When I was in high school, I had what might have been my favorite job ever: working as a tour guide for the Longfellow National Historic Site. Located just outside Harvard Square on an old, tree-lined street, the Longfellow NHS is a grand, yellow house on a few acres of gardens with ancient lilac trees and gentle walking paths. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived there with his family for most of his life, and the house remains gently haunted and peaceful – a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. (Though now they’ve renamed it to include Washington’s Headquarters, because Washington slept there for about nine months. But in my mind, it will always be just Hank and Fanny’s.)
Anyway, one of the things I loved best about working there was that we had to learn as much as we could about the Longfellows and their lives in order to earn our docent stripes. And one of the most wonderful things about being a poet in 19th century Massachusetts was that you were in very good company. When Longfellow had a rough day with his quatrains, he could take a walk along the Charles River with his buddies Emerson and Hawthorne, or chat politics in his study with Charles Sumner, or get some excellent shade from perhaps the most epic frenemy of all time, Edgar Allen Poe.
You would think that in today’s world of high speed and instantaneous communications, the same sort of relationships would easily develop, albeit in a virtual world. Personally, I have a few, dear literary friends, but I don’t see them as often as I’d like. Sometimes, those instantaneous communications make it somehow harder to meet up with people more casually, to spend time in their company and listen to their unvarnished thoughts. I’m not sure anything can change that, for the moment, but one thing that enhances my sense of a literary circle is the habit I’ve formed over time of making an adoptive literary family tree. Clearly, I need a snappier name for it, but here’s how it works: I’ve identified those authors who, for whatever reason, shore me up when I’m feeling lonely or untethered as an artist. I don’t let the likelihood of whether or not they would pay me any mind if we actually knew one another, because this is my imaginary tree and I get to put whoever the *&%# I want to on it. Then I go and spend time with one of their works, and it really and truly helps. Right now, I’ve been visiting with Ann Patchett, that distant cousin I always want to know better but am content to adore from afar. Charles Dickens is always there, as some kind of great-grandfather watching over efforts to produce grand and funny and smart old-fashioned novels, especially those that contain brilliantly circuitous sentences that, like great puzzles, invite you to dive in and untangle their rewards. Longfellow is the somewhat dottering but sweet second cousin who’s always glad to see you; William Maxwell is the not-at-all creepy but quiet and gentle uncle who lets you sit in his company without talking; Elizabeth Bishop the lesbo aunt that takes no prisoners and makes you want to be just like her whenever she’s around. I could go on, because I’ve made sure my tree has tons of branches, but I think you get the idea.
So what I’m curious to know is: Do you have a literary family tree? Or just people in your ideal literary neighborhood? Please share! But fair warning: I might want to borrow a few of your seeds. Hope you don’t mind a little cross-pollination. (Ok, I get it, that’s enough punning for a Tuesday morning. I’ll leave off here.)