The call of the open road is as booming as ever. As far as domestic leisure travel is concerned, more Americans are opting to go by way of the automobile. Whether it’s due to the flexibility of packing heavy and stopping at will along the way or the nostalgia of highway getaways, road trips are back!
To satiate your bookworm wanderlust, take the great American road trip inspired by great American literature.
1. Walden Pond
The site where transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau spent two years in a log cabin is only a half-hour drive from Boston. The pond once hosted an amusement park with concessions, swings, a dancing hall, and a baseball diamond that burned down in 1902, but now all that remains is a replica of Thoreau’s cabin. The grounds are a Massachusetts state park perfect for swimming, hiking, and contemplating “the tonic of wildness.”
The property on which Emily Dickinson was born and spent most of her life as a recluse is a portal to the past. Though a prolific poet, Dickinson published very little during her lifetime. It was on this property in Amherst, Massachusetts that she wrote scores of short, solemn poems that would later be acclaimed for their value to literary scholarship. Both Dickinson houses serve as museums of the prominent family, and the gardens on the property grow the same flowers and shrubs that featured prominently in Dickinson’s poetry.
The Manhattan neighborhood known for an African-American artistic flourishment in the 1930s and ’40s was home to literary greats like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Claude McKay. Langston Hughes’s longtime home, now in the National Register of Historic Places, is the site of an arts collective, and Madam C.J. Walker’s building is now a public library branch. The Schomburg Center for African-American Culture, once the site of the American Negro Theater, hosts a large collection of books and artifacts pertaining to the Harlem Renaissance.
Eatonville, Florida was the home of Zora Neale Hurston as well as the inspiration for much of her work centering around the African-American experience in the South. Each year, The Zora! Festival of the Arts and Humanities celebrates the author’s life with concerts and presentations on the themes of Hurston’s work. A previously unpublished manuscript by Hurston, based on her interviews with a man who came to the country on a slave ship, was recently released after 90 years in the dark.
5. Key West
Eccentric and lavish, the French Colonial house of Ernest Hemingway sits a few blocks from the southernmost point of the continental U.S. Driving to Key West grants drivers at once stunning views and terrible traffic, and the Hemingway House offers a glimpse into the quirky life of one the country’s most talented writers. He loved his polydactyl cats (the descendants of which still roam the house), and he built a backyard pool at a time when it would have cost over 300,000 in today’s dollars.
The “literary capital of Alabama” was home to both Truman Capote and Harper Lee (they were neighbors), and it inspired the southern settings of their fiction. Maycomb, the segregated setting of To Kill a Mockingbird, was practically modeled on Monroeville, and each year the town’s theater troupe stages the play adaptation. The first half is played in an amphitheater, and the second half takes place inside the town’s old courthouse. The same courthouse houses a museum featuring Capote’s old letters and childhood possessions.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote bountifully of his hometown of Indianapolis, “where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin,” and they’ve memorialized him with the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. You can walk down the same streets as the fictional Kilgore Trout and look up at buildings designed by Vonnegut’s father and grandfather, Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. and Bernard Vonnegut.
Read “Vonnegut Lives!”
Samuel Langhorn Clemens’s childhood town sits on the Mississippi River, where his work on steamboats gave him his pen name, Mark Twain. The name adorns a substantial amount of attractions in Hannibal, Missouri, too: the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, the Mark Twain Lighthouse, Mark Twain Cave. You can even ride on the Mark Twain Riverboat for a dinner cruise.
9. Red Cloud
“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away,” Willa Cather wrote of the western prairie. The O Pioneers! and My Ántonia author is memorialized with 600 acres of never-before-plowed prairie near her childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska. The native grasses and wildflowers return visitors to an untouched version of the Great Plains.
John Steinbeck molded the working class and migrant characters of his stories from his experiences working on ranches outside his hometown, Salinas, California. The house Steinbeck grew up in stands at the center of town just a few blocks from the National Steinbeck Center museum. Although the author moved away young and travelled often, Salinas Valley is so prevalent in his fiction that the area is often called “Steinbeck country.”
He was America’s best known author when he died, as he is today. But in the 101 years since his death, Mark Twain’s reputation has been so polished by admiring generations that it’s taken on a rich, unnatural luster. It’s hard to distinguish the man from the legend.
Fortunately we have contemporary accounts of Twain, which give a touch of human dimension to the Great Man. One of these contemporaries was the drama critic Brander Matthews. In 1920, he wrote his “Memories of Mark Twain” for the Post, which told of their 30-year friendship.
Much of his account agrees with the popular image of the man. For example, there is his ready wit in public speaking:
A score of American men of letters were invited [to a dinner with Andrew Carnegie] and half a dozen of us were summoned to stand and deliver. When Mark’s turn came, he soared aloft in whimsical exaggeration, casually dropping a reference to the time when he had lent Carnegie a million dollars.
Our smiling host promptly interjected: “That had slipped my memory!”
And Mark looked down on him solemnly, and retorted, “Then, the next time, I’ll take a receipt.”
He referred to Twain’s love of tobacco:
He was an incessant smoker, yet he was wont to say that he never smoked to excess— that is, he never smoked two cigars at once and he never smoked when he was asleep. But [William Dean] Howells has recorded that when Mark came to visit him, he used to go into Mark’s room at night to remove the still lighted cigar from the lips of his sleeping guest.
But Matthews also saw aspects of Twain that are less well known, such as his desire to be taken seriously.
Many of those who have written about him have dealt with him solely as a humorist, overlooking the important fact that a large part of his work is not laughter-provoking and not intended to be.
[He once told me] “I’m glad that you…have been telling people that I am serious. When I make a speech now, I find that they are a little disappointed if I don’t say some things that are serious; and that just suits me—for I have so many serious things I want to say!”
And there was a surprisingly resentful side to Twain, which nearly ended his friendship with Matthews. After Matthews had publicly taken a position different from Twain’s—
I soon heard from more than one of our common friends that Mark was acutely dissatisfied; and when I next met him, he was distant in his manner—and I might even describe it as chilly. Of course, I regretted this; but I could only hope that his fundamental friendliness would warm him up sooner or later.
I knew that Mark had a hair-trigger temper and that he was swift to let loose all the artillery of heaven to blow a foe from off the face of the earth. I was aware moreover that a professional humorist is not infrequently a little deficient in that element of the sense-of-humor which guards a man against taking himself too seriously. I had been told also that Mark, genial as he was, and long suffering as he often was, could be a good hater, superbly exaggerating the exuberance of his ill-will. His old friend, Twitchell, once wrote him about a piece of bad luck which had befallen a man who had been one of Mark’s special antipathies; and Mark wrote back:
“I am more than charmed to hear of it; still, it doesn’t do me half the good it would have done if it had come sooner. My malignity has so worn out and wasted away with time and the exercise of charity that even his death would not afford me anything more than a mere fleeting ecstasy, a sort of momentary, pleasurable titillation, now—unless of course, it happened in some particularly radiant way, like burning or boiling or something like that. Joys that come to us after the capacity for enjoyment is dead are but an affront.”
But this was Twain being outrageous—something he did well and something he was encouraged to do. In fact, Twain could barely manage to hold a grudge very long. Not a year passed before Twain put aside his resentment when he met Matthews again at an artist’s retreat.
Within a week after our arrival Mark stepped up on our porch, as pleasantly as if there had never been a cloud on our friendship,
“I hear you play a French game called piquet,” he began. “I wish you would teach me.” And we taught him, although it was no easy task, since he was forever wanting to make over the rules of the game to suit his whim of the moment—a boyish trait which I soon discovered to be entirely characteristic.