Best Literary Destinations

Americana, On the Road, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on September 16, 2007

As the poet Emily Dickinson once wrote, “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.” While beloved authors act as tour guides for our imaginations, there’s something to be said for travel beyond the page. Visiting a favorite writer’s haunts can enrich the reading experience for young and old alike, so put a bookmark in that classic, load the family into the car and check out these literary locations.


Walden Pond State Reservation | Concord, Mass.

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Life in the woods inspired Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden, and the author’s creed of “Simplify, simplify” remains in evidence in the natural setting of the reservation. Run by the Massachusetts Park Service, this National Historic Landmark is considered the birthplace of the conservation movement.

Out of respect for Thoreau’s uncomplicated lifestyle, celebrations are minimal—his July 12 birthday is commemorated with speakers who portray the author during the day’s tours. The simple life, which Thoreau enjoyed at Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847, also is celebrated in the area’s most popular activities: fishing, swimming, hiking and cross-country skiing. A replica of Thoreau’s meager one-room dwelling helps fans understand the writer’s lifestyle during his time of “living deliberately,” and a statue of the man himself sees more visitors (the reservation is open to only 1,000 visitors each day) than Thoreau did while living in quiet solitude.


The Hemingway House | Key West, Fla.

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When the “Lost Generation” writers left Paris, Ernest Hemingway chose Key West as his home. He embraced its laid-back lifestyle, spending his days deep-sea fishing, tossing back a drink or two at Sloppy Joe’s, and gathering material for some of his most famous novels. Visitors still can belly up to Papa’s favorite bar or visit his home on Whitehead Street, where The Sun Also Rises and other classics were penned. Knowledgeable guides take tourists through the writer’s home and studio, both filled with personal touches, including mounted trophies and skins from Hemingway’s African safaris. Just watch out for the cats. Sixty of them, descendants of Papa’s own six-toed felines, roam freely throughout the estate.


The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum | Hannibal, Mo.

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Twain’s memories of growing up in Hannibal inspired some of the most beloved American novels, and visitors can get a glimpse of his experiences while visiting an eight-building complex, including Twain’s boyhood home from 1844 to 1853 and the home of Tom Blankenship, on whom Twain based the character Huckleberry Finn. The museum boasts a new interpretive center where visitors tour exhibits about the Hannibal of Twain’s childhood. Special events and exhibits change annually, but a Mark Twain birthday celebration is held each Nov. 30. Hannibal, also known as “America’s Hometown,” sponsors a variety of Twain-related events, including National Tom Sawyer Days, which features frog-jumping, minnow-catching and watermelon seed-spitting contests each Fourth of July weekend. Just bring along a paintbrush; you never know when a fence will need whitewashing.


The real “Yoknapatawpha County” | Oxford, Miss.

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While his counterparts traveled abroad, William Faulkner chose to write at home—in his case, his adopted hometown of Oxford, Miss., which serves as inspiration for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County and the setting for many of his novels. Also the home of “Ole Miss”—the University of Mississippi—Oxford exudes the Southern charm and unique characters that became an important part of the Nobel Prize winner’s style.

Faulkner once called the courthouse “the center, the focus, the hub,” and visitors to the Lafayette County Courthouse, center of activity in Oxford, can find the stature of the Confederate soldier that stood sentry in The Sound and the Fury. The Thompson-Chandler House, model for the Compson place in the same novel, is nearby, not far from Maud Falkner’s House, built for the author’s mother by his father, Murry, and all that’s left of the family estate. Scholars and avid readers meet annually for the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conferences, a weeklong study of the writer’s work held at Ole Miss each summer.


Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden | Springfield, Mass.

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Theodore Seuss Geisel once penned, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere,” and visitors to the sculpture garden at the Springfield Museums complex in the writer’s birthplace know just what he means. Geisel’s stepdaughter, sculptor Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, created the bronze statues representing many of Seuss’ most memorable characters, including one of the good doctor himself at his drawing board with the Cat in the Hat at his side. Children also will enjoy seeing a 14-foot likeness of the egg-hatching Horton the Elephant and the holiday-hating Grinch and his dog, Max.


The Ingalls Homestead | De Smet, S.D.

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The inspiration and setting for five of the nine “Little House On the Prairie” books, the Ingalls Homestead in the Dakota Territory actually was a small farm on the frontier. “Pa” Ingalls settled his family—including daughter and future-author Laura Ingalls Wilder—there in 1879.

The homestead and surrounding land have been restored, and “Little House” fans will enjoy visiting the cabin, identical to the one where Laura and her sisters grew up. Visitors also can participate in the same activities Laura enjoyed, including riding in a covered wagon, sitting at the wooden desks in the one-room schoolhouse and making rope at this “hands-on” landmark.

Nearby are authentic sites, including the Surveyors House, where the family spent their first winter, and the Loftus store, where Laura bought her books. Townspeople stage the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant each summer, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society is restoring the 1880s one-room schoolhouse that the Ingalls children attended.