Forget Historic Writers’ Homes

article image

What happens when a prolific writer visits the former home of an American literary legend? Does she feel a connection, or find inspiration, or see a writerly ghost?

In Anne Trubek’s case, none of the above. In the new issue of The American Prospect, Trubek, an English professor at Oberlin College, describes her visit to a dilapidated house in Cleveland where Langston Hughes once lived (for a whopping two years). A community development corporation recently bought the foreclosed house for $100, with the intention of fixing it up, having it designated a historic landmark, and, hopefully, selling it to somebody who would open it as a Langston Hughes museum.

Sounds nice, right? Such a museum would, potentially, “honor a writer, preserve the cultural legacy of the neighborhood, and bring in tourist dollars,” Trubek writes. “But investing in writers’ former homes is not a development tactic with a great track record. There are about 55 writers’ houses open to the public in America. Most are owned by civic organizations, and many lose money.” They tend to become very expensive to maintain, as “their curators continually have to perform the same tasks all homeowners of aging houses do,” Trubek writes. “These houses only grow older and, thus, more costly.” Furthermore, she explains, many of these museums struggle to attract visitors.

The neighborhoods that surround these house museums, including the former Hughes home [in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood], provide a snapshot of American demographic trends. Not surprisingly, many of our revered dead writers lived in the areas of the country that drew immigrants to agricultural and then industrial jobs–areas that have been hit hard by economic changes. New York City would seem to be the ground zero for literary tourism, but the only writer’s house museum in the five boroughs is the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, in the Bronx, which is currently closed for renovations. Until a new wave of famous, city-dwelling authors die, writers’ house museums will continue to be clustered east of the Mississippi. At least we can all look forward to one day taking the Dave Eggers home museum tour in San Francisco.

Source: The American Prospect (excerpt only available online)

Image by szlea, licensed under Creative Commons.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.