Inside the Homes and Hometowns of 5 Famous Writers
Some walls do talk. Visit a writer’s house and listen. Whether they’re the childhood or final “forever” home, the houses and hometowns of writers are the raw material from which our cultural history is written and our national identity derives. Communities around the country are converting writers’ homes into public spaces in order to promote individual legacies, and to educate and inspire.
The historic facades of downtown Red Cloud, Nebraska, appear to have escaped a century and a half of harsh prairie weather. That’s because the town’s 1,000 residents have borne a massive restoration project that preserves the largest collection of nationally designated historic sites attributed to any American writer. Her name was Willa Cather, and her novels included O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours.
Cather and her family arrived in Nebraska in 1883, eventually landing in Red Cloud, where they rented the small clapboard dwelling that still stands at 241 N. Cedar St. Containing much of its original furnishings and personal family objects, including the rose-covered wallpaper that a young Cather affixed to the attic bedroom walls, the Willa Cather Childhood Home opened to the public in 1967. But earlier restoration projects had begun in Red Cloud in the 1950s, after Cather scholar Mildred Bennett organized a group of volunteers to form the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, a nonprofit group intent on preserving the qualities of the region that defined Cather’s work.
Now called the Willa Cather Foundation, the organization’s headquarters occupy the beautifully restored Moon Block, a low-rise commercial building erected in 1887 that dominates the town’s Main Street Historic District. The foundation also owns the Red Cloud Opera House (shown at top), which hosts seminars, conferences, readings, and community-centered events; the Cather Second Home, currently serving as a guest house; and 612 acres of undisturbed prairie donated by The Nature Conservancy in 2006. These and several other preserved local sites from Cather’s life and work can all be visited by the public.
Zora Neale Hurston
Just north of Palm Beach, on the Atlantic side of Florida, the Treasure Coast is home to the city of Fort Pierce. Known for excellent fishing and watersports, the region has an easy pace that harks back to simpler times. Fort Pierce has maintained much of its Old Florida character, despite enduring economic downturns. Among its cultural heritage sites is the last private home of the African American author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, whose literary legacy—as well as her unmarked grave—was recovered by the writer Alice Walker while researching a 1975 feature for Ms. magazine.
Born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, Hurston grew up in the Florida town of Eatonville, 125 miles northwest of Fort Pierce and notably one of the nation’s first all-Black settlements to incorporate. That pioneering model of self-governance informed Hurston’s world view, empowering her to strive in ways that few women of her generation dared. Her stories’ characters project her fiercely independent spirit, in narratives that explore the richness of Black life through her unfettered lens.
Hurston’s anthropology studies fueled extensive travels throughout the Caribbean and the American South, yielding essays, stories, retellings of folk tales, a memoir, and scholarly papers. But her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is her best-known work. Her book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” was published posthumously in 2018, with a foreword by Walker.
After decades of writing from the road, Hurston landed in Fort Pierce in her 60s. Local physician and family friend Clem C. Benton lent her the unassuming cinderblock cottage now located at 1734 Avenue L, known as the Zora Neale Hurston House, where she lived from 1958 to 1959. The house bears Marker #3 on the Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail, a self-guided tour of eight relevant Fort Pierce landmarks. In 2019, citizens reinstated the Zora Neale Hurston Florida Education Foundation, which is working on a bricks-and-mortar home base for the Heritage Trail and the annual three-day Fort Pierce ZoraFest (tentatively planned for March of 2022).
Carson McCullers is memorialized by a pair of houses that bookend her life. In Columbus, Georgia, the Smith-McCullers House was the writer’s childhood home and is now operated by the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University. The other property, known as the Carson McCullers House, can be found 1,000 miles northeast, in Nyack, New York. Both are owned and maintained by the Center, and each comprises public and private space.
The Smith-McCullers House, a modest Arts and Crafts–style bungalow, lies a couple miles from the university campus. The Center uses it for a writing fellowship, scholarship programs, a museum, and a public events space, while a lower-level bedroom suite accommodates an annual residency for writers.
In Nyack, just 20 miles from Manhattan, the Carson McCullers House is a white, mansard-roofed, Victorian-era building with backyard views of the Hudson River. McCullers, who suffered from partial paralysis, moved to Nyack with her mother in 1945 and later bought the house outright. She turned the upstairs bedrooms into efficiency apartments and spent much of her time at the house until her death in 1967. The village’s strong artistic bent seems suited to a writer often praised for her portraits of isolated misfits wrestling small-town inequities and gendered stereotypes in works such as The Member of the Wedding and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
COVID-restricted Nyackers look forward to regaining access to salon-style author readings, film screenings, and writing workshops held in the front parlor and dining room of the Carson McCullers House. Tours by appointment are also expected to resume later this year.
The Hawaiian island of Maui attracts visitors from around the globe with its tropical climate and stunning natural beauty. In 1977, one of America’s most decorated poets, W.S. Merwin, put down roots on a failed pineapple farm that had once been native Hawaiian land in Haiku, on the island’s North Shore. By the mid-1980s, Merwin, with the help of friends and neighbors, had constructed an eco-conscious compound: a main house built of local eucalyptus and designed with passive ventilation and off-grid solar, shrouded by lush landscaping. The 19-acre palm preserve contains 3,000 specimen palms as well as many other trees, all planted by Merwin and his wife, Paula Dunaway Merwin. And thanks to a conservation easement the Merwins placed on the land, the site is permanently protected from all development.
Over his nearly 70-year career, Merwin’s pen addressed socio-political concerns from the Vietnam War to climate change. His last book of poems, Garden Time, written as his eyesight was failing, explored the value of living in the moment.
The Merwins are both deceased now, and the property is being reinvented as a space that will be open to the public for scheduled programming. COVID restrictions have not impeded the ongoing task of cataloging the thousands of books in the poet’s lifelong collection. The Merwin Conservancy has made its poetry readings virtual, and plans are in motion for artist and writer residencies. Small groups have enjoyed socially distanced hikes in the gardens. Director of Programs and Communications Sara Tekula says, “It’s a place made to engage mind, hand, and spirit. Nonprofit leaders, teachers, and artists have all found these visits to be spiritually restorative.”
Lucille Clifton was an African American poet; a creative writing professor; the wife of philosopher, activist, and artist Fred Clifton; and the mother of six children. A prolific literary activist, she stood out among her peers as one of the first women writers to present the Black female body as both metaphorical and literal subject, carving a new path for feminist literature framed by the Civil Rights era. Since the 1969 publication of her first collection, Good Times, her work has remained a hallmark of 20th-century American verse.
In 2019, her daughter Sidney Clifton purchased her own childhood home in the Windsor Hills neighborhood of Baltimore. What began as a project of personal reclamation has bloomed into plans for a community-based arts incubator known as The Clifton House. “I have not lived in the neighborhood in 40 years, since my parents lost the house to foreclosure,” explains Sidney, an Emmy-nominated TV and film producer. “However, driving through, I can see that Windsor Hills still aims to be an enclave of diversity, inclusion, and safety. A sanctuary—which is the exact intention of The Clifton House.”
The vision for this urban sanctuary includes writing workshops in poetry, fiction, and memoir, as well as visual arts classes, introductory computer classes, after-school tutoring programs, and digital animation production seminars. With funding that includes grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the V-Day foundation, Sidney is working on planning and programming. (The National Trust will also provide technical assistance, helping the site prepare a three-year plan of action.) And renovation efforts that were delayed due to COVID are now moving ahead. Sidney Clifton is honoring the house’s storied past, for once and future writers to explore.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on April 30, 2021.
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