Books, Travel

A New England Literary Tour

Every time I drive by New London, Ct. I mean to stop by Eugene O’Neill’s family cottage, the Monte Cristo Cottage. Finally, I did. He would have had a fine view of the Thames River from the front porch. This spot was the start of my literary tour of New England, which was inspired by an old NYT article about writers in Connecticut

The next stop was easy enough: my hometown. This is where Ann Petry, a best-selling African-American writer grew up and wrote about life in Harlem in her novel, The Street. Sad to say, in all the time I lived in Saybrook, I never heard a word about her. Not even from the high school we both attended. Her house is still on the Old Boston Post Road—it’s a private residence now, so don’t go looking for a tour. The James Pharmacy where she was born is still down the street on Pennywise Lane. It’s now a French café and B&B. Do stop in: for the history and for the baked goods.

I’m not sure why Thornton Wilder built a house on a high cliff just off a narrow winding road in Hamden. Maybe it was the view of the Mill River, and maybe a view of the red rock ridge now called East Rock Park to the south. In 1929 there might have been a view, but after almost a century of tree growth, the vista is gone. Today, it’s hard to take notice of “The House the Bridge Built,” without stopping and getting out of the car. Which one shouldn’t do on a winding mountain road enclosed by glacial rock, stone walls, and forest. It’s probably safer to park below and walk up. 

“On June 4, 1920, a small item in The Westporter-Herald announced his bigger-than-life arrival in Westport: ‘F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer, has leased the Wakeman Cottage near Compo Beach.’” Who knew? I always associated Fitzgerald with NYC and Long Island. And Paris. And Hollywood. Apparently, things didn’t go too well in rural Westport. Nine days after arriving in Westport, Alexander McKaig (Princeton classmate) noted in his diary, “Visit Fitz at Westport Terrible party. Fitz & Zelda fighting like mad.” Interestingly, two towns near Westport—Weston and Easton—may have given rise to the fictitious towns of West Egg and East Egg in “The Great Gatsby.”

Back in Hartford visiting Mark Twain’s famous 45-room house on Farmington Ave. You could spend all day exploring the inside and outside of this wild structure, but the tour guides won’t let you. So, walk down to the corner of the property to visit the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe. They were neighbors. Twain moved here because he liked Hartford and back then it apparently was a publishing hub with a number of other writers living in the area. (In nearby Enfield, I went to Mark Twain Elementary School in 1st and 2nd grade, and H.B. Stowe for 3rd grade.) 

Just up the road from Hartford is Springfield, home to Dr. Seuss (aka, Theodor Seuss Geisel). There’s a park in town with several of his imaginative creatures cast in bronze, and a museum. And if you think you saw it on Mulberry Street, well, it’s just a few blocks away.

I finished up this leg of the tour by stopping at the homes of H.P. Lovecraft in Providence, RI. I’m not a fan. I never read any of his stories. He was a weird guy; the title of his autobiography is Some Notes on a Nonentity. But I’m told he had some impact on the horror genre. So, he’s on the tour. His last residence was on Prospect St. north of Brown University. The “shunned house” is on Benefit St. His grave is in Swan Point Cemetery, but it was late in the day, the December sun was about to vanish, and I didn’t feel like driving to this creepy guy’s final resting place.

Next stops: Boston and Concord.


Along the Private Beach

I bought a painting from Catherine Christiano, a local Lyme artist. The subject of the painting is a stretch of beach we used to call the “private beach.” An ironic tag as we were climbing over the Flat Rocks from our own very private, gated, Old Lyme Shores Beach. The “private beach” (i.e., Edge Lea) was a strip of largely empty shoreline, backed by marshland, on which a couple of old-fashioned New England cottages sat. One of those cottages is depicted in CC’s painting. It’s a quiet stretch of beach—a reminder of what the Connecticut shoreline was like 100 years ago, before gated beach associations, fences, barriers, jetties, guards, and a proliferation of ‘Keep Out’ signs dotted the shore.