Tuesday, January 11, 2011

INVITING THE FOX INTO THE HEN HOUSE


On Friday, January 14th at 5:30 p.m., The Mark Twain House & Museum joins The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in presenting author Anne Trubek lecturing on her new book.  Presenting authors in conversation is central to our mission.  Seems like a no-brainer, right?  We’re museums dedicated to writers.  Well, in a move that the Hartford Courant calls “counterintuitive programming,” this is no ordinary lecture offering.  In fact, to borrow a great quote from our friends at the Stowe Center, we might be inviting “the fox into the hen house.”  Why is Anne Trubek the fox in this scenario?  Because her book is highly critical of who we are and what we do.

In 2010, Trubek released her much-discussed book A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses.  The book is equal parts travel writing, literary history and memoir.  It is also a jeremiad of sorts about house museums dedicated to celebrated writers.  Maybe jeremiad is too extreme a term.  Her book is, at a minimum, a critical look at why and how we preserve the homes of certain writers for public consumption.  In so doing, Trubek feels like the writer’s home becomes a fictional construct – oftentimes made to look as if the writer just stepped away or composed of furnishings not native to the house or history re-written to reflect the writer’s work instead of their lives.  She chronicles her journey to the homes of beloved writers like Mark Twain, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott and Edgar Allan Poe, as well as authors who have fallen into obscurity like Tom Wolfe (no, not that Tom Wolfe) and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

In essence she is asking the question, “What do we hope to get out of a visit to a writer’s house?”  Her thesis:  If you want to know a writer, you read their work.  That seems fairly obvious.  Undoubtedly a reader would get a lot closer to the heart of Mark Twain by reading Life on the Mississippi or his newly-released autobiography than they would by visiting The Mark Twain House.  In Trubek’s estimation, guests to a writer’s house are at the interpretive mercy of curators, overly-enthusiastic or ill-informed tour guides, cash-strapped budgets, urban blight and well-stocked gift shops.  As a result, the effort to get a better appreciation of a writer is often muddied or misguided.  Worse, there are folks who go to historic house with no knowledge or appreciation for the former occupant (eg. Tourists who flock to Hemingway’s Key West retreat to see the cats).

As an employee of the museum, I found reading A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses a frustrating and immensely rewarding experience.  We pride ourselves on trying to put together a visitor experience that leaves the guest with a greater knowledge, appreciation and admiration for Mark Twain.  I like to think we do that and I am sure the same goes for our compatriots over at the Stowe Center.  But as I read the book, I saw the validity of many of Trubek’s opinions.  Do we falsify history when we have a piano in the house that is almost exactly like the one the Clemens owned?  Have we implicitly re-written Twain’s history to reflect the characters in his stories?  Do we shortchange audiences by making the Clemens Family’s time in Hartford seem overly happy?  Are we doing Twain a disservice by selling magnets, busts and mugs with his likeness on them?  What story are we telling?  These are all legitimate questions that Trubek challenges us to answer honestly. 

Sometimes on our days off, employees of The Mark Twain House & Museum will go visit other writers’ houses (yes, we’re nerds like that).  Often, these employees will come back and say what the other house did right or what the other house did wrong.  Of course, these opinions are subjective.  Writers’ homes, like their books or poems, are fixed things, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t equally open to a variety of interpretations and readings. 

As the custodians of Twain’s Hartford home and legacy, we are charged with interpreting Twain for a variety of contemporary audiences:  book lovers, school kids, architecture aficionados, tourists looking for something to visit on the way from Boston to New York, hardcore Twainiacs, history buffs, and more.  We cannot be everything to everyone, but we can do our best to honor Twain honestly.  And, sometimes, it is nice to let foxes like Anne Trubek into the hen house to keep us on our toes.

- Jacques Lamarre, Director of Communications

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