According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, some 76 percent of American adults said they read at least one book in the past year. Furthermore, 21 percent claimed to have read 10 or more books. The latter demographic really grabbed our attention, suggesting there are millions of avid bookworms out there — literary enthusiasts who we figure to be prime candidates for visiting the homes of famous writers. More than 100 such homes are open to the public in locations across the country. They’re museums of a sort, dedicated to memorializing and interpreting the lives and works of America’s greatest authors and poets. Visiting the homes of these literary icons allows a glimpse into how each writer lived, worked and gained his or her inspiration. Many of the homes are architectural and historical treasures in their own right, and dozens of them have been designated National Historic Landmarks.
Spanning centuries and genres, here are seven homes that we find most representative of America’s greatest wordsmiths. Visitors can feel a palpable presence of one of America’s greatest authors as they tour the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West, Florida. Hemingway lived in the handsome 19th-century Spanish Colonial-style mansion with his second wife Pauline and several six-toed cats from 1931-40. It was a productive period for the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner as he composed “To Have and Have Not,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and much of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” on his well-worn Royal typewriter — which still rests on the writing table in his second-floor studio. Step into the garden and you’ll likely cross paths with some of the 40 or so feral six-toed cats that reside on the mansion grounds. They’re said to be descendants of the originals “Papa” Hemingway bred, believing they brought him good luck. Contact: 305-294-1136, www.hemingwayhome.com.
The Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, Georgia, was home to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist when she penned her runaway hit novel “Gone with the Wind.” The 1899 Tudor Revival-style structure was known as the Crescent Apartments when Mitchell and her husband John Marsh lived in Apartment 1 on the ground floor from 1925 to 1932. Now beautifully restored as a historic house museum and operated by the nonprofit Atlanta History Center, the Mitchell House is a popular tourist attraction in Midtown Atlanta and hosts a variety of author programs and creative writing classes. The house, designated a city landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, also contains a visitor center and an extensive exhibit devoted to the 1939 filming of “Gone With the Wind.” Contact: 404-249-7015,www.atlantahistorycenter.com.
Rowan Oak, also known as the William Faulkner House, is the former Oxford, Mississippi, home of yet another American literary giant and winner of both Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes. An alley of cedars flanks a brick walkway, leading to the stately white 1844 Greek Revival-style home, which was in dilapidated condition when Faulkner purchased it in 1930. He spent decades renovating it, doing most of the work himself. It is not clear why he named the house Rowan Oak. The rowan tree is not an oak and it doesn’t grow in Mississippi — so perhaps the name is a product of the author’s vivid imagination, as was mythical Yoknapatawapha County, setting for most of his novels, including “The Sound and the Fury,” “As I Lay Dying” and “Light in August.”
One of the home’s most interesting features is the handwritten outline for Faulkner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “A Fable,” penciled on the plaster wall of his study. Preserved within the house are many of its original furnishings, including the author’s Underwood typewriter and the tiny work desk where he did most of his writing. Following Faulkner’s death in 1962, his daughter sold the house to the University of Mississippi, which maintains the property and operates tours year-round. Contact: 662-234-3284,www.rowanoak.com.
The Mark Twain House and Museum, was the Hartford, Connecticut, home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain) from 1874 to 1891. Twain spent some of his happiest and most productive years at this imposing, 25-room Victorian Gothic mansion — a home he affectionately said “had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with.” He wrote seven major works there, including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1962, the house features Tiffany-designed interiors, a glass conservatory, a grand library and a handsome billiard room where Twain wrote his famous books. It was exorbitantly expensive to build and maintain, which contributed to the financial problems that plagued Clemens during his later years and eventually forced him to sell the house in 1903. Since the mid-’70s, the Twain house has been owned and operated by a nonprofit foundation that financed a major renovation of the mansion and a state-of-the-art museum addition that opened in 2003. It features permanent and rotating exhibits, a café, and a 178-seat auditorium for special programs. Contact: 860-247-0998, www.marktwainhouse.org.
Following a number of name changes instituted by the National Park Service in recent years, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, mansion that served for nearly 50 years as home to noted poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow is now officially listed as the Longfellow House — Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. However cumbersome, the current moniker reflects the home’s importance as both a political and literary landmark. The three-story, Georgian-style home was built by John Vassall in 1759. A British loyalist, Vassall fled Massachusetts at the onset of the Revolutionary War. General George Washington subsequently occupied the house as his headquarters. It served as his base of operations during the Siege of Boston.
Longfellow became the owner in 1843 and lived in the home until his death in 1882. It was here that Longfellow penned the legendary poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” as well as other classics such as “Evangeline,” “The Song of Hiawatha” and “A Psalm of Life.” Managed by the National Park Service, the Longfellow house is strong on authenticity. All furnishings and decorations — forming a collection of almost 30,000 objects — belonged to the Longfellow family. Contact: 617-876-4491, www.nps.gov/long.
The Frost Place is a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, where four-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Frost made his home from 1915 to 1920. During his residence in the snug, white-frame 1860 farmhouse, Frost published three highly acclaimed poetry collections, securing his place among America’s finest poets. The farm’s peaceful, bucolic seclusion seemed to take root in Frost’s poetic voice, as evidenced in some of the classic poems he composed there, including “Birches,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken.”
In 1976, the town of Franconia purchased the farm, restored the house, and reopened it as a museum the following year. The Frost Place has since thrived as a sanctuary for lovers of poetry, hosting seminars, workshops and an annual poetry festival. In the woods nearby, the half-mile Poetry Nature Trail is lined with plaques displaying poems written during Frost’s Franconia years. Contact: 603-823-5510,www.frostplace.org.
The John Steinbeck House in Salinas, California, is the birthplace and childhood home of one of America’s most widely published and best-known authors. The turreted, Queen Anne Victorian-style building in downtown Salinas has been restored by the Valley Guild, a nonprofit organization that operates it as a historic house museum and restaurant. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Fixed-menu gourmet lunches are served in the parlor, Tuesday through Saturday, and the house is open for tours on specified dates during the summer. Steinbeck returned to the house as an adult in 1934 to care for his ailing mother. During that time, he wrote and published his successful novella “The Red Pony.”
Of Steinbeck’s 27 books, “Grapes of Wrath” stands out as the best known. A true classic of American literature, it earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and sold almost 15 million copies. In 1962, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Those seeking a more comprehensive Steinbeck experience can visit the National Steinbeck Center, located two blocks east of the house at One Main Street. Contact: 831-424-2735, www.steinbeckhouse.com