“Being There,” by Louise DeSalvo
May 27, 2010
I’m a self-confessed house-hunting addict. Of writers’ houses, that is.
It all started when I was in graduate school. One of my professors at NYU, Janice Gorn, invited the famed historian Robin Winks to speak to our class. It was an eclectic class about doing research, a requirement for the Ph.D. Rather than teaching each class herself, Gorn invited a series of famous guests to our class – people at the forefront of their fields – to talk about how they worked, how they made judgments about their material, how they wrote their books.
We’d been assigned Winks’s book, The Historian as Detective before he came to class. I was captivated by how he approached questions of evidence in writing history. Reading the book was a turning point in my intellectual life. (I’ve just ordered another, because during one move or another, I lost my original copy; there are precious few available online now.) And hearing Winks speak was even more impressive; it changed the way I went about doing my work, and I use the insights I gleaned even now, some thirty-five years later.
On the day he lectured to our class, Winks said he wouldn’t dream of writing the history of any event unless he visited where it took place. He described how his vision of a battle – it was Antietam, I believe – changed when he walked the terrain. It was only then that he understood what the soldiers had to deal with, how the hillocks and valleys helped shape the outcome of the battle. He said that if we were writing about history or biography, we should consider going to the places where important events took place. Doing so, he said, would change the way we interpreted events. Not to do so, he suggested, would render our conclusions suspect. He said that he could always tell when an historian or a biographer hadn’t done that kind of homework. It’s easy, he said, to arrive at false impressions from far away.
I was writing a dissertation about Virginia Woolf’s revisions to her first novel, The Voyage Out, and I believed what Winks said, of course. But how, as a graduate student, could I afford to travel to England? And when I got there, what would I find that would change my mind about my work?
A friend of mine, also writing about Woolf, also a student in Gorn’s class, knew that she, too, should travel to England to see where Woolf wrote Night and Day, the novel she was writing about. So we decided to save our money, go on the cheap, and see what we could find.
For starters, we located some manuscripts at Sussex University that we believed were important. The University archive contained fragments of manuscripts that, by their descriptions, might have been earlier drafts of The Voyage Out. (Now you can access many of these materials online; you can view them on your computer screen; but I believe that holding the actual piece of paper in your hand, seeing coffee stains, and cigarette burns, tells you more than any facsimile can.) There was Talland House in St. Ives, Virginia Woolf’s summer home as a girl, to see. And the family home at Hyde Park Gate in London. And her house in Rodmell, on the Sussex South Downs.
We went, and found a cheap B & B in Brighton, a short train ride from the university and Woolf’s Rodmell home, run by two men who befriended us. We went, by train, to St. Ives, where we stayed in another cheap B & B, where we crept around the perimeter of Talland House, and saw Godrevy Lighthouse, the destination of the boat ride in To the Lighthouse. (On the train ride to St. Ives, a very proper British gentleman asked us whether it was true that, in the United States, you could get a degree in cinema, and he pronounced it as if it was a disease) We stayed in the cheapest digs imaginable in London so we could visit Woolf’s London homes – Hyde Park Gate, and the several flats she had in Bloomsbury. (It was so miserably cold that we wore all our clothes to bed and still couldn’t get warm; it had the kind of gas heat that you had to activate by inserting coins every so often.) We ate poorly, of course. Student food: cheap Indian food, greasy fish and chips, bangers and mash. We drew the line at chips on toast. We allowed ourself one good meal, and I remember it still, in Brighton.
So was it worth it, aside from the thrill of travel with a friend away from our several small children? Absolutely. The trip changed the way I thought about Woolf; the insights I gained, I applied to that first project, but all the work I did on Woolf subsequently, perhaps most importantly, to the biography I wrote of her as an incest survivor.
Yes, travel gave me those atmospheric details of place that vivify a narrative. But when my friend and I walked the Sussex South Downs, following one of the paths Woolf often took, it became clear to me that Woolf couldn’t be the dreamy, neurasthenic, weakling that so many other writers had described. To take these walks over the springy turf of the downs with an underfooting of limestone, up and down the many hillocks and vales, climbing over turnstiles to access pathways, required that a person be fit and robust. The two of us, capable of sprinting after toddlers, found ourselves bending over and gasping for air every so often.
That walk made me see that whatever else Woolf was, she was no weakling. And of course, I should have known that from reading her diaries where she describes her habit of taking very long daily walks. But how could I have? Walking the Downs is different, far different, from walking the streets of suburban New Jersey, and unless I’d made that trip, I’d never have understood this. It shifted my perspective significantly. And it lead to many of the conclusions I arrived at in my biography.
Since then, through the years, I’ve traveled to many places where writers have done their work, writers about whom I’ve been writing. I’ve seen Percy Bysshe Shelley’s house on the Tyrrhenian Sea in Italy; D. H. Lawrence’s rented house in Tellaro, Italy; Vita Sackville-West’s Knole and Sissinghurst Castle in England; Elizabeth Bishop’s house in Florida; Henry Miller’s abodes in New York City and in Paris; Djuna Barnes’s apartment in Greenwich Village and Paris.
But most important of all, I took Winks’s advice, too, when I began to write memoir. I went back to Hoboken to see the apartments where my family lived (they were tenements then); the school I attended; the playground I frequented; the library my mother took me too. I traveled to Italy to Rodi Garganico to see where my stepgrandmother came from; to Puglia to see my grandfather’s province; to Scafati, to try to find where my father lived when his family relocated to Italy; to Positano, to try to find where my father’s mother lived. I incorporated my insights into Vertigo and Crazy in the Kitchen, and it’s fair to say that I couldn’t have written these books without seeing where my family lived.
My students travel, too, so they can write their best possible work. While they do their work, they get the urge to see the places that have formed their stories. One of my students traveled to Ireland to find a forebear’s place of origin, and she’s written of the impact of that trip on her work; she soon plans on visiting Portugal in search of other material; she’s revisited schools she’s attended as a girl. Another traveled to India to find an important location connected with her family’s history. Still another spent months in Mexico where her father came from. Still another traveled to New Zealand to hear her grandfather’s stories about his life. Still another has visited Iran, her father’s homeland, many, many times. Sometimes, though, the places we have to visit are close by, and we should visit them too. Still another travels to Uganda a few times a year, where her story is located. And there are more.
In Rodi Garganico, on the coast of the Adriatic, I stood by the sea, watching a man sunning himself. I looked back at the village where my stepgrandmother had left so many years before, through which I’d wandered. I understood, as never before, how far these people traveled to come to the United States. It had taken me days to get here, and I traveled by air, and automobile. My grandmother traveled by donkey cart, rail, steamship. Such an elementary insight. But one I wouldn’t have understood in my bones unless I’d gone there.
So….Where do you have to go? What do you have to see? And what difference will it make to your story?
An enormous difference, I can assure you.