Whenever I go on vacation, my family knows that wherever we go, I will check before we leave to see what literary stops we can make. In the past, we have gone to the rugged shores of Rachel Carson’s Maine, the boardinghouse that Thomas Wolfe grew up in and wrote about, Carl Sandburg’s Connemara in Flat Rock (one of my favorite places because it looks exactly as it did when the poet laureate lived here and makes one think that he just stepped out for a minute), Edgar Allen Poe’s dorm room at the University of Virginia, Mikhail Bulgakov’s childhood home in Kyiv, and Thomas Merton’s apartment in Greenwich Village are just a few of them. On my list of places to go on literary pilgrimage is: Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia, the Brontë’s parsonage in Haworth, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, both William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak and Eudora Welty’s Mississippi home, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the Lake District and John Steinbeck’s home in Salinas.
In her memoir M Train, Patti Smith writes an elegy to her late husband, Fred Sonic Smith, as well as her extensive love of books and pilgrimages to the places that the writers she loves inhabited. It is a glorious rumination on memory, and how one’s interior and exterior life are connected by dreams, art, literature, and place. “We seek to stay present,” she writes, “even as the ghosts attempt to draw us away.” Those ghosts are not only her late husband, but writers like Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Paul Bowles, and Roberto Bolaño. Her literary pilgrimages are no less sacred than the religious one so many take to places like Camino de Santiago. Smith’s poetic and vagabond heart drew me in with her beautiful prose and only furthered my desire to visit the places of authors who have meant so much to me (like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg or Lewis Carroll’s Oxford). And the book is filled with Smith’s lovely black and white photographs of items like Woolf’s writing desk.
Footsteps is a collection of essays based on The New York Times‘ travel column of the same name. As a traveling bibliophile, I was thrilled to step into the pages of this book in the hopes of being filled with a longing to to spend time not only either reading or rereading the works of the authors mentioned, but to visit the places I have either dreamed of or will now begin to dream of going to. For example, I can only imagine the thrill I will get when I finally sit down at the stone table where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien talked about their writing (of no less than the ones that took place in Narnia and Middle Earth).
Place can so often be conjured up by simply mentioning an author: Charles Dickens’ London, L.M. Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island, Dashell Hammett’s San Francisco, or Marcel Proust’s Illiers-Combray. Reading the essays contained in this wonderful collection made me imagine wish to see the sun rise over Black Bird Pond in Provincetown because it’s the place so inhabited by the poetry of Mary Oliver. It doesn’t take much to cause a stirring in me to hop a flight to Ireland, but I get goosebumps at the thought of visiting James Joyce’s Dublin or W.B. Yeats’ Innisfree. Having visited Germany years ago, I can now add the Brothers Grimm’s homes between Frankfurt and Bremen, Alice Munro’s Vancouver, Pablo Neruda’s Chile and Elena Ferrante’s Naples.
That is what’s so wonderful about this book: it stirs and rekindles a desire for wanderlust to travel to places that are often only familiar to me in my imagination from having read these great writers’ works. And it makes me rethink somewhere like Hawaii in terms of Mark Twain’s time there (How many of us think of him attempting to surf?).
It is because a writer has somehow reached through their words and moved us and touched us so deeply, so intimately and connected to the reader in a way that no other medium can, that makes someone like myself to eagerly yearn to see where the places they inhabited and inhabited them to such a degree that their literary works breathe and smell and have the sounds and sights of that place. It makes us want to visit those places so that we can somehow touch something connected to them, even if it’s paying one’s respect at an author’s grave (as I have done so many times before). It is paying tribute to those who have affected us and changed us.
If you are also one of those people, then I highly recommend Footsteps so that you, too, can begin to plan your next trip.