In The Footsteps of Steinbeck- A Stroll Through Cannery Row

Cannery Row is the street parallel to the bustling waterfront of Monterey Bay.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”

Thus begins Cannery Row in one of the best opening paragraphs of literature which concisely captures the essence of the novel! Steinbeck immortalizes a bygone area and era of Monterey during the Depression and World War 2 years when sardine canning operation was a thriving industry. Eventually sardines disappeared from the waters due to overfishing and other environmental reasons. Cannery Row preserves that brief moment in time when Monterey was the sardine capital of the world. Imagine my delight then when on a recent trip to CA, I had the opportunity to visit Cannery Row and retrace the steps of the author and the real people who willed the fictitious personages into existence. The book captured the people and the pulse of the place in that momentous time in history so well that even the street name in Monterey was changed from Ocean View to Cannery Row to honor its creator.

I read Cannery Row more than two decades ago. The novel has a simple plot. Mack and his ruffian friends decide to throw a party for Doc which unfortunately goes out of control. They end up ruining his lab and leaving his home in shambles. They decide to throw another party to get back in his good graces. Interwoven within the main plot, is a series of vignettes describing the other residents of the row. I have forgotten a lot of the plot details but what has stayed with me is the rich and teeming  portrait of a town featuring a panoply of characters from every walk of life. They are simple people living ordinary lives who accept the cards life has dealt them. These people living on the edge of the Pacific and on the margins of society navigate through the morass of human existence with grace and compassion despite the shortage of money.

Take Lee Chong for instance. He’s a shrewd and manipulative businessman who runs a successful grocery store but he trusts his clients and gives them huge amounts of credit. He never fails to come to the rescue of Mack and the boys who are constantly asking him for favors. Or Dora Flood. She manages The Bear Flag restaurant which is actually a whorehouse. She is in a so called disreputable profession but she takes good care of her employees, contributes generously to charitable organizations and helps families in need during the Depression. Steinbeck makes us examine our own stereotypical notions of morality through the selfless actions of these poor and marginalized characters. As Doc muses:

“It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”  

The present day Cannery Row only carries vestiges of its past. Many of the old cannery buildings have been refurbished as restaurants, galleries and kitschy souvenir shops. The only things packed as sardines are the tourists who descend in droves during the summer months. Yet remnants of history can be found throughout the city to a discerning eye whether in the form of dilapidated steel sheds, decrepit buildings or elevated walkways which were once used to move canned fish from the processing site to the warehouses near the train tracks.

There is the historic Cannery Row. And then, there is the literary Cannery Row. And the two intersect and there is nostalgia for both. Here are some of the authentic locales and some modern day tributes if you want to walk in the footsteps of the author and the people who inspired the plot:

The Monterey Bay Aquarium-  View From The Bay Side

Hovden Cannnery- The site that attracts the most tourists to Monterey is undoubtedly the world- renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium which not only overlooks the beautiful bay but also seamlessly integrates with the shore. The building originally housed the largest and the last cannery on the row to shut down. When the building was transformed into the aquarium in 1984, it was designed in such a way as to preserve its historical significance. The cookers and boilers were retained inside and some of the original wood and iron corrugated exteriors of the building outside. There are two tall smokestacks  which although sealed, still remain on the roof. Inside the aquarium, near the entrance is a Hovden cannery interpretative exhibit about the sardine industry and a small biological lab formerly owned and operated by Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist who inspired the character of ‘ Doc’.

Pacific Biological Laboratories

If you want to see the main lab, you have to walk down the street from the aquarium to 800 Cannery Row where you will find the building that was known as the Pacific Biological Laboratories and called Western Biological in the novel. Steinbeck’s friend, Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist who collected and stored specimens of marine creatures was the model for the character of Doc. Apart from being a scientist and a connoisseur of art and music, Ricketts much like Doc was also a philosopher who made profound observations on life and was much admired by the community. He died in 1948 hit by a train after his car stalled on the tracks. There is a memorial on a recreational trail near the accident site honoring his life and work.

Across the street from the lab is the building that housed Wing Chong market and became Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower grocery of the novel. It has become a souvenir shop now but you can still see the Wing Chong Market sign outside. I almost walked by  without making the connection and I forgot to take a picture when it finally dawned on me that this was the inspiration for Lee Chong’s store. It is sometimes hard to separate Steinbeck’s Cannery Row from the real Cannery Row.

The building next to Wing Chong market was known as Edith’s restaurant which inspired La Ida Café of the novel where Eddie, the bartender poured all the leftover drinks into a jug for Mack and the boys to enjoy at the flophouse. Today there is a bakery on the premises.

Bruce Ariss Mural

Bruce Ariss Mural- Across from Doc’s lab is a mural entitled ‘Across from Doc’s Lab’ which commemorates the characters and setting of Cannery Row.  You can see the train tracks and the train and the discarded boilers that became homes. You can also see Wing Chong’s grocery store and The Lone Star Restaurant that morphed into the Lee Chong store and the Bear Flag restaurant respectively. Bruce Ariss, the original painter was a contemporary of Steinbeck and the mural is a microcosm of the larger world of Cannery Row, a snapshot of what life was like back in its heyday.

Cannery Row Cottages

Cannery Cottages-  Further up the hill are three restored cottages or shacks that once housed workers. They are a reminder of the time when immigrant workers from Mexico, China, Italy, Portugal, Japan and the Philippines worked in the canneries and fisheries.

The Cannery Row Monument in Steinbeck Plaza
The four local entrepreneurs of Monterey!
A section of the monument with a Chinese fisherman and ladies of the night.

Steinback Plaza-

The Cannery Row monument  sculpted by artist Steven Whyte of Carmel and unveiled in 2014 is a tribute to the people, real and fictional who played a pivotal role in Cannery Row’s history. John Steinbeck is on top of the rocky structure and his friend Ed Ricketts is at the base.

The sculpture also pays homage to four entrepreneurs who were instrumental in developing the town. A Chinese fisherman represents the  thriving 19thcentury fishing industry and the two women are Madam Flora Woods of Lone Star Café and one of the girls of her bordello. A whimsical detail is the placing of bronze frogs throughout the monument, a reminder of Mack and the boys who earned money by catching frogs and selling them to the lab.

A bronze bust of John Steinbeck  at Steinbeck Plaza overlooking Monterey Bay!

Steinbeck found poetry in the mundane and the quotidian. In spite of the gritty reality of poverty, his characters demonstrate resilience and an indomitable spirit. Many of the characters and the locales of the novel also found their way into the sequel entitled Sweet Thursday.

With gentrification and a booming tourist economy, Cannery Row is a far cry from its dingy and seedy origins. One wonders if Steinbeck himself would recognize the place. Cannery Row itself has become like one of Doc’s lab specimens on display for the tourists.

Yet, under the veneer of tourism, it is the same tang of salt in the air that tickles your nostrils, the same cry of seagulls that greets you and the same sight of craggy cliffs with otters basking in the sun that meets your sight. You just have to let your imagination fill in the rest. If you close your eyes and ponder for a moment about life in the old fishing village, be it real or fictional, you just might catch a whiff of the fishy stench that once pervaded the air and hear the screeching whistles that once summoned the workers to the canneries.






‘The Bustle in a House’-Visiting the Ghost of Emily Dickinson

The Homestead- Home of Poet Emily Dickinson. The photo is taken from the driveway of the house.

The best way to pay homage to deceased authors is by reading their work. The second best way is to embark on a literary pilgrimage and situate yourself in the same space where creativity once flowed. I enjoy immersing myself in the world of authors- treading on the sacred ground where their footsteps once tread, establishing instant intimacy with them by stepping into the rooms where they lived, ate, worked and slept and developing inspiration for my own writing. The most humbling realization is that in spite of the fame and success they were ordinary mortals like us caught up in the drudgery of life.

Last month I had the opportunity of visiting Emily Dickinson’s stately home in Amherst, MA. She is a kindred spirit from another era as along with a passion for poetry, I share her interests in baking and gardening and her love of nature. Emily ( Yes, I am on first -name basis with her! ) wrote exquisitely beautiful pithy poems on nature, love, longing, life, death and immortality. Her life was shrouded in mystery as she deliberately sought to be a recluse and hardly left her home. Only a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. I’m grateful to her sister Lavinia who published the rest of her work comprising of nearly 1800 poems after she left this world. Emily never knew that one day she would be regarded as one of the greatest American poets. Her eccentricities  along with the image of a reclusive poet add to her mystique. Although I’m a frequent visitor of her poetic abode, I couldn’t help feeling a little like an unwelcome guest in the home of the poet who lived in self-imposed solitude.

The Emily Dickinson museum comprises 2 historic houses on a 3 acre property in college town Amherst, MA – The Homestead and The Evergreens. The Homestead house where Emily’s grandparents lived was built in 1813. It is the house where she was born and raised in a upper class Calvinist upbringing and it is the same house where she died. She lived there with her parents and her two siblings. The family temporarily moved to Pleasant Street in Amherst where a pedestrian Mobil station now stands and then moved back to the Homestead in 1855 and converted it to the Italianate style in vogue then with a yellow exterior and green shutters and a cupola on the roof. I was shocked to hear that the house was almost razed to the ground after the last inhabitants passed away but thankfully it was eventually bought by Amherst College and restored to its present state.

The house was a very important space as she spent most of her time there. While touring the property, you notice prints of poems scattered throughout the house and the docent herself recited some of them to us. At every step, I was reminded of my own favorite poems that seemed relevant to the moment and experience.

I dwell in possibility- ( 466)

I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Superior–for Doors–

Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–

Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—

Even though she lived sequestered in a house with doors and windows that physically confined her, they were not impenetrable for poetry was her true dwelling which enabled her to give free rein to her limitless imagination and access the expanse of the infinite universe.

The house has been restored to look the way it looked till Dickinson’s death in 1886. Most of the furniture pieces are reproductions with the original pieces owned by Harvard University. The main floor has an exhibit area with a gift shop, a parlor and a study. In the parlor is a replica of the original piano that Emily played and a portrait of

The iconic and possibly the only existing daguerreotype of the poet taken when she was 16.

the three Dickinson children. You also see a copy of the only daguerreotype that exists of the poet when she was sixteen years old. On this floor you also see the conservatory attached to the house and built especially for Emily to grow native and exotic plants.

The most exciting rooms are on the second floor. Across from the hall is a little poetry room where we had a discussion about Dickinson’s poems with the tour guide. She was a prolific poet who wrote, on average, a poem a day. She wrote them on scraps of papers, on envelopes, newspaper clippings and in letters to friends. She would make copies on sheets of paper and sew them together into booklets or ‘fascicles’ as they are now called. We saw the reproduction of one of the ‘fascicles’ where she wrote alternate words in the margin if she needed to substitute words or phrases in a poem. Often her poems revealed unusual vocabulary and syntax and unconventional use of punctuation in keeping with her rebellious nature. She is especially known for her daring use of dashes.

Finally we entered the hallowed territory- the poet’s small bedroom which has replicas of her bureau and her writing desk and floral wallpaper similar in design to the room of the nineteenth century. Portraits of George Sand and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, both, authors she undoubtedly admired, grace the walls. Apparently many visitors get emotional in this small and serene room. It was a contemplative and moving experience for me too as I stood within the confines of that tiny space which produced a staggering number of poems. This was a room of her own where along with spending many productive hours, she gazed out to the hills and meadows from her window and on occasion lowered baskets of cookies and sweets to children who waited below.

Outside the bedroom in a glass case is the replica of one of the long white dresses she wore which reveals a very slender frame. The fact that she only wore white dresses once she retreated into her solitude adds to the aura of mystery surrounding her. It’s easy to imagine a white phantom moving stealthily through the house.

The Evergreens- Home of Austin Dickinson.

Next I proceeded to visit ‘The Evergreens’, the second house on the property built in 1856 for Emily’s brother Austin who married Susan Gilbert, Emily’s best friend. Emily took part in parties and musical soirées at this house ‘a hedge away’ when younger but avoided them later when she cut herself off from society. The comings and goings between the two houses made for some fascinating encounters and anecdotes.

This house is interesting both from an architectural standpoint and a historic perspective. Unlike the house next door, the subsequent owners of the property retained the original features and the furniture. Virtually every piece is intact- oil paintings, curios, books, lithographs, carpets, wallpaper and an adorable cradle. The kitchen has retained pots and pans and other equipment from the nineteenth century including call bells for servants. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time. To me the most charming room is the nursery – there are toys on the floor and clothes on the bed made more poignant by the fact that Austin and Susan Dickinson had lost their eight year old son to typhoid.

Emily was plagued with health issues. She was losing vision and was prone to epileptic fits. She could have suffered from a mood disorder which seems to fit with her outbursts of joyous creativity and her poems that suggest both euphoria and despondency. She never married but her personal life has aroused a lot of curiosity. She wrote letters addressed to an unknown ‘Master’ who people speculate could have been any of the following: George Gould, a close friend, Otis Lord, a prominent judge and a family friend, Samuel Bowles, a local newspaper editor, Rev.Charles Wadsworth or even her sister- in law Sue- her friend, the reader and recipient of her poems and a trusted critic to whom she had written intensely passionate letters. There is no way of knowing for sure if she was a lesbian or bisexual although many of her poems have homoerotic overtones.

I stepped into the garden and was quite disappointed. It was early spring and a few crocuses were blooming  here and there. But for a woman who was a botany expert, an avid gardener and a high priestess of nature, the museum could have done a better job preserving it. What a travesty considering the poet burned incense on the altar of nature! She decried organized religion but was immensely spiritual. Nature was her religion as we can see from the parody of the trinitarian formula in this poem:

The Gentian weaves her fringes- ( 47)

The Gentian weaves her fringes-
The maple’s loom is red.
My departing blossoms
Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness,
An hour to prepare;
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angels are.

It was a short procession, —
The bobolink was there,
An aged bee addressed us,
And then we knelt in prayer.

We trust that she was willing, —
We ask that we may be.
Summer, sister, seraph,
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen!

As I was about to leave the property, I was struck by the realization that it is ironical that a woman who shunned fame and eschewed company is now swarmed with visitors.

I’m nobody! Who are you? ( 260)

I’m nobody! Who are you?Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish — you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

View of The Homestead from the garden framed by a giant oak tree!

I felt like an intruder invading into this very private woman’s space and thoughts. But then on my way out, I noticed the giant oak tree in her garden which was barely leafing out at the time. I hugged the tree absorbing its vital life force energy with the thought that perhaps Emily had once spread her arms around it too for it is the same oak from her time that still stands tall. I hope by connecting with the natural world so dear to her, I atoned a little for the transgression of trespassing.



Notre-Dame de Paris: Gypsies, Gargoyles and Grotesques

View of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris from the Seine

My heart was ripped when flames ripped through the Notre Dame Cathedral a week ago. So many memories came flooding back as I helplessly watched images of smoke billowing over the city. As a medievalist and as an art history buff, I’ve never left Paris without visiting the Notre Dame. In fact it usually tends to be my first stop in the city. Standing as a beacon of hope and light on the banks of the Seine with the entire vista of Paris visible from its towers, it is undoubtedly the geographical and cultural center of this beautiful and historic city.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, West View

Notre Dame is also a place of pilgrimage in more than one sense of the word. Along with being a place of worship for millions of devout Catholics from around the world, it is also a sacred site for literary pilgrims where Victor Hugo’s novel Notre- Dame de Paris known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes alive. Not surprisingly, Hugo’s book has soared to the top of the bestseller list in the wake of the tragedy.

Published in 1831 but set in 1482, Notre -Dame de Paris is the melodramatic story of the extraordinarily beautiful gypsy Esmeralda who is pursued by several men including Quasimodo, the deformed and deaf hunchback and bell-ringer of the cathedral. It is a touching and tragic story about ill-fated love. Hugo was inspired by the Greek word ‘anatkh’ which he found inscribed on one of the walls of the cathedral and which means Fate. This is a novel with a social conscience like Les Misérables, which he wrote a few decades later. It evokes medieval life in Paris and portrays people from all strata of life from kings to vagabonds and beggars and focuses on the themes of class divisions, social inequality and justice.

Notre Dame Cathedral has been through tumultuous times and has been on the brink of destruction on several occasions throughout its history – it has suffered the ravages of weather and has endured floods, famine and even fire. It has survived rioting Huguenots in the 16thcentury, The French revolution of 1789 and two World Wars which had all resulted in widespread desecration of its statues and relics. It was also the victim of changing fashion trends as from the Renaissance through the 18thcentury, classical architecture was in vogue to the detriment of gothic art.

Notre Dame de Paris is a plea for the preservation of this Gothic architecture that had been subjected to vandalism and neglect over the centuries. According to Hugo, the cathedral is the cultural and political center of Paris and the symbol of the city and its glorious past. Hugo felt that the arrival of the printing press was going to mean the death of architecture while ensuring that the written word would be indestructible. But ironically it was Hugo’s writing that saved the cathedral from further damage.

Flying buttresses

The novel was instrumental in initiating a massive renovation project by the King in 1844 to restore the dilapidated cathedral to its formal glory with the help of architects Baptiste- Antoine Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. The project included rebuilding of

Gargoyles and Grotesques

the spire, the restitution of statues and the addition of gargoyles and grotesques which interestingly were not part of the original structure. The cathedral represents a 19th century vision of what medieval art is supposed to look like- spires, turrets, gargoyles, chimera and flying buttresses symbolizing ascent towards the heavens gave flight to the imaginations of architects and authors alike.

The English translation of the title doesn’t do justice to the novel.  This is not just the story of the hunchback Quasimodo’s unrequited love for Esmeralda but also the story of love for a cathedral. Chapters 1 and 2 of Book 3 are dedicated to the edifice and its architecture. Most of the action of the novel takes place in and around the structure and from the top of its towers. The cathedral sets the plot in motion and offers sanctuary and support to the pariahs of Parisian society including the orphaned Quasimodo:

After all, he turned his face towards men only with regret; his cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marble figures,—kings, saints, bishops,—who at least did not burst out laughing in his face, and who looked upon him only with tranquility and benevolence. The other statues, those of the monsters and demons, harbored no hatred for him, Quasimodo. He resembled them too much for that. They seemed rather, to be sneering at other men. The saints were his friends, and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and watched over him. So he was in intimate communication with them. He sometimes passed whole hours crouching before one of these statues, in solitary conversation with it. If any one came, he fled like a lover surprised in his serenade.

And the cathedral was not only society for him, but the universe, and all nature still. He dreamed of no other shrubs than the stained-glass windows, always in bloom , no other shade than that of the stone foliage which spread out, loaded with birds, in the tufts of the Saxon capitals; of no other mountains than the colossal towers of the church; of no other ocean than Paris, roaring at their feet.

The North Rose Window


Après tout, il ne tournait qu’à regret sa face du côté des hommes. Sa cathédrale lui suffisait. Elle était peuplée de figures de marbre, rois, saints, évêques, qui du moins ne lui éclataient pas de rire au nez et n’avaient pour lui qu’un regard tranquille et bienveillant. Les autres statues, celles des monstres et des démons, n’avaient pas de haine pour lui Quasimodo. Il leur ressemblait trop pour cela. Elles raillaient bien plutôt les autres hommes. Les saints étaient ses amis, et le bénissaient ; les monstres étaient ses amis, et le gardaient. Aussi avait-il de longs épanchements avec eux. Aussi passait-il quelquefois des heures entières, accroupi devant une de ces statues, à causer solitairement avec elle. Si quelqu’un survenait, il s’enfuyait comme un amant surpris dans sa sérénade.
Et la cathédrale ne lui était pas seulement la société, mais encore l’univers, mais encore toute la nature. Il ne rêvait pas d’autres espaliers que les vitraux toujours en fleur, d’autre ombrage que celui de ces feuillages de pierre qui s’épanouissent chargés d’oiseaux dans la touffe des chapiteaux saxons, d’autres montagnes que les tours colossales de l’église, d’autre océan que Paris qui bruissait à leurs pieds.


The cathedral holds a special place in my heart too as it instantly transports me to Hugo’s medieval world of gypsies, gargoyles and grotesques. Every time I saw gypsies outside the cathedral nursing their babies, playing with their children or accosting tourists for money, I was reminded of the captivating Esmeralda and I could visualize her dancing in the square or regaling her spectators with her tricks. And whenever I climbed the belfry, I could almost sense the presence of Quasimodo, the hunchback whose grotesqueness mirrors the cathedral’s own deformities. The hideous bell ringer whispered to the bells and caressed and loved them even though they had made him deaf for mothers often love best the child who has caused them the most suffering. (“les mères aiment souvent le mieux l’enfant qui les a fait le plus souffrir.”)

Stained glass windows inside the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

The Notre Dame Cathedral is not just a touristic spot or a literary haven but a working place of worship pulsating with spiritual energy. Even if you don’t entertain any religious beliefs you cannot help but be moved by the grace and serenity the space emanates. The majestic edifice was engulfed in flames during the most holy week for Christians. Although Hugo ends the book with the grim prediction that the church will disappear from the face of the earth, it is hard to overlook the Biblical symbolism. The miraculous preservation of the relics of the Passion and the Crown of thorns is a prophetic reminder of the resurrection. I sincerely hope that The ‘Grande Dame’ as the French affectionately call their beloved cathedral ,will, as she always has, rise from the ashes.

*The translations are mine.

*The photographs are from my personal collection.





A Literary Pilgrimage To The Mount


Nestled in the picturesque Berkshires in a bucolic setting in the town of Lenox, MA is the Mount, the stately former home of Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and my favorite American author. Needless to say I was ecstatic when I had the opportunity to undergo a literary pilgrimage to this enchanting place which is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.


Wharton belonged to an exclusive circle of the wealthy elite of New York society and designed the Mount in MA as a retreat to escape the confining milieu of her social class. “The Mount”, she wrote, “was to give me country cares and joys, long happy rides and drives through the wooded lanes of that loveliest region, the companionship of a few dear friends, and the freedom from trivial obligations, which was necessary if I was to go on with my writing.” She lived here for just ten years but it was a period of unbridled creativity when she wrote novels as acclaimed as The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.


I ventured on my excursion on a rainy and dreary day. I was hoping for sunny weather to get good pictures of the property but in the end the rain turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it lent to the place the same wistful air that permeates her work.

The quarter mile road leading to the imposing mansion had contemporary art displays on each side. Some people may balk at the idea of such quirky displays on a Gilded Age property but they added a whimsical touch to the tour and, I thought, brought out the contrast between the past and the present in a rather unique and striking way.


One of the first things you notice on entering the house is that it is not ornate or stuffy with wallpaper and formal furnishings but represents a departure from the Victorian conventions of design. It is light and airy and quite different from the opulent Newport mansions of the era. I was surprised to learn that Wharton planned a lot of the design and the architectural elements of the home herself.  She co-authored a book with Ogden Codman, one of the architects of the house, entitled The Decoration of Houses and the Mount reflects her aesthetic sense of understated elegance through the features delineated in the book- simplicity, symmetry, balance and living in accord with nature.

Although the house was designed to be a tranquil haven, Wharton’s life in the Mount was far from peaceful. Her marriage to her husband Edward “Teddy” Wharton was strained. He suffered from depression, mood swings and angry outbursts which took a toll on her own health. Today his symptoms could be explained as bipolar disease and schizophrenia.  She was also trapped in a loveless marriage and she finally divorced him in 1913.

Wharton moved to France after her divorce and the manor was sold to private owners and eventually to a girls’ school and later to the Shakespeare & Co theater group which still puts up performances on the grounds. After a long period of disrepair, it is now being restored to its former glory. The renovation is a work in progress and is being done with scrupulous attention to detail. As most of the home contains reproductions of the original furnishings, you can wander around freely at your pace and even sit on the chairs and couches.

As soon as you step into the entry foyer of the three- storied home you are struck by the welcoming and informal atmosphere. The first floor has the entry foyer which resembles a grotto, a kitchen and a bookstore. On the second floor are a study, a library, a drawing room and a dining room surrounded by a wrap- around terrace with stunning views of manicured lawns, parterres, wetlands and woods.


The dining room has an informal look with no chandelier and a round table instead of a long rectangular one to facilitate conversation.


The library is the only place cordoned off as it houses her original collection of books.


The third floor has the sewing room, the bedrooms of guests including the one where Henry James used to sleep and Edith Wharton’s own boudoir, bathroom and bedroom. Her bedroom has facsimiles of drafts of her novels in her own handwriting with words and lines crossed out.




The tour was made more interesting by the personal anecdotes shared by the docent. Apparently Wharton wrote in bed every morning letting the pages fall to dry when she had finished and one of the servants would pick them up and send them to be typed. The docent also gave details about her infamous love affair with Morton Fullerton. They picked late-blooming witch hazel in the woods ( perhaps as a symbol of their late-blooming love) a sprig of which he sent her in a billet- doux and which marked the beginning of their adulterous relationship. Another interesting tidbit was the fact that the expression ‘Keeping up with the Joneses” was originally made in reference to the wealthy relatives on the maternal side of Wharton’s family.

After the tour of the house, I stepped outside to take the garden tour. As it was still raining, I was the only one on the tour and was able to have an in-depth conversation with the docent, who, much to my delight had read the same Wharton books as I had. To the left of the house is the symmetrical French garden with a profusion of colorful blooms. The garden has been recreated with the same flowers planted at the time of Wharton’s stay after researching her correspondence and conducting interviews with people who knew her. I have always thought of Edith Wharton as a kindred spirit for I share her love of the written word and of Romance Languages and an affinity for European culture along with an interest in gardening.  Imagine my joy then to discover this little detail that like me she preferred tall phlox in her garden beds to the short groundcover phlox!


To the right of the house is the walled Italian garden connected to the French one by a linden allée. The Italian garden was intended to be a place of serenity and therefore the color scheme is green and white with only the green leaves and white flowers of plants like climbing hydrangea and hostas. On one side of the garden is a pergola covered with Concord grape vines from where you can see a spectacular view of the Berkshire mountains.


Edith Wharton’s excessive wealth afforded her privileges not available to other women of the era but she carved her own reputation by dint of her talent. Not only was she a prolific writer who wrote more than forty books in forty years, she was also a humanitarian  and philanthropist who helped refugees in France during World War 1. I knew Edith Wharton the writer but I left the property knowing Edith Wharton the person. Her legacy lives on and is honored through artistic and literary programs and events on the grounds. There are jazz performances on Friday and Saturday nights and plays put up periodically by Shakespeare & Co.

As I was leaving the property, I tried to imagine how it would have been to be Edith Wharton and live in a bygone era. I could picture myself living on the Mount with an enviable coterie of servants, gardeners and footmen, riding on horseback, strolling in the gardens with the dogs and sipping cocktails on the terrace with distinguished guests like Henry James. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have even minded being one of the servants waiting on Edith Wharton for I would still have had access to the tranquil and beautiful property.

One of the rooms in the manor with exhibits about her life.

Although Edith Wharton led a life of luxury, she was far from happy which reminds us of the adage that money can’t buy happiness. Her novels convey the same sense of unfulfillment she experienced in her life. Her stories are about love and loss, lost chances in life and regret. I left the property in a rain- tinted haze feeling the weight of all the unresolved emotions of the author and all her fictional characters. I am glad it rained for in some strange way it enhanced my experience of Edith Wharton’s home, life and work and made it all the more poignant.






The Hideaway of a Young Girl : A Literary and Historical Pilgrimage

Six year old Anne at Montessori School in a happier time.

The Diary of a Young Girl is one of my most cherished childhood books. I was around the same age as Anne Frank when I first read the book and like many other adolescents, I could relate to the young girl and her angst. I was vaguely aware of the chilling horrors of the holocaust but at that age I mainly found a kindred spirit in Anne for she was a normal teenager like all of us encountering the same problems –squabbles with her sister, feeling misunderstood by grown-ups, dealing with the awkwardness of puberty, the onset of the first period and crushes on boys. Anne poured her heart out in her diary, her friend and her confidante whom she lovingly addressed as ‘Kitty’, during the two years she spent in hiding in ‘The Secret Annex’ with her family when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam. Little did I imagine that one day I would be entering this personal space so vividly described by the spunky and precocious teen! I re-read her diary before going on a trip to Amsterdam and had quite a different perspective on it as an adult. The book, along with the moving and sobering experience of visiting the house, brought home with full force the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis.


The Anne Frank Huis located at No. 263 in Prinsengracht in Amsterdam is where Anne Frank lived in hiding with her family for twenty-five months during World War 2 along with the van Pels family and the dentist, Dr. Fritz Pfeffer. They hid in the Achterhuis or back house (Secret Annex) located at the back of the Opekta and Pectacon office and warehouse where her father, Otto Frank, ran businesses making spices and seasonings for meat and pectin for jelly. Otto decided to find refuge here when the Nazis began rounding up all the Jews to send them to Westerbok, a transit camp near the Dutch town of Assen before deporting them to Auschwitz- Birkenau and Sobibor in German occupied Poland where they were ruthlessly exterminated.


Otto’s employees and friends played an important role in keeping the businesses running and the family safe. I am going to name them all as they risked their lives to protect the family- Johannes Kleiman, Miep Gies and her husband Jan Gies, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl and her father Johan Voskuijl. They did grocery shopping and brought food for their survival and books and magazines to entertain them and were their only contact with the outside world. Bep signed up for correspondence courses in shorthand and Latin in her own name to continue the children’s education. These well-wishers whom Anne referred to as ‘helpers’  represented hope in their small acts of kindness and show us how human nature is as capable of compassion as it is of cruelty.

The self-guided audio tour began in the warehouse which has a door to the left which immediately leads to a staircase up to the first floor where the offices were located. The interactive displays and audio clips shed a lot of light on the era and prepared us for what was to follow. We then entered the storeroom to access the secret annex which is connected to the main house by passageways. The doorway to the annex was concealed behind a moveable bookcase expressly constructed for this purpose by Bep’s father, Johan Voskuijl. It was a surreal feeling to step behind the original bookcase and enter Anne’s world. The living space was only 540 square feet in area. On the first floor we walked through the room shared by Anne’s parents, Otto and Edith and her sister, Margo, and then entered a small room shared by Anne and Fritz, the dentist who got on her nerves. On the wall we could see posters of celebrities just like the room of a typical teenager.

On the second floor is the area where the van Pels lived. It is the largest room of the annex and also served as the communal living room and kitchen as it had a stove and sink. Next to it is their son Peter’s room which is just landing space coming down from the attic. The house is bare other than a few photos and mementos but that adds to the poignancy and as a reminder of how the Nazis ruthlessly stripped them of their lives along with their belongings. Yet there are a few things here and there that make you well up with tears like the original strip of wallpaper where Otto marked the girls’ height as they grew.

Canal side entrance to the museum

Anne’s diary reveals how during the day they had to be very quiet and tiptoe around the place, tense and fearful,  lest they be discovered by the workers of the warehouse. They washed and got ready before the workers came in and then they got busy with their reading and school work. They prepared their own meals and canned food for future use. They were most relaxed at night after the workers left. They would listen to the BBC and Radio Oranje and discuss the war and politics. They celebrated birthdays, Hannukah and Christmas and tried to keep their spirits up. But they also had arguments living in such close proximity to each other and as the war progressed the tiffs got worse when they started running out of supplies. Often sleep was elusive as air raid sirens and bombings could be heard throughout the night. In spite of all the difficulties and dangers they faced, Anne’s diary was laced with her youthful idealism and optimism:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

“The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.” Photo courtesy of


The entrance to the attic was barred. I was eager to climb up the stairs and take a peek in the area which served as a meeting place for Anne and Peter and their budding romance and which also had a narrow window from which they could furtively look outside into the world. Anne loved looking at a giant chestnut tree in the courtyard, a little slice of nature to soothe her confined soul. I was disappointed that I couldn’t go there but immediately realized how painful it must have been for the inhabitants who couldn’t go anywhere and as prisoners had nothing but the little hurried glance from the window to content themselves with. They were deprived of fresh air, of sunlight, of nature, robbed of all the little freedoms we take for granted every day.

After the tour of the annex, I descended to the museum area which houses photographs, documents and objects that belonged to the family including Anne’s original diary. It was heartbreaking to see the pictures of the family in happier times. There are touching video clips with interviews with people who knew the family including Miep Gies who was particularly close to Anne and Anne’s friend who met her on a few occasions at the camp and managed to survive the war. Anne made her last entry in her diary on August 1, 1944. Their hiding place was revealed on 4th August, 1944 when they were betrayed by someone who tipped the Gestapo and they were taken to the Westerbok transit camp on a passenger train and eventually to Auschwitz on a freight train.

Only Otto Frank survived the war. It broke my heart to imagine the pain of the man who lost his entire family all at once. Anne’s mother died of tuberculosis at Auschwitz and the girls contracted typhus at Bergen- Belsen where they were transported to from Auschwitz. And isn’t it a cruel joke of fate that they were on the verge of freedom, that their camp was liberated just two weeks after their death? It was Miep Gies who gathered Anne’s papers and notebook after the hiding place was ransacked and gave them to Otto who sent it for publication. Somehow the Gestapo had left these papers alone. Anne had expressed a wish to become a famous writer in her diary. Ironically, her wish came true but not in the way she wished for it to happen. Who knows what she would have achieved if she hadn’t been plucked before her prime? A young life was robbed of its potential. Millions of lives were robbed of their potential.

I stepped out of the building with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat. Outside it was business as usual in the city with the hustle and bustle of tourists and their bikes and boats calmly floating down the same canal from Anne’s time and the same chiming of the bells of the Westerkerk that Anne heard regularly throughout the day. But a small nondescript corner in this bustling city will forever bear witness to the tribulations and trauma of not just one family but a race at large and to the resilience and indomitable spirit of a young girl who showed so much dignity in her suffering. And as for the old chestnut tree, unlike Anne it died a natural death. It finally succumbed to disease but not before scores of cuttings were taken from it and planted all over the world to grow new trees. And similarly Anne’s legacy lives on through her story which continues to inspire countless people everyday around the world.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: I recommend booking tickets online in advance before visiting the museum. The lines outside can be very long if you decide to purchase tickets on the spot. I had tried to buy my tickets online a few weeks before my trip but they were already sold out. I tried again a few days before my visit and luckily I was able to obtain them as they had some cancellations. Keep trying even after they are sold out. There are always people cancelling the last minute. Photographs are forbidden in the museum not only to preserve the original artifacts but also as a respect to the sanctity of the place. 





A President and a Poet


I was taking a leisurely stroll on a late autumn afternoon near Harvard Square when I quite serendipitously stumbled upon a sign that read ‘Longfellow House’. I was standing right in front of the house of one of America’s most celebrated poets whose works I’ve enjoyed since my childhood. I stared in disbelief at the imposing mansion in front of me and decided to take a peek inside. I discovered that it’s a historic home open to the public for tours. The tours are free and are conducted by the National Park Service. The next tour was about to start in fifteen minutes and that’s how I ventured on a literary pilgrimage without seeking it or planning for it in advance. It was a dual pilgrimage for not only was the house the former home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but also served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Boston siege. In fact ‘Longfellow House- Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site’ had known many notable inhabitants but the two most renowned ones as indicated by the sign were the President and the Poet.

Before entering the house, I lingered for a few minutes in the charming formal garden IMG_1530which is patterned after a Persian rug and has a latticed pergola and a sun dial. The moment I set foot in the eighteenth century house, I was transported to the past. The friendly and knowledgeable tour guide enhanced the experience by sharing inside stories and reciting poems at the most opportune moments. Longfellow was initially a tenant in the house formerly known as Vassall- Craigie House and eventually received it as a wedding present from his father-in-law in 1843 when he married Frances (Fanny) Appleton. The furnishings and artifacts of this elegantly appointed house are not reproductions like you find in many historic homes but real items that the Longfellows used in their daily lives. There are amazing antiques, paintings, ceramics, textiles, busts and decorative screens from North America, Europe and Asia. Many of the items were collected by the Longfellows’ eldest son Charles during his exotic travels to China, Japan and India and some of the paintings and portraits gracing the walls were created by their second son Ernest who was an artist. The house with its manuscripts, letters and a collection of more than 14,000 books in over a dozen languages including the works of Dante, Plutarch and Goethe reflects the vast erudition of Longfellow who was a Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard and fluent in many languages. It was while living in the house that he translated Dante’s “Divine Comedy” into English and also wrote many of his well known poems like “Paul Revere’s Ride”, “The Song of Hiawatha” and “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.”

The house steeped in history and brimming with poetry will appeal to history buffs as well as to poetry enthusiasts. Though the two eminent men were not contemporaries, the most interesting moments are when their stories entwine. IMG_1543The Longfellows made very few structural changes to the house as they took immense pride in its historical past and its connection to Washington. A marble bust of Washington placed near the staircase in the entry hallway by the couple honors the home’s distinguished history. The cozy study is the same room where Longfellow wrote his poetry and where Washington strategized to drive the British out of Boston. The elegant parlor used by Fanny Longfellow for her social gatherings is the very room where Martha and George Washington hosted a ‘Twelfth Night’ party to celebrate their 17th wedding anniversary. I had two moments that gave me the chills. The first moment was IMG_1548when I stood near the marvelous staircase near the front door and the tour guide told us that we were standing in the very spot through which many famous people had entered the house. In the brief nine months that General Washington lived there before he became the first American President, he entertained visitors such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Hancock and other revolutionaries. Longfellow, in turn, received Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Charles Sumner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Makepeace Thackeray among other luminaries.

The second moment that sent a shudder of excitement down my spine was when I saw the lovely portrait of the Longfellows’ three daughters immortalized by the poet in ‘The Children’s Hour”, a beloved poem that I had memorized and recited during my school days:

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

IMG_1537I could imagine the children running down the stairs “plotting and planning” to take their father by surprise, throwing their arms around him and smothering him with kisses, and, he in turn, promising to keep them enshrined in his heart forever. The house where the Longfellows raised their six children carries within its walls all the memories of an idyllic and blissful family life along with the painful memories of sickness, bouts of mental illness and tragedies like Fanny’s death in a fire accident. A grief-stricken Longfellow wrote “The Cross of Snow” while looking at his wife’s portrait eighteen years after her death:

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

It’s believed that Fanny Longfellow’s ghost still hovers around the home. Some people who have toured the house claim to have seen a strange apparition of a lady in white in the upstairs bedroom. Longfellow himself expressed this uncanny feeling in his “Haunted Houses”:

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

The spirits in the house “as silent as the pictures on the wall” still linger and imbue the property with their otherworldly presence. As I crossed the hallway to leave the house, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that grave Alice and laughing Allegra and Edith with golden hair might descend down the staircase any moment to greet me just as they had their Dad more than a century and a half ago.