Sunday, August 27, 2006
This weekend Thom and I visited friends who live on Cape Cod. We were bouncing along in the back of their four wheel drive car looking at beautiful scenery, enormous houses and islands that are restricted to rich people when I lapsed into very bad house guest behavior and started begging for a detour.
I had spotted a sign for Edward Gorey's house on the side of the road. Our hosts squealed the car around and followed signs to the house- which was easier to find than it might have been because the Edward Gorey Dracula Blood Drive was happening next door. In which nurses dressed as raccoon-eyed Gorey vampires drew blood.
I love seeing the houses of my heroes. I've been to Melville's house and Edith Wharton's mansion, and although this is only my third house so far, there's always something wonderful. Edith Wharton had very racy statuary all over her house, and there was something great about seeing the bathtub used by Henry James. Melville's house had a little doodle of his wife and kids trooping up a hill while he was away. And there's an amazing story about one of his windows that I'll get to later.
Edward Gorey's house is a small place in a fairly crowded neighborhood. The house is dwarfed by an enormous magnolia tree that looks like- well, an Edward Gorey magnolia. It looks like it's eating the house. The inside has been fitted with cases to display his drawings and his stuff, which is pretty awesome. He has the same amazing pig box that I do, which of course means we are soul mates, or at least both... um...possessors of a neat box. There's also a picture of him, beard flowing, with a sign that explains that he got the photo in the mail and said, "Why are they sending me a picture of a grizzled old sea captain figure...oh, it's me!"
The house is full of tiny Gorey touches. Bats and French bull dogs abound and there are little doll legs sticking out from under a big rock on one of the windowsills. While I was wondering if the doll had ever had a head (it's handmade, presumably to purpose), Edward Gorey's cousins' voice drifted out from the next room, saying "Yeah, well, he was always the kind of guy who would take a spider outside instead of squishing it." His cousin gives tours, but I didn't go- the house was very small, and since the upstairs was blocked off, a tour felt like overkill.
Around the corner from the rock head child there's a huge raccoon fur coat in a glass case. A very long winded sign explains that the coat was part of his "signature look" in the early part of his career but that he grew to hate it when he started getting involved in animal rights. The upstairs, the sign explains, is in fact inaccessible to tours because late in his life some raccoons moved in, and he let them live up there despite considerable damage they did to the house.
I love thinking about him in his old age, hearing the raccoons chewing up the furniture, menaced by the magnolia, laughing away as he worked on his art.
When he died he gave bequests to organizations that benefit animals. Like the Bat Conservation International Foundation.
Looking in the houses of my heroes is like looking for a secret I know I can't find, but might be able to make up. I imagine that Gorey's coat (and the raccoons themselves) functioned as a kind of muse. (An amuse?). I'm sure deceased geniuses don't actually leave their muses sitting around in their old houses, but I'm also pretty sure it can't hurt to look for them anyways.
I might have missed the idea of Gorey working in the shadow of raccoon karma had I not looked out of Melville's window earlier.
Melville's writing desk faced a window through which he could see a low sloping wooded mountain- Mount Greylock. When he was long done his last sea voyage he sat at his desk, far inland, and imagined that the profile of the wooded mountain was a whale. He wrote a bunch of his books looking at that view, and he dedicated one of his books, Pierre to "the Most Excellent Purple Majesty of Greylock".
He wrote,"I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship's cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, and I had better go on the roof and rig in the chimney.''
Melville in 1867
Maybe muses do hide in our houses, or in my case, in my city. Coming back to Philadelphia from Cape Cod was a jarring experience, but not because I longed for the natural beauty of the Cape- I didn't- I longed for the tolerant variety of species of unnatural wildlife that lives in Philadelphia. It's a nine hour drive home, and when we got in we stopped at Trader Joe's to get some sandwiches. One of the checkers had stuffed his whole body into an enormous paper bag on which he'd drawn a menacing angry bag man face. He was stumbling around blindly making grunting noises and giggling. And I knew I was home.
(I refreshed my memory of the Melville quotes by looking at a New York Times article about Melville and Hawthorne in the Berkshires. It's here...)