Archive for the ‘Massachusetts’ Category

Lowell, Mass.

Jack Kerouac Commemorative

Eastern Canal Park

Bridge Street

Following on the heels of my most recent post on City Lights Books… Writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was born in this old mill town to French-Canadian parents, and did not learn to speak English until he went to school. Kerouac left Lowell at 17 for New York City, where he briefly attended Columbia University. In 1944, his girlfriend, Edie Parker (later his first wife), introduced him to Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, and the triumvirate formed the core of the Beat poets.

Kerouac’s most famous novel, On the Road (1957), was written in three weeks on a scroll that he made out of sheets of paper taped together so that he could type without interruption. A tour of the scroll began making its way to universities and museums around the country in 2004.

Kerouac married three times and had one daughter. (Also a writer, Jan Kerouac committed suicide in 1996.) He also had a variety of male lovers, among them his fellow Beats and writer Gore Vidal. An alcoholic, he died young of complications of the disease.

Lowell erected this sculpture to its native son in 1988, after several years of dispute about whether the town should memorialize an alcoholic. Citing his literary contributions, Kerouac supporters won out, and Ginsberg read some of his early poems at the dedication. “Kerouac is the heart and spirit of what has brought us together!” Ginsberg proclaimed. The granite panels, created by artist Ben Woitena, are inscribed with excerpts from Kerouac’s work, including the opening paragraph of On the Road.

There are other tributes to Kerouac in different parts of the country. Most notably, the bungalow in Orlando, Fla., where Kerouac was living when On the Road was published and where he wrote much of The Dharma Burns (1958) now houses the Jack Kerouac Project, a residency program for writers.

For the Kerouac Commemorative I sought images which sculpturally communicate and honor his philosophy of life and the genius of his literary talent. Conceptually, the park is structured in the form of a mandala; that is, a diagram of symbolic geometric arrangements designed to make clear the relationship between the quoted texts and the visual images which inspire them.”

-Ben Woitena


Read Full Post »



Salem, Mass.

The entire town of Salem is included here, because its name is indelibly linked with witchcraft. Salem’s persecution and execution of innocent citizens in the late 1690s – most of whom were, in one way or another, “misfits,” and several of whom were unmarried women – is notorious. The word “witch hunt” is now synonymous with any institutionalized scapegoating of individuals or groups, such as of Communists and homosexuals during the McCarthy era.

Today, Salem capitalizes on its gruesome past with several campy museums, among them the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch Dungeon (which features a re-enactment of a witch trial), the Salem Wax Museum, the Witch History Museum, and the Witch House (shown in an old postcard above – it was a judge’s home, where witch “examinations” took place). Salem is also home to the famous “House of the Seven Gables,” built in 1668, which is the oldest wooden structure in New England, and the inspiration for Hawthorne’s novel.

Read Full Post »


Pittsfield, Mass.

Herman Melville home
780 Holmes Road

There’s a marked difference in the way that Emily Dickinson’s home and Herman Melville’s are interpreted for the public. Both were prominent 19th-century literary figures, but at the Dickinson homestead (not far from here in Amherst), guides focus on Emily’s “petite figure” and the number of her supposed suitors. By contrast, at Arrowhead, Melville’s writing is of foremost importance, his study the centerpiece of the house.

At Arrowhead, where he lived from 1850 to 1863, Herman Melville (1819-1891) wrote what is considered his masterpiece, Moby-Dick (1851). He was reportedly inspired by the view from the window of his study of Mount Greylock, a rolling mountain with the vague shape of a giant whale. Melville would rise early to feed the farm animals, and then after breakfast light the fire in his study and work on his writing until late afternoon.

It was also here in the Berkshires that his friendship and fascination with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived nearby, blossomed, though there is no evidence that the relationship between the two writers was anything but platonic. Melville held a lifelong attraction for sailors, filling his sea tales with homoerotic undertones. If you look carefully at the document displayed under glass on his desk at Arrowhead, you may smile at a line in a letter to his seafaring brother, who had complained about the laziness of his fellow sailors. “For my part I love sleepy fellows,” Herman Melville wrote, “and the more ignorant the better.”

Melville wrote many other works at Arrowhead, including the humorous short story “I and My Chimney,” in which he extolled the virtues of his large stone chimney. Later, Melville’s brother Allan lived at Arrowhead and had the opening sentences of the story inscribed into the fireplace in honor of his famous brother (see photo). At this location, Melville also penned the six stories known as The Piazza Tales, named for the piazza that ran the width of the house, which he added to Arrowhead during his years there.

When he purchased Arrowhead with the help of his wife’s father, Melville had the idea that he would write part time and farm the rest. But he was unprepared for the strenuous life of a farmer, and his experiment finally ended. He moved his family to New York City, where he became a customs inspector. Arrowhead is now operated by the Berkshire County Historical Society and is open to the public for tours.

I have been building some shanties of houses (connected with the old one) and likewise some shanties of chapters and essays. I have been ploughing & sowing & raising & printing & praying, and now begin to come out upon a less bristling time, and to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a fair piazza at the north of the old farmhouse here.”

–Herman Melville

Read Full Post »

A Home by the Sea


South Berwick, Maine

Sarah Orne Jewett house
5 Portland Street

Fiction writer Sarah Orne Jewett was born in 1849 in the smaller dwelling next door (“Haggens House”), but she lived much of her life in this comfortable frame house owned by her grandparents. Eventually, she inherited the house from her grandfather, who was a wealthy trader and sea captain. Jewett’s friend Willa Cather once wrote that she was “born within the scent of the sea but not within sight of it, in a beautiful old house full of strange and lovely things brought home from all over the globe by seafaring ancestors.” Today, the house – a national historic landmark that is open to the public – still contains the Jewett family furnishings, including many items Captain Theodore Jewett brought back from his extensive sea travels.

In the downstairs library hangs a portrait of Annie Fields, Jewett’s intimate companion of more than 25 years, with whom she lived half the year in Boston. (The two held a lively weekly salon at Fields’ home on Charles Street.) The months Jewett spent alone in South Berwick constituted her time for writing and contemplation. “Here I am at my desk again,” read one forlorn letter to Fields, “remembering that this is the first morning in more than seven months that I haven’t waked up to hear your dear voice and see your dear face.”

Upstairs in the writer’s combination bedroom and study is another picture of Fields, as well as a portrait of writer George Sand, given to Jewett by Cather. Next to her bed Jewett kept a container of pencils and pens so that she would have them at the ready in case she woke up with the desire to write. In this house, Jewett penned such novels as A Country Doctor (1884) and The Country of Pointed Firs (1896), which abound in local color. Inspired by the Maine landscape, her fiction focused on “the people who grew out of the soil and the life of the country near her heart,” as Cather phrased it.

Read Full Post »

America the Beautiful Plaque

Colorado Springs, Colo.

“America, the Beautiful” plaque
Pikes Peak

With a height of 14,110 feet, Pikes Peak is a formidable challenge for any climber, but in 1893, a young Wellesley College English professor named Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929) made it to the top. That summer, Bates had taken a teaching position at Colorado College to supplement her income, even though it meant lonely months apart from her life partner, Katherine Coman. Bates and Coman were part of a community of “Wellesley marriages,” and were a couple for 20 years.

After scaling Pikes Peak and admiring the breathtaking view of “spacious skies” and “purple mountains’ majesty,” Bates was inspired to write the poem “America the Beautiful” in just one day, penciling four verses quickly into her notebook. Bates once recalled that she was “disheartened” with the poem. But when it was published in 1895, it became an instant public hit and was later set to music. With the royalties, Bates built “a dear little house” in Wellesley for herself and Coman. Today, a plaque at the summit of Pikes Peak memorializes Bates’ poem.

Read Full Post »


Cambridge, Mass.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery
580 Mount Auburn Street

A guide map is available at the entrance to this historic cemetery, which will steer you to the many famous historical figures buried here. Among them, of course, are lesbians and women-identified women. You can visit the grave of actress Charlotte Cushman (who made a dashing cross-dressed Romeo in 1846, opposite her sister Susan’s Juliet – see above) and that of one of her many intimates, sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Also in the park is a statue, by lesbian sculptor Edmonia Lewis (one of Cushman’s and Hosmer’s circle), of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, which was commissioned in 1875 for the grave of pioneering physician Harriot K. Hunt. Poet Amy Lowell also rests at Mt. Auburn.

Read Full Post »


Brookline, Mass.

Amy Lowell home
70 Heath Street

Poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925) was born in Brookline to a wealthy and prominent New England family. Her father, Augustus, was, among many other things, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here at the Lowell’s 10-acre estate, young Amy – who was born late in her parents’ lives and was much younger than her siblings – had a lonely childhood, roaming beautiful gardens landscaped by her father (see photo). She lived in the elegant mansion all her life, redecorating many of the rooms according to her own taste after the death of her parents. For example, she combined the front and back parlors to create a magnificent library with built-in bookshelves and imported carved paneling. There in a plush leather chair with matching hassock she would spend hours reading and thinking.

Lowell has been painted by critics as a homely, obese, cigar-smoking spinster who never knew passion. But in fact, she met the love of her life, Ada Dwyer Russell, in 1912, and the two were constant companions for a dozen years. It took Lowell two years to convince Russell (whom she called her “very intimate friend”) to come and live with her at Sevenels, which Russell finally did in 1914. Forsaking her own career as an actress, Russell concentrated instead on Lowell’s – she read the proofs for all of Lowell’s books and listened to all of her compositions in the evenings, serving as both audience and critic. Lowell often stated that she wanted to put a sign over the door at Sevenels that would read: “Lowell & Russell, Makers of Fine Poems.” Russell was not only Lowell’s critic, she was also the inspiration for much of her poetry. Lowell was always careful, though, to make her love-themed poems gender-neutral. Only those who knew both the women suspected the identity of Lowell’s “muse.”

Read Full Post »


Salt Lake City, Utah

Ada Dwyer Russell home
W. North Temple Street

Born in 1863, actress Ada Dwyer (later Russell) was raised as a Mormon. Her father, James Dwyer, had come west in a covered wagon and opened the first bookstore in the far west. He also helped found the Latter Day Saints University. The Dwyers’ residence is listed at this location on North Temple Street beginning in 1867, when Ada was four, but the building is no longer extant.

Ada grew up to be an actress who first performed at the Salt Lake Theater (corner of South First and State) and later on the Broadway and London stages. She married the British actor Harold Russell, and was later widowed. In 1912, she met poet Amy Lowell, a cigar-smoking butch 11 years her junior, at a women’s luncheon club in Boston. The two were instantly smitten; Lowell wrote that “between us lept a gold and scarlet flame.” Two years later, after much coaxing on Lowell‘s part, Russell moved into the Lowell family estate, Sevenels, in Brookline, Mass. She gave up her own career for Lowell‘s, organizing her partner’s life, and became the subject of Lowell‘s explicit lesbo-erotic poetry. Lowell died in 1925, leaving her fortune to Russell; still, Russell maintained until her own death in 1952 that the two of them had only been “friends.”

Read Full Post »


Lee, Mass.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
Ted Shawn Theater
Route 20 (about eight miles east of Lee)

In 1915, modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis founded the Denishawn School of Dancing and the Denishawn Dance Company in Los Angeles, whose most illustrious student was Martha Graham. In her autobiography, Graham wrote that Shawn was prone to auditioning men for Denishawn by requiring that they send nude photos of themselves. Shawn and St. Denis (who was 14 years older than Shawn) were legally husband and wife for 50 years, though each enjoyed outside affairs. In 1927, they unfortunately fell in love with the same man, Fred Beckman, whom they made their “personal representative.” Having the same taste in men caused an irreparable split in their marriage, and four years later, they began living separately and closed Denishawn.

Shawn (1891-1972) bought a colonial-era farm at this location in the Berkshires after his marriage collapsed. He called the site Jacob’s Pillow after a big, sloping rock near the main house. In 1933, he founded an all-male troupe called the “Men Dancers,” designed to showcase men’s contributions to the field of modern dance. Shawn and his young male dancers lived on the property in a rustic setting without heat or running water. (Shawn had a private shower and toilet, but the other dancers used an outhouse papered with covers from the New Yorker.) At lunch time, Shawn would read aloud to the dancers, who were all nude, on the terrace from books on art, physics, and history.

The Men Dancers gave their first performance at Jacob’s Pillow in the summer of 1933. It was held in the barn/studio and attended by 50 people who paid 75 cents each. After that, the company held dance performances yearly, though they were then called “teas” and not a festival. Shawn’s company lasted until 1940, when he disbanded it and gave each member either a cash settlement or a parcel of land at Jacob’s Pillow. The rest of the land he sold the following year to a group who founded the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, which continues today as one of the world’s pre-eminent performance festivals. In 1942, the festival converted the old barn into the Ted Shawn Theater, which retains the rustic charm of the early days of Shawn’s endeavor while being the first theater designed specifically for dance.

Read Full Post »

Dickinson homestead

Amherst, Mass.

Emily Dickinson home
280 Main Street

Emily Dickinson, pre-eminent 19th-century American poet, rarely left her stately yellow clapboard house in the sleepy town of Amherst. Literary history has portrayed her as a recluse, a pathologically shy spinster, when, in fact, she suffered from Graves disease, which caused frequent urination and quite possibly the need to stay close to home. A dedicated artist, she enjoyed a full life writing in her second-floor bedroom, where she composed reams of poems that she sewed together into handmade books. When Dickinson died, her sister discovered the books in a bureau drawer and unwittingly took apart the stitching, so that the poet’s original intent in ordering her manuscripts has been lost.

Dickinson’s home is now owned by Amherst College and is open only by appointment. When I was there, the caretakers of the Dickinson Homestead seemed a tad nervous about the suggestion that the great poet was a lesbian – in affectional orientation, if not in actual sexual practice. During the tour, visitors see the famous photograph of Emily at eighteen (the only one in existence), in which she looks every inch the serious poet. But they also see a retouched photo, in which Emily is burdened with elaborately curled hair and a frilly lace collar – a painstaking attempt on the part of the curators to “femme” her up. This is probably how she looked in later life, the guide contends, not as “plain” as in the early photo.

On the tour I took, there was much discussion about the men in Emily’s life – her alleged “gentlemen callers” – and almost nothing about Sue Gilbert, the sister-in-law with whom she shared an ardent daily correspondence via a clothesline connecting their adjacent homes. “If you were here – and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language. . . .” Beloved “Susie” may also have been the subject of some of Emily’s passionate poetry. One of Emily’s bedroom windows wistfully faces the home Sue shared with Austin Dickinson. Describing Emily’s room, the guide told us, “There were no closets in the 19th century” – ironic, considering how careful the Dickinson caretakers are to “straighten out” Emily!

“Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to? . . . I hope for you so much and I feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you–that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me hot and feverish. . . .”

–Emily Dickinson to her sister-in-law, Sue Gilbert Dickinson

Read Full Post »