You can learn more about the lives of your favorite authors -- and have a great time doing so -- by visiting the places that are indelibly associated with their work. You can visit their hometowns... the houses where they grew up... or the locales that sparked their imaginations and inspired them to write the books that have become American classics.
For a good look at the worlds of some of the country’s best-known and beloved novelists, here are a few great literary destinations, each perfect for a short and affordable vacation. Be sure to call ahead or check each destination’s Web site in case schedules or prices have changed.
Key West, Florida
In 1928, when Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, left the high life in Paris and arrived in Key West, then a remote island populated mainly by rumrunners and fishermen, it was meant to be just a stopover. But its easygoing ambience, the deep-sea fishing and Sloppy Joe’s Bar (where he met Martha Gellhorn, a reporter who would eventually become his third wife), quickly captivated him -- and he decided that Key West was home.
Moving into an old Spanish villa where they lived for more than 10 years, he wrote many of his best-known books, including Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Today, the villa is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, a registered National Historic Landmark. You can take a guided tour of the house, his writing studio and gardens. You can also make friends with the multitude of cats, many with six toes, descendants of the six-toed cat he was given by a ship’s captain. For more Hemingway flavor, visit Sloppy Joe’s Bar and the site of Mrs. Rhoda Baker’s Electric Kitchen where he and his pals savored her 20-cent breakfasts.
More information: Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, Key West, Florida, 305-294-1136, www.hemingwayhome.com.
Asheville, North Carolina
Thomas Wolfe, the celebrated author of Look Homeward, Angel, You Can’t Go Home Again and other autobiographical novels, spent much of his childhood in a rambling 29-room boardinghouse, the Old Kentucky Home, run by his stern, hardworking mother in the mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina. His first books were fictionalized accounts of life in the boardinghouse, which he called Dixieland, and his characters were based on his own family and other residents of Asheville in the early days of the century.
The house, boarded up for many years just as his mother left it -- right down to the dishes and the bed linens -- became a state historic site open to the public as the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Suffering extensive damage in a fire in 1998, it was closed for restoration and reopened in 2004. The facility includes a visitor center adjacent to the house where an exhibit displays effects from the family home and Wolfe’s father’s stonecutting shop.
More information: Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Asheville, North Carolina, 828-253-8304, www.wolfememorial.com.
John Steinbeck, who wrote novels ranging from The Grapes of Wrath (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize) to Cannery Row, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men, was born in the Salinas Valley and later lived in nearby Monterey County, both of which he made famous through his writings. You can roam the streets of Monterey to see the cannery site near the waterfront, then tour the area’s rich farmlands to get a taste of Steinbeck’s world. Don’t miss the National Steinbeck Center, a large museum in Salinas that celebrates his life through interactive exhibits, letters, manuscripts, oral histories, films and more.
More information: National Steinbeck Center, Salinas, California, 831-775-4721, www.steinbeck.org.
Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth, a portrayal of Chinese peasant life published in 1931, is one of the most-read books in America. She grew up in China the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, but she came to the US and lived for 40 years in an 1825 stone farmhouse in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County. There she wrote many more novels and short stories, worked for human rights, adopted and raised a number of children of various ethnic backgrounds, and founded Welcome House, the first international adoption agency.
Fans of Buck’s work can immerse themselves in her life with a visit to her home, Green Hills Farm, which contains her personal belongings just as she left them. They include Pennsylvania country furniture along with a collection of Chinese screens, paintings, artifacts and wall hangings. Gardens, greenhouses, a barn and constantly changing special exhibits may also be explored.
The estate serves as the headquarters for the adoption agency and for her other humanitarian causes.
More information: Pearl S. Buck House, Perkasie, Pennsylvania, 800-220-2825, www.psbi.org.
Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, grew up in a family of seven children in Hannibal, a rural Mississippi River town. He based the adventures of his most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, on his memories of the life and the people in small-town America in the 1840s.
Twain moved on to the outside world at the age of 17, but Hannibal has drawn visitors ever since 1912, when his family’s little frame house was turned into the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum and opened to the public.
Today it includes a welcome center... the Huckleberry Finn House, a reconstruction of the home of the boy who was the inspiration for Huck... the two-story white Boyhood Home... the Becky Thatcher House, home of Laura Hawkins, the inspiration for Becky in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer... and the Museum Gallery that contains Twain artifacts, such as manuscripts, one of his famous white suits and his typewriter.
More information: Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, Hannibal, Missouri, 573-221-9010, www.marktwainmuseum.org.
Source: Joan Rattner Heilman, an inveterate traveler and seasoned journalist based in Mamaroneck, New York, is the author of more than a dozen books. She specializes in 50-plus travel.