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Foreclosing on History

Should we save the imperiled homes of our greatest authors? Kate Chopin's house burned down last week. It is tempting to blame Sam Pulsifer, the main character of Brock Clarke's fantastic novel, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England who set fire to Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst, Mass...

Should we save the imperiled homes of our greatest authors?

Kate Chopin's house burned down last week. It is tempting to blame Sam Pulsifer, the main character of Brock Clarke's fantastic novel, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England who set fire to Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst, Mass. He didn't burn down Chopin's house (and I'm guessing a reader of his guide did not either); the title clearly delimits the geographic range of acceptable house-burning.Police are investigating the parties responsible for the destruction to Chopin's house in Clouiterville, Louisiana-where she lived from 1879 to 1884. Chopin (1850-1904) is the author of The Awakening, "Story of An Hour" and other stories. Her former house, also known as the Bayou Folk Museum, was built two centuries ago and is maintained by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches. The Association is currently trying to raise funds to commemorate the museum.I think a lot of about writers' houses and museums, like the Chopin House. I am writing a book on them. This subject is usually not newsworthy, but lately Google news alerts on authors' houses are popping up in my email inbox with scary regularity.Edith Wharton's home, The Mount, is facing foreclosure; its owners are seeking an infusion of cash. The Mark Twain House in Hartford hit upon similarly hard times, and a "Dollars for Twain" campaign is ongoing. The Becky Thatcher House-run by the Mark Twain Museum--in Hannibal, Missouri is also fundraising to save itself.


Clearly, it's not a good moment to be any kind of homeowner in America.It's hard to argue against historic preservation as an unassailable, moral good. But people have-and for good reasons. In America, historic preservation is a fairly recent movement. It was only once the country turned 100 or so that citizens organized to preserve historic houses and other monuments.Charlotte Perkins Gilman-a writer, reformer and suffragist-argued against the house museum movement of the late nineteenth century, which was largely undertaken by women involved with the Daughters of the American Revolution. (The group had a conservative ideology that included teaching immigrants how to live like real Americans.) Gilman's objections to the construction of house museums had a feminist tinge: "The home [is] an ancient and repressive institution, ill suited to the needs of modern social progress in general and women specifically," she wrote, adding that creating house museums reinforces the "unquestioning acceptance of the home as something perfect, holy, quite above discussion." The practice of converting homes into museums she believed fed into our "ancient religion of ancestor-worship." She called such worship an atavistic "race habit."The loss of Kate Chopin's house is indeed a tragedy, the financial trials of the Wharton, Twain and Thatcher houses lamentable. In Cleveland, where I live, an effort is underway to preserve the house of Jerry Siegel, who-along with Joe Schuster-created Superman. I applaud the effort heartily, but I wonder if preserving the house, which is located in a foreclosure-filled neighborhood, won't force the owners into a continuous struggle to pay off their mortgage: (http://www.ordinarypeoplechangetheworld.com/articles/saving-the-house-where-superman-was-born.aspx)Houses are replete with all sorts of associations, as Gilman reminds us, and it should not be anathema to question alternatives to making them into museums. Especially now-when funds for preserving them are drying up, the housing market is haywire and old homes only grow older-it may be time for new ideas.Perhaps we could use the unfortunate loss of the Chopin house as an opportunity to creatively consider other ways to honor and memorialize her. How else might she be remembered in the wake of this fire? How else might we remember our literary past?(Photos of the Kate Chopin House fire courtesy of Preservation Today.)
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