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Gently Mad

Down South

Books, art, music, and food on the Mississippi Delta Literary Tour By Nicholas A. Basbanes Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.

I love literary trips, be they to the homes of great writers or beautiful libraries with wonderful histories, or simply to second-hand bookstores in cities I am visiting where unknown prizes may lie waiting with my name written all over them.

Whenever I want to show a visitor to the Boston area something off the beaten path, I steer a course to the Longfellow House in Cambridge, a landmark of such extraordinary significance that it is maintained by the National Park Service as an historic site; if there is time, a short drive out to Concord for stops at Walden Pond, the Emerson Memorial House, and the Alcott-Orchard House can easily follow. Within easy striking distance, too, is Arrowhead, the home of Herman Melville in Pittsfield, and the Mount, the home of Edith Wharton, in Lenox. Close by in Hartford, Connecticut, are the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses, by happy coincidence located right next door to each other, perhaps the only instance in our cultural history where you can say that the most famous American man of the nineteenth century lived within hailing distance of the most famous American woman.

When I was in the Navy back in the late 1960s and home-ported in California, I once made it a point during a drive from San Diego up to San Francisco to spend a night in Salinas as a kind of homage to John Steinbeck, taking a room in what might best be described as a “mature” hotel that suggested quite eloquently for me the hardscrabble ambiance of the 1920s and ’30s. Not far away, along the coast in Carmel, I found the Tor House built by the poet Robinson Jeffers, a brooding tower of gray stone that was not open to the public back then, but impressively meaningful in my eyes all the same.

One of the great enduring joys of the research I did for Patience & Fortitude was the opportunity my wife Connie and I had to visit—in one glorious procession I mapped out for us over two separate trips in 1998 and 1999—some of the remarkable libraries in Italy, the Ambrosiana in Milan, the Capitulare in Verona, the Marciana in Venice, the Malatestiana in Cesena, the Laurenziana in Florence, the Biblioteca Apostolica in Vatican City, and the Abbey of Saint Benedict in Monte Cassino most spectacular among them. Other research trips for that book to libraries in England, France, Spain, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Sweden, Holland, and Egypt had their rewards, too, but the Italian adventure, all of it done by rail, was truly magical, and retains a special sweetness for us to this day.

What has made all of this front and center in my thoughts is a week Connie and I recently spent in Mississippi occasioned by an invitation I received to give the keynote address at the seventeenth Oxford Conference for the Book, which is held annually at the University of Mississippi. The tireless director of this annual event, Ann J. Abadie, invited us to come down a few days earlier and tag along on a congruent event she has been developing in recent years, the Mississippi Delta Literary Tour, three days of non-stop travel through a region remarkably rich in literary history and lore; ably assisting Ann in organizing the event was James G. “Jimmy” Thomas Jr., a Mississippi native whose day job is managing editor for the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, and is a leading authority on the Blues to boot.

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