tour of Mark Twain’s domain is a visual feast. The Victorian Gothic mansion, where he put down roots for 17 years, has been described as “part steamboat, part medieval fortress and part cuckoo clock.” The house’s construction was financed in part with proceeds earned from Twain’s first full-length book, the travelogue The Innocents Abroad, and design and décor elements throughout reflect his love of travel.

The House of the Seven Gables, Salem, Massachusetts
The 17th-century seaside manse that inspired Nathan­iel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, and its lovely garden and grounds, constitute a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. A 12-part tour of the complex is available through the free UniGuide app (search: House of Seven Gables). The virtual tour includes images of and information about the property and its numerous buildings, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Birthplace, which was moved to this location for preservation.

Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm, Milledgeville, Georgia
On her mother’s family farm in central Georgia, Flannery O’Connor devoted herself to two great loves: writing and raising peacocks, swans, chickens, and other birds. She spent the last of her 39 years, before dying of complications from lupus, amid Andalusia’s pastoral beauty, which inspired the settings for such stories as “A Circle in the Fire,” “Good Country People,” and “The Displaced Person.” Watch a virtual reality tour of the main house and view the grounds via a web tour.

Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, Lynchburg, Virginia
A Harlem Renaissance-era poet, civil rights activist, and native Virginian, Anne Spencer lived in a Queen Anne-style residence, built by her husband, for more than seven decades beginning in 1903. See the poet’s house, where she entertained fellow wordsmiths like Langston Hughes, and the picturesque garden, where she wrote in a specially constructed, one-room retreat.

The Pearl S. Buck House, Perkasie, Pennsylvania
After four decades living in China, Pearl S. Buck settled at Green Hills Farm, a 68-acre estate in Bucks County, Pennsylva­nia. The National Historic Land­mark site has gardens, greenhouses, a renovated barn, and a 19th-century stone farmhouse that contains Buck’s personal furnishings and belongings intact as she left them. When taking this virtual tour of the house and grounds, be sure to linger in the lovely library. The desk in the room, originally located in the attic of her home in China, is where she wrote her novel The Good Earth in three months.

Explore a favorite author’s house. Celebrate Flannery O’Connor’s birthday on March 25 at her family’s farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, Georgia (cake and free tours are on the agenda), or take a living history tour with a costumed guide at Louisa May Alcott’s home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts (tours are given every fourth Saturday of the month and reservations are recommended). Click here for a state-by-state directory of author house museums.

Attend an author event at a local bookstore or library. Among this month’s lineup at the Free Library of Philadelphia are discussions with artist Maira Kalman, the creator of an illustrated version of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (March 9); activist and historian Rebecca Solnit, whose new book is Recollections of My Nonexistence, a memoir of her life as a young artist set against the backdrop of San Francisco’s 1980s punk rock scene (March 12); and journalist Katie Roiphe, author of The Power Notebooks (March 19).

Visit a feminist bookstore in person or online. A favorite is New York City’s Bluestockings, a volunteer-powered bookstore, cafe, and activist center. The store hosts regular book clubs, support groups, and social events, along with many other events ranging from author readings to self-defense workshops. Charis Books & More in Decatur, Georgia, has compiled a list of feminist bookstores in the U.S. and Canada.

Take the Trailblazing Women Writers Tour. This month the American Writers Museum in Chicago is offering a special 60-minute tour spotlighting the lives and works of women writers who broke barriers and paved the way for future generations. Tours are given twice daily at 1:30 and 4:00 p.m. Or take a virtual version of the tour on the American Writers Museum App, available on Android and Apple devices. Among the fascinating facts: Mystery scribe Frances Parkinson Keyes was discouraged from writing by both her mother and her husband. Undeterred, she created an attic hideaway for her manuscripts, and at age 34 she published the first of her dozens of novels.

Delve into books about inspiring or intriguing female figures. Two literary-themed suggestions are Virginia Woolf: And the Woman Who Shaped Her World by Gillian Gill, a look into Woolf’s world through the lens of the women who were closest to her, and Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson, which features writers like Mary Shelley who defied convention to craft some of literature’s strangest tales.

Does your idea of the perfect getaway combine the excitement of a city with literary pastimes? Head to one of these five coast-to-coast locales where there is plenty for book lovers to discover.

Washington, DC

The Library of Congress. Photo © Novel Destinations.

Begin exploring the U.S. capital city’s literary side at the Library of Congress, founded in 1800 and the world’s largest library. The library’s palatial Thomas Jefferson Building is a visual feast with murals, mosaics, and sculpture galore and a Great Hall rising 75 feet from marble floor to stained glass ceiling. (It’s well worth taking the free, docent-led tour to hear about the library’s creation and collection.) Make time to visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, the author-orator’s last residence, an estate less than a hundred miles from where he was born into slavery. Lay eyes on a rare First Folio at the Folger Shakespeare Library and catch a production in the Elizabethan-style Folger Theatre. At indie bookstore Politics and Prose, sit in on a book group discussion (no need to reserve a spot; just read the featured selection and show up) or attend one of the regularly held author events. Sustenance for mind and body can be found at Kramerbooks and the adjoining Afterwords Café, open until at least 1 a.m. daily.

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“The city that never sleeps is the backdrop for some of literature’s best love stories,” writes librarian Gwen Glazer in the post Finding Love in NYC, Literally on the New York Public Library’s blog. The NYPL’s book experts weighed in with their favorite romantic scenes that take place in the city, across all five boroughs.

Some highlights are the Brooklyn Bridge in Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg, where the main character, an independent young woman, has a passionate moment with her lover—scandalous for the 1920s; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is used as a backdrop in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; and vibrant Union Square in Pete Hamill’s Forever. The NYPL’s own gorgeous Rose Main Reading Room makes the list, too, for a scene Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

An accompanying red-heart-dotted map marks the locales for bibliophiles who want to explore on Valentine’s Day…or any other time of the year.

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Key West Sunset 2

The Florida Keys: Key West

It’s hard to resist a place that has a nightly sunset celebration in its main square, a tradition playwright Tennessee Williams (cocktail in hand) is credited with inspiring. (The sun sets on the island in the photo above.) The southernmost city in the continental United States, Key West has beckoned no shortage of creative types, from poet Robert Frost to its most famous resident, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway made what was intended to be a brief stopover on the island in the late 1920s and instead ended up living there for a decade, drawn to the rough-and-tumble charm and laid-back lifestyle. The Spanish Colonial-style house he purchased, now the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, is a double delight for cat-loving bibliophiles. Legend has it that a ship’s captain gave the writer a polydactyl, or six-toed, cat, and the 50 or so felines that roam the property today—even sleeping in Hemingway’s bedroom—are its descendants. At the Tennessee Williams Museum, the playwright’s typewriter is on display along with colorful paintings created by the amateur artist.

The South Seas: Samoa

Celebrity writer Robert Louis Stevenson spent the last several years of his life on Samoa, where he is still considered the island’s most famous expat. After sailing around the South Pacific for a time, Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, built a mansion—complete with library, a ballroom, and the only fireplace on the island—in the hills near the village of Apia. Now the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, the literary landmark has been restored to how it looked at the time of the writer’s death and is show by guided tour. When Stevenson passed away in 1894 from a cerebral hemorrhage, Samoan natives he had befriended—and who gave him the name Tusitala, “Teller of Tales”—carried his body to a hilltop grave overlooking the sea.

The English Channel: Guernsey

Victor Hugo’s four-story house on the island of Guernsey—where he lived for 14 years during self-imposed exile from France for political reasons—has been described as being like a poem and akin to stepping into his imagination. Hugo’s decorating tastes tended toward the dramatic—red damask, tapestries, dark wood furnishings, gilded mirrors—and each room in Hauteville House is individually decorated and includes items he acquired in local antique shops. Crowning Hugo’s domain is a glass conservatory he used as his bedroom and office, with sweeping views of the sea.

The island in the English Channel is also the setting for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The novel, which is told through letters, unfolds the story of a group of Guernsey residents who form a book club as an alibi while the island is occupied by Nazis during World War II.

Check out VisitGuernsey.com for the Potato Peel Pie Experience and Walk in the Footsteps of Les Miserables Author Victor Hugo.

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▫ Some 838 miles of shelves in three buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., house the Library of Congress’ bounty of books and other materials. Visitors should head for the Thomas Jefferson Building, where a visual extravaganza awaits.

 The Library was initially located in a boarding house after its founding on April 24, 1800, and was later moved to the U.S. Capitol. Its first permanent building—bearing former president Jefferson’s moniker—opened in 1897, making it the oldest federal cultural institution in the country.

▫ Why does Jefferson have the honors? After British troops burned the Capitol building and destroyed the library’s core collection of 3,000 volumes, Congress approved the purchase of Jefferson’s personal library—6,487 books bought for $23,950. The volumes that Jefferson originally contributed are on display (southwest pavilion, second floor).

▫ A bibliophile could move in and be right at home in the dazzling, octagon-shaped Reading Room (photo top row, center). It’s spacious (several stories high); gorgeously decorated with golden-color marble columns, statues of writers, artists, and thinkers like Michelangelo and Shakespeare, and a Renaissance-style dome; and has plenty of reading material. The Reading Room can be viewed from an upper level platform called the Overlook. Standing behind a clear plastic partition takes away some of the grandeur, but it’s still an impressive sight.

▫ Let there be light. The library’s light bulb budget is $100,000 a year.

▫ Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, is one of the images adorning the Thomas Jefferson Building’s main chamber. The Great Hall soars 75 feet, rising from a marble floor to a stained glass ceiling. Take some time to soak up the splendor of the Great Hall. Look up, down, and sideways, or you’ll miss its nuances. Woven into the eye-catching display of mosaics, statues, paintings, and decorative details—some of it drawing on the Italian Renaissance style—are themes of literature, music, philosophy, education, and architecture, along with references to the zodiac and mythology and tributes to other countries.

▫ The Guttenberg Bible, on display in the Great Hall, is one of a three-volume set. To reduce wear and tear on the fragile documents, it’s changed out periodically—under armed guard.

▫ Size matters. The collection contains nearly 167 million items, making it the largest library in the world. Of those, 39 million are books (including Novel Destinations) and other printed materials. The rest are films, photos, prints, maps, manuscripts, and sheet music. About half of the books and serials are in languages other than English.

▫ Pick and choose. Every day the library receives 15,000 new items, approximately 12,000 of which are added to the collection.

▫ It’s well worth the time to take a free 60-minute, docent-led tour. It gives a fascinating, more in-depth perspective than strolling through the building on your own (I’ve done both). Learn about the library’s creation and collection, as well as its impressive architectural details. Tours are given several times daily Monday through Saturday, and there’s no need to reserve a spot. Even if 50 or 60 people show up, guides break tour-goers into smaller groups.

▫ Only members of Congress and their staff can check out books. The rest of us can view the digital collection online.

–Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Historic author houses are among the best places to get a fix of nostalgic holiday cheer. Here are some literary sites where you can enjoy the seasonal festivities:

The Enchanted Garden at the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, comes alive with thousands of lights during “Poe’s Christmas Illumination” on December 1 from 5-9 p.m. Along with free admission, enjoy mulled wine and take a holiday-themed tour with the museum’s curator.

A visit to Louisa May Alcott’s home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts, is like stepping into the pages of Little Women. It’s only fitting then that this year’s December theme is “A Little Women Christmas” since the novel opens during the holiday season. Meet Louisa and other costumed figures and participate in Victorian-era activities and caroling. The program takes place on weekends in December, and advance reservations are strongly recommended.

The Pearl S. Buck House in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, hosts the annual “Festival of Trees,” with 29 artists, organizations, and community groups decorating the author’s home. Not only is the holiday finery lush and imaginative, some of it conveys a message, too, carrying on Buck’s legacy as a social activist. Through December 30.

Step back in time at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, which is adorned in the style of a late-19th-century Christmas. The author’s abode is one of several sites participating in the “Friends of the Mark Twain House & Museum’s Holiday House Tour” on December 3.

In Monterey, California, 22 historic homes are open to visitors during “Christmas in the Adobes,” including rare access to the Lara-Soto Adobe once owned by John Steinbeck. At the Robert Louis Stevenson House—now a museum devoted to the Scottish scribe, who lived for a time in the seaside city—shortbread will be served and bagpipes will be playing. December 8 and 9.

The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, is celebrating the poet’s birthday on December 9 from 1-4 p.m. with homemade coconut made from Dickinson’s own recipe. Admission is free during the event, and a special guided tour, “Christmas with the Dickinsons,” is on offer.

The Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is hosting a Holiday Open House on December 15 and Holiday House Tours on December 16. Along with touring the poet’s lovely home (previously General George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War), take a stroll through the illuminated gardens and listen to Christmas carols.

In a nod to his debut novel Look Homeward, Angel, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, North Carolina, is putting on “An Angel Christmas” on December 16. Festivities include an exhibition of angel wreaths on the doors and angel figurines displayed throughout the historic 29-room home, where Wolfe’s mother once ran a boardinghouse.

In Salem, Massachusetts, the House of the Seven Gables (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s inspiration for his gothic novel), is presenting “Four Centuries of Christmas Tours.” Walks the halls of the seaside mansion that has stood since 1668, as guides share the history of Christmas in New England. Through December 31.

[Photos © Pearl S. Buck International, Poe Museum, and Orchard House.]

 

The classic literary world includes some curious connections between scribes who lived decades, and sometimes centuries, apart.

Frederick Douglass and Charles Dickens

On the grounds of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., is a tiny stone cabin where Douglass retreated to read and write in solitude. He dubbed the one-room dwelling the “Growlery,” a termed coined by Charles Dickens in Bleak House. In the novel, Mr. Jarndyce speaks with his ward, Esther, in a small room filled with books and papers, boots and shoes, and hat-boxes. “This, you must know, is the Growlery. When I am out of humor, I come and growl here,” says Mr. Jarndyce. “When I am deceived or disappointed in—the wind, and it’s Easterly, I take refuge here. The Growlery is the best-used room in the house.”

Frederick Douglass’ “growlery,” or writing cabin. Photo: © NPS/Johnson.

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Interested in literary travel tales and trivia? Come hear Shannon speak about Novel Destinations at the New York Public Library’s 53rd Street branch in New York City on October 24 at 6:30 p.m.

This entertaining presentation features photographs of literary landmarks in the United States and Europe, stories about classic writers and the places that inspired them, and some of her own tales from the road. Six-toed cats, volcanoes, Edith Wharton’s library, and more!

Where: The New York Public Library, 18 W. 53rd Street, New York, NY.

When: Tuesday, October 24, 6:30 p.m. in the theater.

Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau’s milieu.

Put on your walking shoes and explore these eight literary trails, following in the footsteps of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jack London, and other writers in the landscapes where they lived, wrote, and found inspiration.

Brontë Waterfall and Top Withens Walk, Haworth, England
The dramatically scenic Yorkshire Moors, where Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights unfolds, is one of the most atmospheric places for a literary hike. A 2 ½-mile walk from the sisters’ former home, now the Brontë Parsonage Museum, leads across heather-dotted hills to their favorite destination, a gentle waterfall and stream. Venture on a mile farther to see the ruins of an isolated farmhouse, Top Withens, credited as being the setting of Heathcliff’s domain in Wuthering Heights.

Dylan Thomas Trail, New Quay, Wales
“I walked on to the cliff path again, the town behind and below waking up now so very slowly,” Dylan Thomas wrote in the radio sketch “Quite Early One Morning.” In the Welsh town of New Quay, where the poet moved in 1944, the Dylan Thomas Trail traces the route along the coastal walkway above town he referenced. Other Thomas-related places in the city center are noted as well, like the restaurant and bar at the Black Lion Hotel—a perfect stop for a post-hike restorative.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond Walks, Concord, Massachusetts
Henry David Thoreau staked out a spot on a secluded piece of land near Walden Pond owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, living there for two years and turning out his most famous work, Walden. To reach the site where the naturalist’s one-room cabin once stood, take the Pond Path for a gorgeous view of the lake he described as “lying between the earth and the heavens.” Return via the Ridge Path through oak and pine woodlands where Louisa May Alcott and her sisters accompanied family friend Thoreau on nature walks. A replica of Thoreau’s abode can be seen near the Walden Pond State Reservation visitor center.

Jack London’s Beauty Ranch Trail, Glen Ellen, California
The adventure writer’s 1,400-acre Sonoma Valley ranch was situated on the site of a former winery and is now Jack London State Historic Park. The park’s trail network ranges from back country hikes to easily accessible pathways, including the Beauty Ranch Trail, which leads through the heart of London’s property past landmarks such as the cottage where he wrote many of his short stories and novels.

Millay Poetry Trail, Austerlitz, New York
Two years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923 (the first woman to do so), Edna St. Vincent Millay and her husband bought a former blueberry farm they named Steepletop in rural eastern New York State. Along with touring the white clapboard farmhouse and sunken gardens landscaped by Millay, visitors can take a walk to the poet’s grave site along the Millay Poetry Trail, located in a forest dotted with white birch trees and signposted with excerpts from her nature poems.

Sir Walter Scott Way, Moffatt to Cockburnspath, Scotland
If you have several days and lots of stamina, this 92-mile cross-country walk winds through lowland valleys and sheep farms, over Borderland hills, and past lochs and rivers as it connects sites associated with novelist Sir Walter Scott’s life and work. Noteworthy stops along the way include the Tibbie Shiels Inn, a 19th-century stagecoach stop that has served up drams to Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Carlyle, and Abbotsford, the turreted, castle-like manor house Scott designed and filled with antique furnishings and historic relics like Rob Roy’s sword.

Stevenson Memorial Trail, Calistoga, California
While in the Napa Valley, newlyweds Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, ran low on money and left a hotel cottage for Silverado, an abandoned mining town. For two months in 1880 they lived in a ramshackle bunkhouse on the slopes of Mount St. Helena, an adventure Stevenson recounts in the memoir THE SILVERADO SQUATTERS. A 10-mile round trip hike in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park leads to the site where the couples’ cabin once stood. At the summit of the challenging trek, stunning views of the San Francisco Bay Area await.

Tennyson Trail, Isle of Wight, England
Lord Alfred Tennyson once said the salty sea air on this English Channel isle was “worth sixpence a pint.” Traverse the Tennyson Trail to emulate the poet, who took long morning walks each day on the isle, where he settled in 1853 and spent the last 40 years of his life. The 15-mile trail runs through forests and above chalky white cliffs with sweeping vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and mainland England.

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