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I, Literary Tourist

Wiffle ball and scones at the poetry bed and breakfast.
Illustration: Jason Novak

“There is poetry here.” 

This is the tagline for the Brook Farm Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Lenox, Massachusetts, where my wife and I are checking in for the evening. The phrase is embossed in gold beneath the inn’s logo—two cattail spikes, bent toward the sun—on cups and saucers in the front room display case, on top of which sits a poem of the day on a reading stand.

Today’s poem is “This Is the Dream,” by Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge, translated by Robert Bly and Robert Hedin:

This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors shall open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbor
that we have never known.

Years ago, one dream I carried into the world was that I wanted to be a poet. And so it came to pass that I entered the MFA program in poetry at New York University. If there was a secret language poets spoke, I wrote in my application’s statement of purpose, I wanted to speak it. And so for a year, I spaketh and workshoppeth, and then, in my second year, my teachers and fellow students journeyed north here, to Brook Farm Inn, to write poems and break bread together.

That was in 1996. Fifteen years later, I am back, not as a poet but as a literary tourist.

“Literary tourist?” you say. “I’ve never heard of such a term." Watch closely, because here’s where we pivot from personal anecdote to microtrend thinkpiece lede. Ever make a special trip to a used bookstore? Visit Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon? Pilgrimage to a writer’s house or grave? Friend, you are a literary tourist.

There are varieties of the literary tourism experience, to be sure. Writers’ houses, gravesites, sites of novels both fictional and real, hotels with literary tie-ins—all are now considered part of a proper, albeit small, sector in the travel industry. Hotels all over the world—, many of them upscale, in places as diverse as Paris, Taos, Miami, Hanoi, New York, London, San Francisco, and Morocco—have literary themes.

The very term seems oxymoronic—literary connotes highbrow, learned, rarefied, while tourism may conjure up visions of fanny packs and Germans who walk four abreast on city streets. Literary tourists’ ranks include the antiquarian who flies to the Boston Book Fair to acquire pricey ephemera to fill out a collection as well as the visitors to literary amusement parks such as Dickens World in Kent or The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort.

In academe, literary tourism thrives as a branch of literary-cultural studies. Nicola J. Watson, Senior Lecturer at England’s Open University, defines literary tourism as “the interconnected practices of visiting and marking sites associated with writers and their work.” The phenomenon of readers traveling to places they came to know through books began as a rather highbrow practice in 19th-century England, with the rise of the writer’s biography and a desire for authenticity, particularly in fiction. Nowadays, legions mount their bikes on “Pirsig pilgrimages” in the American West to retrace the voyage taken by the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which has spawned at least one memoir). LiteraryTourist.com, founded in 2009 by Nigel Beale, a Canadian writer and bibliophile, includes a directory of 8,000 used and new bookstores, literary landmarks, lectures, book fairs, writers’ festivals, and historical sites. Philosopher-essayist Alain de Botton counts himself as a fan.

On a recent visit to my mother’s house in South Jersey, I got lost a few blocks away and found myself in front of the Whitman-Stafford House in Laurel Springs. Now nestled in a suburb amid lots of traffic, this was Walt Whitman’s summer getaway, where he wrote Specimen Days in his later years. It seemed a nice bookend to my visits as a college student to his grave in Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery, where I recited “Song of Myself” in hopes of some poetic access to Whitman’s long-gone physical being.

* * *

It occurs to me that I have been a literary tourist all my life, that the very act of studying under established writers, under our current definitions, is in itself a kind of literary tourism. There’s a fine line between tourist and voyeur, between mentor and docent. Part of studentship is a chance to see how the other half lives.

Back when I was in grad school, however, I was skeptical of the poetry retreat idea. How would sleeping over in a Victorian house full of doilies, period furniture, and neurotic grad students help me write poems? Wouldn’t sleeping in the same house as my poetry idols lead to the worst of writer’s blocks?

There might be poetry there, sure. But was it my poetry?

That was then, and this is now. Fresh scones out of the oven are set on a table beside little knives with which to dab fresh jam, and I am not ashamed to say I’m psyched. As I watch the flames crackling in the living room fireplace, I think how not only am I different than I was, but the place itself is different than how I remembered it. New owners Linda and Phil Halpern have spruced up the interior and the grounds since buying it 10 years ago. Previous owners Betty and Bob Jacob started the “poetry theme” when they took over Brook Farm in 1986, adding the tagline “There is poetry here.” That tradition—a poem a day displayed in the receiving room, and shelves upon shelves of poetry titles, many of them inscribed—remains.

This visit also marks the first overnight stay away from home for both my wife and me since the birth of our first daughter more than four years ago. We go upstairs to our room (“The Poet’s Room,” which I booked based on the name; others include “Romance in Lenox” and “The Tanglewood Suite,” the latter sounding too downright soft porno-ish for my tastes). Our grad student babysitter is about to experience middle-of-the-night sniffles and a 5:45 a.m. wake-up call from the two-year-old (our second child). Two glasses of sherry topped by folded napkin fans await on a tiny table. Again: psyched.

* * *

We didn’t take a bus or anything from NYU to the Brook Farm Inn. Our teachers, Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell, along with 16 other students, drove up in a couple of cars. Both teachers brought typewriters. We’d hear them clacking away from our shared third-floor rooms. We workshopped poems before cooking group suppers. On a grocery run—I remember that Sharon requested Twinings English breakfast tea—another student came along with her own list of very specific dietary items, none of them to do with health restrictions, but more like some sort of disorder. We played wiffle ball. Sharon brought it on the field, and slid into base once. Galway’s swing was even and got him easy base hits.

Back then, I was eager to impress my teachers and to come off as confident to my fellow poet-students. Neither would happen—I remember that the sestina I wrote the first afternoon, using the palindromes “dog/god,” “crab/bark,” and “elbow/wobble,” went over like a lead balloon.

Whenever I think of myself as that young man I grow a little embarrassed, as one who engaged in, as Wordsworth recalls returning to Tintern Abbey, the “coarser pleasure of my boyish days.” There were flasks, cigars smoked out in the backyard, gossiping. “I cannot paint / What I then was,” Wordsworth writes, and that’s fine with me: remembering which version of myself visited Brook Farm 15 years ago fills me with both nostalgia and embarrassment.

* * *

My wife goes straight to sleep on our pillow-top mattress, and I dive into Brook Farm’s history, which is as star-studded as it is labyrinthine.

The physical house, built in 1882, began as a “rental cottage” in another part of town, owned by Frederick William Rackemann (his wife, the former Elizabeth Dwight Sedgwick, is of the Boston Brahmin Sedgwicks, from founding father Theodore to Warhol muse Edie). The Rackemanns rented out the cottage to a Mr. and Mrs. Burton and Constance Cary Harrison, formerly of Richmond, Virginia. The Harrisons, and in particular Constance, were shameless name-droppers who made the most of Lenox society. In her memoir, Recollections Grave and Gay (coincidentally also the title of my new memoir), Constance writes that the people who met each summer in Lenox were

of the cultured and refined class of American society, knowing each other intimately, and satisfied to exchange simple entertainments in their pretty, picturesque homes. We had tea parties followed by games of twenty questions, by charades, and dumb crambo, where fun and wit were the order of the hour. We walked to and from each other’s houses, attended by maids with lanterns. Every Saturday evening there was a gathering at Sedgwick Hall, for dancing and reunion, to which the new-rich magnates of New York came as total strangers.

The Harrisons hosted, among others, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Andrew Carnegie, and the poet Emma Lazarus, a family friend who wrote “The New Colossus” as part of a literary magazine put together as a fundraiser. Odds are the words that ended up on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) were composed or at least recited in the cottage where I was to sleep that night.

The next owners willed the cottage to their waiter, who, because he didn’t own the land it rested on, had to move the house to its current spot in Lenox on Hawthorne Street. The house changed hands over the years, becoming the Shadowood Inn in 1949. Its proximity to outdoor classical music venue Tanglewood adds credence to the legend that Leonard Bernstein was a guest.

A descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson bought the house in the 1970s and changed its name to Brook Farm Inn, an homage to the utopian community the transcendentalist thinker backed in the 1840s.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Lenox resident from 1850 to 1852, was one of the original Brook Farm supporters, and based his novel The Blithedale Romance on the months he spent there. The novel’s main character, a poet named Miles Coverdale who is regarded as a Hawthorne stand-in, moves to Brook—err, Blithedale Farm to live a pooled-labor, Fourier-socialist agrarian ideal. A kind of Occupy Wall Street for transcendentalists, at once beautifully and naively American, Brook Farm/Blithedale “adopted the paradisiacal system,” Coverdale explains. “[W]e had divorced ourselves from pride,”

and were striving to supply its place with familiar love. We meant to lessen the laboring man’s great burden of toil, by performing our due share of it at the cost of our own thews and sinews. We sought our profit by mutual aid, instead of wresting it by the strong hand from an enemy, or filching it craftily from those less shrewd than ourselves (if, indeed, there were any such in New England), or winning it by selfish competition with a neighbor; in one or another of which fashions every son of woman both perpetrates and suffers his share of the common evil, whether he chooses it or no. And, as the basis of our institution, we purposed to offer up the earnest toil of our bodies, as a prayer no less than an effort for the advancement of our race.

“We get calls all the time asking if this was the site of Brook Farm,” inn owner Linda Halpern tells me over tea. There are “several local connections,” she says, but the actual site is in what is now the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.

* * *

There are numerous literary-themed B&Bs, from Akwaaba Bed and Breakfast in Washington, D.C. (with rooms “tailored around African American authors and classic genres”), to Monterey’s Lewis Carroll–inspired Jabberwock Bed and Breakfast (“Do come with Alice into the Jabberwock’s ‘Looking-Glass’ world, where time runs backwards, things are not always as they appear and every day is an un-birthday”), to at least one other poetry-themed bed-and-breakfast in Massachusetts alone (Poetry Ridge in Greenfield, with its slightly overwrought and perhaps creepy tagline, “Come stay with us and release the pent-up sonnets from your Inner Shakespeare!”). We may want to connect with our literary past, but we have to factor in modern conveniences, yes?

“If I think of the Brook Farm Inn as a B&B aimed at poetry lovers, then yes, this is literary tourism, sure,” Anne Trubek, author of A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, writes in an e-mail to me. She has written about this microtrend extensively and calls it “literary voyeurism, worship, or, more crudely, lit porn.”

“I looked at the pictures online and immediately wanted to [say], ‘That bathtub is beautiful! Look at those beds!’ But it is not very Brook Farm-y, is it? Jacuzzis don’t strike me as very Transcendentalist.

 “As the physical book becomes scarce, people will seek out other sorts of physical ways to connect with books, like literary tourism,” Trubek points out.

* * *

Poets, aspiring or established, have come to Brook Farm Inn, informally or formally, for decades now. The inn has hosted readings and workshops with Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Stephen Dunn, Robert Creeley, Barbara Wind, Alfred Corn, Bob Jacob, Richard Berlin, along with collaborative events with the nearby Amy Clampitt House and Edna St. Vincent Millay Society at Steepletop.

The NYU poetry retreats at Brook Farm Inn started in the early 1980s and consisted of on-site workshops, retreating to rooms, and communal meals. “I had a great time,” says January O’Neil, a poet who went to Brook Farm the same year I went. “I remember hanging out and making meals together, being stressed out from working on my thesis, and thinking I’m never going to make it in the po biz.” Hearing this almost makes me tear up, since I thought I was the only one who was nervous that weekend.

Sharon and Galway presented a poem for each workshop along with us students, she recalls. “We also had to memorize a poem, and mine was “What Kind of Times Are These” by Adrienne Rich.” 

There were also the extra-credit activities.

“I remember Nick Flynn disappearing into the basement with a female poet,” Aaron Belz, a poet and critic who went on a retreat in March 1994, recalls. “I think it was just to explore the nether regions. They reemerged about 45 minutes later.”

Belz attached the poem he wrote that weekend, after “achieving a significant beer buzz.” Entitled “Rhapsody on a Windy Afternoon,” it mentions “a dark, onion-like hunger” and a Silverado in a shed. “In the on-site workshop, Sharon Olds said, ‘I appreciate how variegated this poem is.’”

“Otherwise,” Belz said, his memory of the weekend is “a blur.”

* * *

The next morning at breakfast, the Halperns’ son and daughter-in-law, in town for a visit, play with their eight-month-old son in the innkeepers’ section of the kitchen. We start to pine for our own kids. The night before, we had walked to a restaurant in town for a rich meal and a bottle of wine. I was a bit hung over.

The boy clinks a glass with the side of a spoon. And that sound—heard at so many weddings and banquets—brings back a memory from the same dining room when, at our group dinner 15 years ago, we recited the poems we memorized. We would clink our glass and stand up from our chairs, like private schoolchildren. How could I have forgotten how Galway Kinnell recited Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” with a student to help him along?

I remember now that I memorized William Carlos Williams’s “Queen-Anne’s Lace” and that, after I recited it, another student told me she thought it advocated violence against women. She had a point, what with the mention of “Wherever / his hand has lain there is / a tiny purple blemish,” although I saw it as more of a prayer for forgiveness for being a man in a world graced by women (“a pious wish to whiteness gone over”)—the virgin/whore complex and all that. Such repartee among writers isn’t uncommon. I was just happy to remember the whole poem.

After breakfast and our good-byes, we take a side trip to Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s house in the Berkshires. We are short on time so we just drive by, but supposedly you can sit at the same desk where the writer wrote Moby-Dick, and look at the same Mount Greylock he looked at while contemplating the whiteness of the whale. Doesn’t the mountain, the tour guide may ask you, resemble the back of a whale? I go home to find out that it was the tree line that made this impression on Melville. Anne Trubek points out in her book that “the curators have considered having the trees cut down so the whale-ish look of the hill will again appear.”

On the drive home, I ask my wife if she knows any poems by heart. “I know one by Robert Creeley,” she says, and without a beat she recites “I Know a Man.”

All these years I’ve known my wife, and I didn’t know she knew these words. It took a literary trip out to the woods to an old house to hear her say “for / christ's sake, look / out where yr going.”


  • Daniel Nester’s most recent book is the memoir-in-essays Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press, 2015). He is the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Inappropriate (2009) and God Save My Queen I and II (2003, 2004), and is the editor of The Incredible Sestina...


I, Literary Tourist

Wiffle ball and scones at the poetry bed and breakfast.
  • Daniel Nester’s most recent book is the memoir-in-essays Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press, 2015). He is the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Inappropriate (2009) and God Save My Queen I and II (2003, 2004), and is the editor of The Incredible Sestina...

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