COLUMBUS, Ohio — The James Thurber House may be as far from the top of the list of this capital city’s most popular destinations as it is from the high-rise business district just to the west across a span of vacant yards and parking lots.
If you want to understand the character and culture of this midwestern town, however, a tour of the 19th-century Queen Anne-style house is indispensable. And even if you don’t make it to the onetime home of the humorist, artist, and writer of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” reading his work will help explain Columbus to you.
In that business district, for example, Thurber wrote wryly, you can hear “the placid hum of business and the buzzing of placid businessmen.” Chosen by a single vote to be created from scratch as a compromise state capital over longer-established Ohio cities, he wrote, Columbus “ever since then has had the hallucination that it is being followed.” His athletically gifted but academically challenged star tackle, Bolenciecwcz, satirizes the local obsession with Ohio State football.
“It gives you a really good sense of Columbus as a midwestern place,” said Meg Brown, the Thurber House’s director of education as she provided a private tour. “When you read Thurber’s ‘My Life and Hard Times,’ you learn about Columbus when he lived here, but also a little bit about Columbus now.”
Reading and travel, by nature, go together, of course. That’s what people do in airports, on trains and planes, and around the pool or on the beach. But literature that’s connected to a destination also brings it into sharper focus, literary types say.
It’s “a completely fascinating way to travel,” said Pushcart Prize-winning author Melissa Pritchard — “a way of getting behind the sightseeing curtain and into deeper layers of a culture and its history.”
It’s also being increasingly celebrated not just by the rediscovery of homes of and libraries devoted to writers such as Thurber, but by the new American Writers Museum in Chicago, a city that itself underpins a vast literary architecture ranging from the works of Upton Sinclair to that of Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Nelson Algren.
Algren’s “City on the Make” is “really like a giant prose poem to the city of Chicago,” said Carey Cranston, president of the museum, which includes a gallery exclusively about Chicago writers. (It also has, until November, the working manuscript of the ultimate literary travel guide, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which the Lowell-born author typed on a single 120-foot scroll.)
Reading fiction about a destination “brings a place alive,” said Cranston. “Rather than a travel guide, what you’re getting is a very living guide about the place.”
His own favorite, Cranston said, is “A Confederacy of Dunces,” whose cast of characters populate New Orleans’s French Quarter.
“When a book is set in a place and that place is a part of the book, it just makes it going there much more of an enjoyable experience,” he said.
Some cities capitalize on this. You can buy a Raymond Chandler Mystery Map of Los Angeles, for example, which will take you to the haunts of detective Philip Marlowe, made famous on the screen by Humphrey Bogart; Chandler put real-world restaurants and bars in his novels in exchange for free meals and drinks.
Or take the Ulysses Tour through Dublin, a sort of literary pub crawl across a hometown Joyce called a “center of paralysis” compared to the other European capitals he preferred, but which served as the setting for this and many other of his most famous books and stories.
It’s not just cities whose cultures are captured in books. It’s entire countries.
Want to understand Canada before you visit? Read about hockey in Canadian literature, said Michael P.J. Kennedy, who has compiled a collection of short stories on, and teaches a course at the University of Saskatchewan about, this topic. (The book, called “Words On Ice,” is divided not into chapters, but into “periods.”)
“You can’t deny it’s part of who we are as Canadians,” said Kennedy, whose cheerful face is framed by a fringe of white hair and a beard and who wears bifocals low on his nose and a short-sleeved shirt under a tweed jacket. “How do you explain, in this peaceable country, this violent sport of hockey? It’s that struggle to survive, because hockey is such a demanding game. I think it reflects the Canadian psyche of people who know what it’s like to have to persevere.”
And not just in its frontier days. Current-day Canadians breathe hockey, judging from the students who took their places in the plastic chairs pulled up to long tables atop the checkerboard Formica floor of the room where Kennedy holds class.
There’s a waiting list to get into this course, and if literature in general has fallen out of favor on university campuses (the proportion of undergraduates who major in the humanities is half of what it was in 1970), you couldn’t tell that from the passionate discussion that began as soon as Kennedy noted casually that the university hockey team was in first place and a student instantly corrected him.
“Tied for first,” the student said.
Author Mike Martin has long considered how a sense of place is incorporated into fiction, something he’s been praised for doing in his own short stories, collected in the Babson College English professor’s debut book “Easiest If I Had a Gun.” Martin won the James Knudsen Prize for fiction and has been a finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Award.
“Places have character. Places have personality,” he said. “Literature gives us a window into zeitgeist, into the spirit of the times, and allows us a point of comparison. You go to a place and don’t really know more than the tour guide has told you. But you get to know people in a book about that place and you’re no longer culturally ignorant.”
He wouldn’t go travel to Spain, Italy, or France without the appropriate Hemingway, said Martin. “I make sure I read Flannery O’Connor every time I am in Georgia. I’ve never been to Scotland, but I feel like I know Edinburgh intimately because of Ian Rankin.”
That doesn’t always mean a destination still looks the way an author once described it. Thurber left Columbus in 1925 for New York, where he worked for The New Yorker. Bustling Dublin can no longer be described as paralyzed in time. And even in Raymond Chandler’s day, not many other authors traded cameos for a free lunch.
“If you’re reading Hemingway and going to Spain, if you’re expecting to find things that were there in the ’30s, you’re doing it wrong,” said Martin. “But if you’re looking for the character of the place, or at least an emotional touch point with the place, that’s what Hemingway can give you. You’re not just getting something that’s gone — you’re getting the roots of what you’re experiencing, and the human history.”
Back in Columbus, amid such Thurber ephemera as a Victrola and his original Underwood typewriter and the sitting room trimmed in dark room with period wallpaper, Brown said that, though Thurber moved away, “he was very much a Columbus person.”
The author and playwright himself once told an interviewer that half of his books could not have been written if it hadn’t been for his experiences in his hometown. Some are set in the house itself, which he believed to be haunted.
“I am never very far from Ohio in my thoughts,” said Thurber. “The clocks that strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus.”Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.