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“In stopping to take breath, I happened to glance up at the canyon wall…. Far up above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was as still as sculpture—and something like that. It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower.”

Quietly compelling and beautifully written, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather is two stories in one. The first and third parts of the novel focus on Godfrey St. John, a middle-aged history professor in a midwestern university town in the early 1920s, who, despite his successes, is struggling with a deep disappointment with life.

The middle section, “Tom Outland’s Story,” detours to the southwest, centering on a young man who died in the Great War and whose memory looms over the professor and those of his wife and daughters. Before traveling north and meeting the St. John family, Tom Outland was a cattle herder in New Mexico, where he discovered and explored the “Blue Mesa,” an ancient cliff city.

The Blue Mesa in Cather’s tale is based on Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado. I spent four years traveling full-time around the United States, and Mesa Verde is one of the most spellbinding and surreal places in the country. Constructed by Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, the adobe dwellings, which date from the 13th century, are perched on high peaks under overhanging rocks.

Cather first ventured to the Colorado park in 1915, spending a week there to conduct research. The next year she penned an article on the history of Mesa Verde for the The Denver Times, which compelled adventure-seekers, history-enthusiasts, and other tourists to visit the area. Cather’s descriptions in The Professor’s House of the cliff dwellings and the civilization that once thrived there are vivid and fascinating.

The Professor’s House is partly intriguing armchair travel—and perhaps inspiration to explore Mesa Verde in person someday.

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

“I still cherish the dream of returning for another revel in dear, dirty, delightful London, for I enjoyed myself there more than any where else,” wrote Louisa May Alcott in an 1868 letter to the friend who had shown her around Dickensian London.

Visiting the homes and haunts of famous writers is a time-honored tradition—one that intrigued some of the very authors whose own houses are now popular destinations for literary travelers.

After the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in 1868, fans of the book began trekking to Concord, Massachusetts, where the boldest ones knocked on the door of Orchard House, the Alcott family abode, looking for the author. Publicity-shy Louisa sometimes pretended to be a servant to deflect the attention, but she probably understood their curiosity. During a trip to London three years earlier, she visited sites featured in Charles Dickens’ tales. She revealed in her diary, “I felt as if I’d got into a novel while going about in the places I’d read so much of.”

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, a destination for early literary travelers.

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After Agatha Christie tied the knot with archaeologist Max Mallowan at an Edinburgh cathedral in 1930, they set out on an adventuresome journey. “Max had planned the honeymoon entirely himself; it was going to be a surprise,” Christie penned in An Autobiography.

Romantic Venice was the first stop for the newly wed crime writer. Christie had passed through the Italian city previously while traveling on the Orient Express from London to the Middle East, where she met her future husband on an archaeological dig.

“I resolved…that if ever I am so fortunate I shall spend my honeymoon here!” Max Mallowan once vowed about Venice. And indeed he did.

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These writers and their partners had a flair for memorable gift-giving, from presents that pulled at the heartstrings to gifts that stirred up drama on and off the page.

Scarlett Fever: Margaret Mitchell

margaret-mitchell-typewriter

Margaret Mitchell received a life-altering gift from her husband while she was housebound recovering from a car accident. He presented her with a secondhand typewriter, a sheaf of paper, and the declaration, “Madam, I greet you on the beginning of a great new career.” That typewriter, which Mitchell used to craft her masterpiece, Gone with the Wind, is on view at the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library.

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Almost 420 years since Shakespeare’s lavish and magnificent house, New Place, was razed to the ground, archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be the Bard’s demolished kitchen.

Uncovered in the remains of  Stratford-upon- Avon’s ‘New Place’, experts have found a well hearth and cold storage pit, which was used like a fridge to store cheese.

Historians are still trying to piece together clues of what Shakespeare’s impressive home would have been like and this discovery has been described as ‘vital’ to the effort.

The Bard bought New Place in 1597 and lived there for the last 19 years of his life, but it was destroyed by a subsequent owner in a fit of pique over land taxes.

In 2016–timed for the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death–the re-imagined New Place will open as a heritage landmark.

In anticipation of Writers Between the Covers, on sale October 29, we’re spotlighting locales associated with literary lovers. Click here to find out how to enter to win a copy of the book.

A JEWEL FIT FOR A KIPLING

19kipling_CA0-articleLargeWhile Rudyard Kipling was on honeymoon, he received the bad news that his bank had gone bust, taking his life savings along with it. The penniless writer and his young American bride, Carrie, decided to leave England for Brattleboro, Vermont, where they were able to build a home on property owned by Carrie’s family.

They christened their dwelling “Naulahka,” the Hindi word for “jewel beyond price,” which was also the title of a novel Kipling had co-written with his wife’s brother. While at Naulahka (pronounced now-LAH-kuh), the writer produced some of his best known works including The Jungle Book and the first of his Just So Stories. His fiercely protective wife guarded the door to his study, refusing admittance to the newspapermen and fans who frequently came to call on the now-famous author.

During his time in Vermont, avid golfer Kipling also invented the game of “snow golf” using red-painted golf balls and cups. His golf clubs remain at the house, which the family hurriedly left only four years after their arrival. When Kipling became embroiled in an ugly lawsuit against his alcoholic brother-in-law, who reportedly threatened to kill him, the resulting media hype spurred the publicity-shy writer to return to England.

Today Naulahka, which has been managed and restored by the Landmark Trust, can be rented by bibliophiles who want to soak in Kipling’s claw-foot tub or sit at the desk where the Nobel Prize winner penned his works.

[Photo: Nancy Palmieri for The New York Times]

In anticipation of Writers Between the Covers, on sale October 29, we’re spotlighting literary locales associated with some of the figures featured in the book.

gwh-2GREENWAY HOUSE
When archaeological excursions in the Middle East weren’t on the itinerary for Agatha Christie and her husband, Max Mallowan, the couple could often be found at Greenway House, their holiday retreat in the English countryside. Among the items on display in the 18th century residence-turned-museum—which inspired the setting for the Poirot tale Dead Man’s Folly—are the author’s 1937 Remington portable typewriter and a Steinway piano. The musically talented Christie, who trained as a classical pianist, was too shy to play the piano for anyone except Mallowan.

Before Christie found her happily ever after with the archaeologist, she endured the painfully public demise of her first marriage. After her spouse walked out on her, she became embroiled in a real-life mystery. Christie disappeared for eleven days, sparking the largest-ever manhunt in England before resurfacing with claims of amnesia.

INVESTIGATE CHRISTIE’S RETREAT
Greenway House sits on 30 acres of woodland and gardens overlooking the River Dart. Mystery buffs who want to do more than meander through the museum can holiday in Christie and Mallowan’s digs; a five-bedroom apartment, spread over the first and second floors of the house, is available for short-term rentals.

[Photo ©Flickr/globalNix]

Mark Twain's parlor decked out for the holidays.

Make it a double header this weekend and visit both Mark Twain‘s mansion and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abode, which are right next door to each other in Hartford, Connecticut. Among the festivities at the Victorian-themed “Stowe & Twain’s Olde-Fashioned Christmas” extravaganza are crafts, caroling, and horse-drawn carriage rides around the historic Nook Farm neighborhood that was a popular dwelling place for writers and publishers in the 1800s.

The Olde-Fashioned Christmas takes place Saturday, December 10, and Sunday, December 11, from noon to 4 p.m. The activities are free. There is an admission charge for tours of the houses adorned in holiday finery, looking as they would have when the writers were in residence. If you prefer a different take, also on December 10 at the Mark Twain House is a separate event at 2 p.m.: the Winter Solstice Steampunk Christmas Tea.

[Photo ©westernconnecticut.blogspot.com]

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