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!

1 comment:

  1. Loved the views of cemeteries and the various gravestones. My friend Kitty and I used to ride our bikes through a cemetery and loved checking out the monuments. It was a nice peaceful place to think!