Dead Authors’ Homes
August 20, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
The literary real-estate market is booming. In May, Ray Bradbury’s house was for sale (Los Angeles, California; 2,500 square feet; $1.495 million). Then, in July, John Cheever’s house was for sale (Ossining, New York; 2,688 square feet; $525,000). At the time, you may have kicked yourself for failing to act on those—maybe you couldn’t scrape together the funds in time, or maybe you thought, Well, surely some other Dead Author’s Home will come along soon enough, and that will be the Dead Author’s Home for me.
You’re in luck: as reported by the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, Page Six, and others, J. D. Salinger’s house is for sale, and it’s the most capacious authorial domicile yet (Cornish, New Hampshire; 2,900 square feet; $679,000).
The home’s current owner, Joan Littlefield, told the Valley News, a New Hampshire paper, that “she had been considering advertising the house, which she bought in the 1980s, in The New Yorker, in the hopes of attracting literary types.” To go by the coverage the property’s received, she has the right idea. But what does it mean to want to live in a dead writer’s house? When does fandom devolve into idolatry?
You might suppose that an ardent admirer of Salinger’s would have much to gain by inhabiting his private space—writerly inspiration, maybe, or a deeper connection to the work, or even just a constant, salubrious mental patter. (It’s another fine morning in J. D.’s kitchen, the satisfied homeowner thought.)
And why not? The fascination is valid. Pinning Salinger to a place humanizes him, and living in that place could be edifying. One can imagine him brooding in these rooms, writing and not writing and, most important, just sort of puttering around. He’s one of those revered authors whose work and solitude seems to have obscured his ordinary side, elevating him above the realm of human affairs. Intriguing, then, to have access to a space where he once trafficked in the same earthly minutiae as the rest of us, the junk mail and car insurance bills, the bottles of ibuprofen and dish soap, the mothballs and orthotic insoles.
But that’s about as far as it goes. No one knows if Salinger wrote anything in this house, and it’s been more than twenty years since he lived there; as the Valley News notes, it’s “filled with little cushions, crystal china, and fabrics in warm pinks and oranges.” Even if he’d been the most recent resident, to presume that some immutable, metaphysical trace of him remains amounts to superstition. What signs of life, really, does an author leave behind once his belongings are cast out, his property subjected to the real-estate rigmarole? We expect a ghost, the writer’s spectral feet shuffling through the bedroom, his august hand on our shoulders, urging us toward new creative heights. In reality, we’d be lucky to find a toenail clipping from the master, an errant stain in his carpet, a matted clump of his cat’s hair in the basement.
What you’re buying, then, isn’t privileged access: it’s only a set of jejune bragging rights. Imagine the dinner parties.
“Salinger lived in this house, you know.”
“No! Really? What did he work on here?”
“He hid, mainly. From the public eye.”
“Oh, well, I’m su—”
“Want to see the grout in the bathroom? It was his grout.”
That sounds ludicrous, but there’s truth in it. When the Littlefields moved into Salinger’s place, the Valley News says, they
came across various Salinger memorabilia, including old checkbooks, sections of fence, and, notably, his toilet, which made national news after a collectibles dealer tried to sell it on Ebay.
The Guardian adds,
The vendor asked $1m for the toilet, “uncleaned and in its original condition … Who knows how many of [his] stories were thought up and written while Salinger sat on this throne!”
This is the very worst impulse of fetishism, the same impulse that surrounds religious relics and autograph seekers and historic homes converted into stale, placarded museums. I’m reminded of a character in Richard Linklater’s Slacker who claims to possess Madonna’s Pap smear. “I know it’s kind of disgusting, but it’s, like, it’s sort of getting down to the real Madonna,” she says. That’s a reductio ad absurdum on what’s happening here: 2,900 expensive square feet ostensibly inflected with genius, imbued with the real Salinger. But every cupboard is empty, and the toilet’s been replaced.