‘This is a Mighty Room’: A New Chapter for Literary Tourism

by Caitlín McDowell

Literary tourism is booming.  Between 2016-17, 1 in 4 Brits went beyond the pages  of their favourite books at one of the UK’s literary hotspots, whilst over half of us are actively interested in exploring one.

Fueled by celebrity culture, literary “enthusiasm” can  range from innocent memorabilia stores to stalking authors at book-signings.  When it comes to the classics, there’s the option of reclusive Woolf pilgrimages, or  James Joyce’s home to rent on Airbnb. So, are we avid enthusiasts, or violating voyeurs?

Treading an author’s floorboards is an unusual venture – a chance to strip away literary illusions, and see behind the scenes. As Robert McCrum admits, it’s a ‘slightly embarrassing, but addictive’ chance to connect with our idols – even the sight of Jane Austen’s desk reportedly provokes tears from visitors. However, for  Emma Schofield, these site-specific shrines are reductive to an author’s legacy and occasionally inaccurate. ‘We should be encouraging visitors to see the bigger picture,’ she argues, ‘to make connections between different places of significance to authors or texts.’ But does exact location really define experience?

As a Literature student, my enthusiasm for studying abroad was intensified by the prospect of being both a page-turn and coach-ride away from The House of Seven Gables and the home of Mark Twain. The Alma Mater of Emily Dickinson, Mount
Holyoke
formed an electric atmosphere of discussion and illuminating class
trips.

Standing proud in Massachusetts, The Homestead is a loop-hole in Schofield’s critique, being the only home for Emily Dickinson and her poetry. But the museum is more unique than that – offering the chance not only to tread the floorboards of Dickinson’s sanctuary, but to spend a few ‘sweet hours’ directly walking in her shoes – or rather, writing at her desk. The museum markets the chance to ‘jumpstart your next creative journey’ within the bedroom walls that secretly safeguarded Dickinson’s repertoire. Although still cordoning off valuable artifacts, the opportunity lifts the ultimate bar between tourist and author – a legitimate chance, as McCrum phrases, to ‘channel’ her ‘vibe’.

Having paid the near $200 fee, Sarah Lyall had an ‘uncanny’ experience of exactly that degree.  ‘I did something I hadn’t done since elementary school and never of my own accord,’ she revealed, ‘I began to compose a poem.’

Literary tourism is not about accuracy or statistics; it’s about connections. A near-religious experience for many, these “fixed” locations build bridges – to each other, to the text, and the creative inside of us. When young readers meet the Gruffalo in the woods or step through C.S. Lewis’ magical wardrobe, they embark on a life-long love of reading.

Connecting to a writer, any part of them, is at the heart of it all, regardless of location. From inside her “mighty room”, Dickinson once wrote, “I dwell in Possibility…. Of Visitors – the fairest” (466), and, nearly 133 years after her death, she finally has them.

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