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Literary legends: the National Park System preserves the homes of some of America's most important writers.

The National Park System preserves the homes of some of America's most important writers.

This hideous murder accomplished ...I determined to wall it up in the cellar - as the monks of the Middle Ages are recorded to have walled up their victims," wrote Edgar Allan Poe in his classic tale of horror, "The Black Cat." The murderer, however, proved to be too confident. When the police came to visit, he rapped on the brick wall that hid the corpse of his wife and was answered by "a howl - a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph...." The police quickly tore down the wall to find the source of the inhuman cry.

"The corpse, already decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast...whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman."

You can see the gloomy cellar that may have inspired the scene above by visiting the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia. This is one of a handful of national park sites dedicated to literary figures.

Before visiting the parks, read some works by the authors, then explore the homes that inspired the muses of some our most influential writers.

Edgar Allan Poe NHS

October is an especially good month to visit Poe's house in Philadelphia. Rangers choose a special theme to discuss Poe's life and art during this month of all things dark and mysterious.

Poe was born to actors in Boston in 1809 and raised by foster parents. When he was 22, Poe lost the support of his foster father, and from that time on he struggled to make a living. Poe was able to keep himself out of debt by selling stories and poems, and he eventually became the editor of a literary magazine, Southern Literary Messenger. In 1836 Poe married his cousin Virginia Clemm and enjoyed his most productive years with her in Philadelphia. Following Virginia's death in 1847, Poe's health disintegrated, and he died less than three years later in Baltimore of "acute congestion of the brain."

For decades after his death, Poe's memory was haunted by rumors that he was addicted to opium and used the drug to enhance his creativity. Rangers at the Poe site debunk this myth, although Poe was reported to have had a problem with alcohol. In learning games directed at high school and middle grade pupils, rangers educate the youths about the dangers of drugs. Students leave the house with black cat stickers and bookmarkers that carry the slogan, "Creative minds don't use drugs!"

Of Poe's several homes in Philadelphia, only this small brick house on North Seventh Street remains. It is not known exactly how long he lived here, so it is difficult to say which stories he produced while living in this house. But it is likely that he wrote, among others, "The Gold Bug," "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." And according to Ranger Jean-Lorre Smith, one trip to the basement will convince you that it provided the inspiration for the cellar in "The Black Cat." Because little is known about Poe's furniture, the Park Service has chosen to leave the house empty except for the echoes of his work.

Poe is famous for his tales of terror and is credited with inventing the murder mystery. But it is through poetry that he shows his gift for romance and melody: " And all my days are trances/And all my nightly dreams/Are where thy dark eye glances/And where thy footstep gleams - /In what ethereal dances by what eternal streams. "

For more information, write to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, c/o Independence National Historic Park, 311-313 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106.

Eugene O'Neill NHS

Overlooking the San Ramon Valley and distant Mount Diablo in California, Tao House was once home to one of America's greatest playwrights and is now a national park site dedicated to Eugene O'Neill's life and work.

Born in New York City in 1888, O'Neill, like Poe, was the son of actors. He and his family lived a vagabond's existence. O'Neill left his troubled home life and traveled to Honduras on a gold-prospecting expedition in 1909, then to South America, and then to England. O'Neill, who lived for a time in a flophouse in Manhattan, tried to escape from his problems by drinking and by one failed attempt at suicide. In 1912 when he was 24, O'Neill went into a sanitarium to be treated for tuberculosis. While recovering, he began to write plays, an activity that changed the direction of his life.

In the summer of 1916, a group of amateur actors first staged one of O'Neill's plays, Bound East for Cardiff. Four years later, he received the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes for the tragedy Beyond the Horizon. O'Neill, who quickly became known as America's most exciting dramatist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. With the stipend, he and his wife Carlotta were able to build Tao House, what O'Neill called his "final harbor."

Carlotta once described the Spanish-style house filled with Asian furnishings as "a sort of pseudo Chinese house" that expressed a serene existence. O'Neill called the 28-room cinderblock building "the mansion of the righteous way" after the Chinese philosophy he admired.

It was here, while Carlotta guarded against visitors, that O'Neill wrote what are generally considered his finest works, including The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night. These plays represent O'Neill's belief that the theater should be taken as serious art, not just pleasant diversion. Sinclair Lewis in 1930 said that O'Neill transformed American drama "from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendor, fear, and greatness."

A worsening tremor in his hands slowly took away O'Neill's ability to write, and he did not complete another play after 1943. With the coming of World War Il and the shortage of servants for the house, O'Neill had to leave his harbor and move once again. In a hotel room in Boston, he destroyed the drafts and notes for his unfinished plays. Carlotta said it was like "tearing up children." O'Neill died there in 1953.

Access to the site is limited, and visitors must make reservations. For more information, contact the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site, P.O. Box 280, Danville, CA 94526.

Carl Sandburg's Home NHS

A trip to Carl Sandburg's home is a return to the idyllic life led by the poet, author, lecturer, minstrel, political activist, and social thinker. Visitors can stroll about the farm in North Carolina, as Sandburg did to refresh himself, and explore the barn area where the National Park Service maintains a small herd of goats and demonstrates cheesemaking during the summer months. In Sandburg's day, his wife and daughters cared for 80 goats and made cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. The park staff also provides programs of music and poetry, just as Sandburg would read to or sing with his family after dinner before heading up to his office, cigar in hand, to work until morning.

Sandburg left a newspaper career in 1932 to pursue writing, which took many forms: poetry, biography, autobiography, history, children's literature, books on American folk music, and a novel. Among the works he produced in the next few years was Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, the four-volume set for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. Five years later, he came to the North Carolina farm and home, Connemara, and spent the last 22 years of his long and productive life there. At Connemara, Sandburg published his only novel, Remembrance Rock, which traced American history from Plymouth Rock to World War Il.

Molded by his travels as a hobo and as a soldier during the Spanish-American War and by his active political and social reform work, Sandburg emerged as one of the 20th century's voices of the American experience. He was known as the "poet laureate" of the people. As the close of his poem "Chicago" shows, Sandburg's work celebrates the lives of outcasts, immigrants, and common people and their contributions to American culture:

"Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation."

For more information, write to the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, 1928 Little River Road, Flat Rock, NC 28731-9766.

Longfellow NHS

In the mid-19th century, American literature blossomed in New England. The Brahmins or privileged classes in Cambridge and Boston, the Transcendentalists in Concord, and the abolitionist writers throughout the area were helping to create the literary tradition of a nation. One member of this group, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was the most widely read American poet in the world during his lifetime.

In 1837 at age 30, Longfellow moved into the house at 105 Brattle Street, now maintained and operated by the Park Service. The historic house was a gift to Longfellow and his bride, Fanny Appleton, from her father.

Before Longfellow lived there, the house served as General George Washington's headquarters during the siege of Boston. The Longfellows raised their five children here and entertained literary friends, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Longfellow also wrote most of his best-known works at this house.

From 1846 until his death in 1882, Longfellow used Washington's former office as his study. On the far side of the room is the Hepplewhite armchair Longfellow pulled up to the fire to write "Evangeline" in 1847. This was Longfellow's first long narrative poem and remained one of his best-known works. Set during the French and Indian War when the English expelled about 6,000 French Acadians from Nova Scotia, it tells the story of Evangeline's separation from her bridegroom, Gabriel. Evangeline spends her life searching for her love, and finally finds him, old and dying, in an almshouse where she has become a Sister of Mercy.

Though not as widely read today, Longfellow was immensely popular in his own day. His admirers ranged from President Lincoln and Queen Victoria to all the schoolchildren who grew up reciting "The Song of Hiawatha."

The Longfellow National Historic Site has an outdoor concert series and periodic poetry readings, as well as an annual Christmas open house and commemoration of Longfellow's birthday on February 27. For more information, contact the Longfellow National Historic Site, 105 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.

Yvette La Pierre is a former associate editor of National Parks.
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Author:La Pierre, Yvette
Publication:National Parks
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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