Sunday, October 20, 2013

Literary Haunts--Mwahaha!

Looking for a literary haunt for Halloween--a place to commune with the dearly departed literati?

You could start with a visit to Canongate Kirkyard, a cemetery near Edinburgh, Scotland.

Canongate Kirkyard, seen from a nearby hill,
photo by Kim Traynor

Charles Dickens, while strolling through this cemetery one evening at dusk, discovered a tombstone that read, "Here Lies Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie: A Meal Man." But Dickens thought the stone said "A Mean Man"--and so, the idea for his most famous character--Ebenezer Scrooge--was born. Poet Robert Fergusson is also buried in Canongate Kirkyard.

Or you could try the St. James Church graveyard in Cooling, England. Dickens, who lived in nearby Higham, was inspired by the graves of thirteen young children in this cemetery to write the first chapter of Great Expectations. In this chapter, protagonist Pip visits the gravesites of his family in Kent.

Cooling Church graveyard
photo by Hywel Williams

Beatrix Potter may have taken inspiration for some of her character names from Brompton Cemetery, near her family home. Computer records revealed these names of burials: Mr. Nutkin, Mr. McGregor, Jeremiah Fisher, Tommy Brock, and Peter Rabbett ("Cemetery clue to Potter animals," BBC News, 27 July 2001). But Beatrix wasn't buried at Brompton. In fact, no one knows where her ashes were scattered--and that's just the way she wanted it.

Stone angel at Brompton Cemetery,
photo by Oxfordian Kissuth

No great surprise that Edgar Allen Poe's grave marker has a stone raven.

Photo by KRichter

And somehow, you'd think that Herman Melville's tombstone would feature a great white whale. It doesn't, but it does have a rather impressive-looking scroll. Apparently Moby Dick wasn't that popular during his lifetime.

Grave of Herman Melville
photo: Anthony22

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Concord, Massachusetts, has a section known as Author's Ridge where Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau are among the noteworthy "residents." Ralph Waldo Emerson gave the dedication speech for Sleepy Hollow in 1855--and was later buried there. It seems right somehow--maybe even "transcendental"-- for Emerson and Thoreau to spend eternity together.

photo by victorgrigas

Grave of Louisa May Alcott
photo by victorgrigas

Paris, France, boasts two famous literary cemeteries. Montparnasse Cemetery is "home" to Charles Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant, Eugene Ionesco, Susan Sontag, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The Pantheon, originally built as a church, is now used as a mausoleum, serving as the final resting place for Victor Hugo, Rousseau, Alexander Dumas, and Emile Zola.

Funny how differently these burial sites are marked. Louisa May Alcott has a simple grave, under drifting clouds, the changing leaves, and the pinwheel stars. Whereas--no offense to a very great writer--Victor Hugo's lavish grave is in stark contrast to his works, which championed the poor and downtrodden.

Victor Hugo's grave--photo public domain
Some author graves are unmarked and uncelebrated. But J. R. R. Tolkien's grave is visited by loyal fans in an annual gathering at Wolvercote Cemetery near Oxford, England.

Tolkien's grave, photo by Haltiamieli

Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts was the first garden cemetery--making it a lovely place of repose for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Julia Ward Howe, Amy Lowell, John Ciardi, and a host of other notable statesmen, scientists, and celebrities.

Mt. Auburn, first garden cemetery, by bdamon

But the grand prize for literary haunts goes to Poet's Corner, a section in the South Transcept of Westminster Abbey, which houses the remains of Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and Alfred Tennyson--along with composer George Frederick Handel. (Hallelujah!) I like to imagine these giants of literature, after hours in the Abbey, sitting among the monuments, reading aloud from their most recent works and having a late night crit session.

Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey
photo public domain

Along with these graves, Poet's Corner also has monuments to many other writers buried elsewhere in the Abbey:  Joseph Addison, Matthew Arnold, Jane Austin, William Blake, the Brontes (Charlotte, Anne, Emily), Elizabeth Browning, Robert Burns, Byron, Lewis Carroll, T. S. Eliot, Shakespeare--well, you get the idea. The list is long and glorious. Can't you picture these ladies having high tea while the gents are arguing politics from past centuries?

There are so many literary haunts we could visit on Halloween to contemplate the lives and works of great writers. 

But honestly, we might be better off staying home and outlining our novels. NaNoWriMo starts the very next day. At midnight, the witching hour, we must face a writer's worst terror.

White as a ghost, silent as the grave: the blank page!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

City Mouse, Country Mouse

It happened a week ago. 

Richard and I were enjoying our Saturday morning pancakes, when he saw it.

A mouse. Scurrying across the kitchen floor.

A mouse in my house. The shock. The horror.

So naturally I have launched an all-out offensive that would make Sun Tzu proud. Milton (yes, I named the mouse) has met his match! I do not want a mouse in my house.

A mouse, mocking me

But mice in stories are another matter. Who wouldn't love those Einsteins of the furry-footed, The Rats of NIMH? Or brave Reepicheep in The Chronicles of Narnia? Or those shape-shifting mice that turn into horses to draw Cinderella’s carriage? Or a dashing explorer like Livingstone Mouse (Pamela Duncan Edwards)? Or Frederick (Leo Leonni), a poet mouse who stores away colors for the dreary winter months.

Arthur Rackham, illus for The City Mouse and the Country Mouse

One of my favorite mythic mice is Timmy Willie, from Beatrix Potter’s story, The Tale of Johnny Town Mouse—probably a variation on one of Aesop’s fables, The City Mouse and the Country Mouse.

As so many adventures do, it all began with a mistake. 

Timmy Willie, a country mouse, had fallen asleep in a wicker hamper someone set by the garden gate. The next thing he knew, "he awoke in a fright" as the hamper was lifted into a cart. Then he heard the cloppety-clop of horse’s hooves as the cart went up the lane and down the road to town. 

The cart was unloaded in a house where dogs barked, boys whistled, the cook cackled, and a canary trilled. Rather raucous when you are used to life in a peaceful country garden.

Fleeing from the screaming cook, Timmy Willie ducked into a hole and landed in the middle of a mouse dinner party. 

The town mice invited Timmy to join them, and he was treated to eight gourmet courses, but each course was rather small. The food was good, and the mice were polite, but the strange noises and the perils of town life put a damper on his enthusiasm. Timmy longed for his home and soon returned in the outgoing vegetable hamper.

Then Johnny Town Mouse came to visit Timmy’s country home. “Whatever is that fearful racket?” asked Johnny. 

"Only the lawnmower” replied Timmy. 

Only the lawnmower? Imagine how a lawnmower looks and sounds when you have the size and disposition of a mouse! And Johnny found other strange things in country life—like oozing mud and cud-chewing monsters called cows. Timmy was quite sure that Johnny would want to move to the country--but instead, Johnny couldn’t wait to catch the five o'clock hamper back to town.

For, as Beatrix Potter concludes, “One places suits one person, another place suits another.” Beatrix had lived in both the town and the country, but she decided that country life was more to her liking.
Hilltop Farm, Beatrix Potter's country home

Now here’s a simple personality test, with just one question. City mouse or country mouse—which one are you?

I loved the years we lived in the country, where if you hear honking, it's probably geese. Where a traffic jam is a cow in the road. Where you can watch the sun rise and set over open fields. Where soy fields turn to burnished bronze in the fall. Where a zillion sparkling stars come out at night. Where you can be the first to make footprints in the snow. 

But there are many delights and conveniences to living in or near the city as well. Libraries. Museums. Shopping. Movies. Restaurants. Meetings with friends. A city skyline reflected on the river. A city decked out for the holidays.

Unlike Johnny and Timmy, I have a harder time deciding between city and country--and I wonder what that says about me. Hey, I only said country-mouse/city-mouse was a good personality test. I didn't say I had any idea what it means.

If you get a chance, leave a comment and tell me what kind of mouse you are--city or country--and why.

Oh, and if you happen to see Milton, tell him he's going down. (Wait--do I hear snickering from somewhere behind the stove?)