Christmas pudding no doubt

I don't know what Christmas used to be like in America in the olden days, but from all I've heard, it wasn't much fun for a lot of people.  We have Washington Irving to thank for rescuing the American Christmas from its dour Puritan non-celebratory observance.

Washington Irving in his younger days

He wrote a series of sketches published in 1820 about an Old English Christmas and the proper way to celebrate it.  He's also the first to describe St Nicholas flying through the sky in a wagon, something Clement C Moore (or someone Moore plagiarized from, depending on who you believe) picked up on and transformed into a sleigh.  Irving also influenced Charles Dickens' views of what Christmas ought to be, as expressed in his famous stories, like A Christmas Carol.

And what's more, Irving was the first person to refer to New York City as Gotham (which means "Goat Town" in Anglo-Saxon), and if that doesn't put you in mind of Christmas, I don't know what will.

I've had Washington Irving on my mind the last week or so, partly because I've been reading "An Old English Christmas", and partly because it snowed ten inches yesterday but I can't find my sled so the snow is of no practical use to me.  But it looks pretty.

Last summer (talk about extremes of weather), one of the things I wanted to do most while in New York was visit Washington Irving's home, Sunnyside, in Tarrytown, NY.  Irving is not an author I read on any regular basis, but I enjoy him when I do read him.  And he can be laugh-out-loud funny.  So we visited his house.

Sunnyside, on the banks of the Hudson

On the piazza - proof I was there
Irving's impressively book-lined study -- there was a nice little couch in there 
where he could take a nap.  I like that idea.  PS  No interior photography was allowed.

Irving never married (sadly, his fiancée of his younger years died, and later, another girl he loved turned down his marriage proposal -- oh, but by the way, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, had a big crush on Irving, but he did not reciprocate; I think that's really interesting), so he pretty much opened his house to his nieces and other relatives, who stayed on after he died, and so on and so forth.  In that way, the house remained in the Irving family's possession until the 1940s, when it was bought by John D Rockefeller as part of a historic preservation project.  The house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962 and is now operated by the Historic Hudson Valley organization.  Because of the history of the house -- going right from family possession to museum -- things were left pretty much the way Irving had them, and it was easy to find his own possessions (clothing, books, furniture) and restore it.  There is therefore a great sense or spirit of the man in his own house, much stronger than what you find in Twain's house, for instance.  The tour guide was also very knowledgeable and entertaining, as a good tour guide should always be.

In addition to visiting the house, we also drove into Sleepy Hollow to visit the cemetery where Irving is buried.  This, of course, is the cemetery made famous in his story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow".  It was rather exciting to see the famous bridge over the Pocantico.

 The original bridge was so old, they had to replace all the nails.  And all the wood.  
Please note the bridge is not a covered bridge, as it has erroneously been depicted in films.

Of course it's not the same, original bridge that Ichabod Crane never crossed over (never because he never existed), but it's supposed to be in the same style and not far from where the bridge would've been in Irving's time.

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, by John Quidor (1858)

It was a little solemn-making to see Irving's grave, as well as the memorials to those who died in or were veterans of the Revolutionary War and Civil War.  There were a lot of Van Tassels listed on the Revolutionary War memorial.

Sunnyside and the accompanying towns of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow (where the high school mascot is the Headless Horseman) made a very satisfying literary pilgrimage.  I'm glad we had the opportunity to visit.

Recommended reading:


Eighteen times the speed of Mark Twain

We paid a visit to Mark Twain's house, and I do mean paid.

Twain and his family lived there from 1874 to 1891.  The neighborhood looked quite different back then.  Apparently, back in Twain's day, one could see from the house's atrium window all the way down to the river.  Nowadays, the river has been directed underground just before it reaches Farmington Avenue and, if you could see through the trees, all you'd have a view of is some apartment buildings.  The property itself is quite the developed set-up, with a visitors' center that includes a museum and a gift shop and a room for special exhibits and an art gallery.  There's even a life-size statue of the man made out of Legos.  In the museum, we saw Mark Twain's Desk.  There was also a Desk in the actual house.  I suppose a famous writer can have more than one Desk.

The house itself was fascinating, partly because our tour guide was interestingly well-informed, and partly because Twain was rather eccentric when it came to achieving the effects with decor that he wanted.  When you're such a famous wit and you've written so many classic books, I guess you get to be eccentric.  I think people may even expect it of you.  At least he wasn't eccentric with his house the way Mrs Winchester was with hers.  There's nothing approaching that scale here.

There was a bit of an air of enterprise about the tour, perhaps because after Twain sold the house it went through phases, like Toby Miniver:  first it was a school, then an apartment building, then a library.  The trustees have made every effort to restore the house to its Twain-era appearance, and they brought back many of Twain's original possessions, such as his bed and billiards table, and the enormous fireplace mantel.  I was most impressed with the upstairs schoolroom for the children and with the library.  I asked the docent who guided our group if those were Twain's original books, and he replied that the titles and editions were the same ones that Twain owned, but that his original books (with his name and any marginalia in them) were kept elsewhere, to keep sticky fingers from being tempted to purloin them.

In spite of the trustees' successful efforts at restoring the house to its former state, I felt like there was just that hint of commercialism and just that lack of the spirit of the man about the place.  They may have his stuff, but I don't think they have him.  Nevertheless, the house is well-worth visiting, especially if you have a knowledgeable and entertaining docent who will swoop you about the place.

Mark Twain's house all done up in 4th of July finery

The library, complete with enormous mantelpiece acquired from a Scottish castle.  
(No indoor photography was allowed; this is a postcard I bought.)

Harriet Beecher Stowe lived next door to the Twains.  
You can visit two famous author houses for the price of two!

Recommended reading:

Not that I have anything against Cooper; I just think this is dang funny.


The library is in your mind

I think libraries have lost some of their magic.  Or maybe it's just that I'm older and find magic harder to come by, but there was a mystique I used to feel when I went into a well-established (ie, old) library, even when it was just the dimly lit bookmobile that used to stop at the corner near our house when I was a child.  Now libraries are all about technology.  No more card catalogues, no more scouring the reference section for some arcana when you can go check out computer time and look it up online.  Not that that's a bad thing.  It saves a lot of time.  And maybe what I feel when I think about my library experiences of yore is just useless nostalgia.  Because isn't the real magic to be found when you're lost in a book?

Nevertheless, the New York Public Library has been an epitome of Librariness for me since I was a youngster, so I had to stop by there while we were in the City. 

The lions on the steps leading to the library have been there since 1911, and have had 
several names over the years.  Currently, they are known as Patience and Fortitude, 
names given them by Mayor LaGuardia during the Depression.  But I call them 
Fred and George, after my favorite literary twins.

Lots of people were in the library the day we visited.  I wonder how many were 
tourists, like me, or how many had just come inside to escape the 100º weather.

Part of the reference section.  No one's there because 
everyone is looking up stuff on the Internet.

Shannon looks up a word in the dictionary so she can say she actually 
used the library.  (I did, too, but there's no picture.  My word was "alabaster".)


You might as well live

I've been a fan of Dorothy Parker since I first read "Resumé" in high school -- on my own in the library.  (It seems I discovered most of my favorite books and authors on my own or through friends and family, rather than being formally introduced in a classroom or a textbook.  I wonder why that is?  The few exceptions I can think of are Beowulf, Chaucer, the British Romantic poets, and The Phantom Tollbooth.) 

So it was a pleasant surprise to pass by the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street.  I had somehow forgot to add it to our itinerary, but there it was.  I wanted to go inside and look around a bit, but we were a little pressed for time since we had 170 other places to go that day.

The Algonquin Hotel, as you should know, was where the Round Table (a group of writers, critics, and actors) met for long lunches almost daily for about ten years, starting in 1919.   They were witty and entertaining.  If I could time travel, I'd go back and spend a few lunch hours with them, especially when Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley were in attendance.  But I have to say, when my extended family gets together at the holidays around our Long Rectangular Table, no one can beat us for wit and entertainment.

Recommended reading:


Eyes open, eyes closed

When you think of literary connections to Washington Square, you generally think of Henry James.  At least, I do.  I can't help it, since he went and named one of his books Washington Square.  But that's not why I wanted to see the place for myself.  Once again, Edna St Vincent Millay was my inspiration.  Her poem "English Sparrows" is another favorite of mine (you can read it here), and that was the main reason I had the desire to go to Washington Square while we were in New York City.

As we walked along, and as I was telling Shannon the plot of James' book, we saw an evil-looking squirrel staring at us from under a tree just off the path.  I wonder what Millay would have made of that.  There is poetic inspiration everywhere.


We were very tired, we were very merry

We were very hot.

Last summer, Gary and I made a trip to Connecticut and New York to visit Shannon and her in-laws and to see the sights.  I was determined to check out all the places that I'd missed the last time I was there (40 years ago) and to see a few other places I'd become interested in since then.  But it turned out we went during a heat wave, and both days we were in New York City it was nearly 100º.  I didn't let that stop me.

Back when I was in college, there was this PBS program I occasionally watched called Anyone for Tennyson?  The program featured different actors performing the weekly poet's selected work.  I particularly remember the episode focusing on Edna St Vincent Millay.  I hadn't read anything of hers before, but I was hooked by the poems recited in that episode.  I can still remember how powerfully I was struck by the performance of "There at Dusk I Found You".  I don't remember who did it, but I was in awe.  I also really liked "Recuerdo", not just because of what it says, but because it reminds me of times when I've been with friends, not doing anything special -- and, simply because of who I was with and how I felt at the time, it became a favorite memory.

Soon after watching that show, I went to the library on campus and found the collected works of Edna St Vincent Millay.  She's been a favorite poet of mine ever since.  So, naturally, I had to take a ride on the Staten Island ferry. I was happy to see that, at the ferry terminal, there is a phrase from "Recuerdo" painted in large letters on one of the walls.

I was very merry

by Edna St Vincent Millay

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.


I'm glad I ain't scared to be lazy

I had so many plans to write during the last two months, but nothing came of it.  November 13 was Robert Louis Stevenson's birthday -- not much happened around here in way of celebration.  December 1 was Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day.  I didn't.

But I've vowed to turn over a new leaf.  (Book pun intended.)  I'm so ambitious that I'm making my New Year's resolutions almost a month in advance!  That way, I can also get a head start on not keeping them.  But before the goal-oriented lassitude overtakes me, I hope to accomplish a few things.

First, here's a review of the different authors I met and got books signed by during 2012.  (I think this might be showing off, but I'm too lazy to care.)

 Brandon Mull

 Brandon Sanderson

 Christopher Paolini

 Dan Wells

 Gail Carriger

 George R R Martin

 Jim Butcher

 Kate DiCamillo

 Kevin Henkes

 Lisa See

 Lois Lowry

 Max Brooks

 Orson Scott Card

 Raymond Feist

 Robin Hobb

 Scott Westerfeld

T Jefferson Parker

I also got a book signed by Mark Danielewski, but for some reason I didn't get a photo.

Next time:  Something else!