by John Coward
When I was an undergraduate in Tennessee in the early 1970s, I developed a habit that continues to this day.
No, not smoking or binge drinking or drugs or other destructive adolescent behaviors. No, my habit turned out to be literary and even uplifting, something the sociologists might call “pro-social.”
My habit—which I shared with college girlfriend Linda—was the literary and bookstore pilgrimage. This habit meant that every spring break or summer vacation became an opportunity for road trips in search of the places where writers came of age, where they lived and worked and found inspiration. On other occasions, it was a chance to discover new poets and writers among the shelves of an independent bookstore in a wondrous—and new to us—American city.
Looking back, this was a thoroughly romantic notion, the dreamy idealism of a small town Southern boy seeking to link my humdrum existence with the giants of American literature. After all, what can you really learn from an afternoon visit to a writer’s home or a walk through the author’s old neighborhood? Or, somewhat morbidly, visiting the writer’s grave?
But I was as persistent as I was idealistic, even proposing to Linda in front of the Asheville home of Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward, Angel and other novels and one of my youthful literary heroes. (She said yes. We’re still married 46 years later. And I still like Wolfe, even after being mistaken for a street preacher carrying a Bible—it was actually a Wolfe biography—while walking the back alleys of Asheville.)
I’m not sure how this happened. I never had a master plan or a formal purpose for these visits. I never even considered why I wanted to do it, but I did have a vague idea that this was a way to ground myself in a literary place, to catch a glimpse the creative spirit that I found on the page.
That impulse to see literary places led us to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi. We have also walked the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans, where Faulkner as well as Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams once walked. We’ve even been to Clyde, Ohio, the town that inspired Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and to Ripshin, a mountain cabin in Southwest Virginia, where Sherwood Anderson once worked. In Dublin, we toured some of the places Joyce described so memorably in Ulysses and in Dubliners. This literary impulse even led us to mountains of New Mexico, where we sought the chapel containing the ashes of the English novelist D. H. Lawrence.
We have also made trips to literary bookstores and used bookshops around the country. The attraction to these places was not a specific writer, of course, but the expectation of discovery, the joy of stumbling across a wonderful new voice or the odd second-hand book that would spark our interests and imaginations.
So Linda and I have looked for books at the Tattered Cover in Denver, at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, Garcia Street Books in Santa Fe, and at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. Last summer, we finally made to City Lights in San Francisco, the legendary bookstore founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and long associated with beat poets and writers such as Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and others.
These bookstore trips even helped my professional life as a journalism historian who writes about Native American images in the U.S. press and popular culture. On several occasions, I’ve had the happy experience of finding an old book in a used bookstore that deepened my knowledge of Native life and how it has been depicted in the media. Serendipity can be a wonderful thing.
Over the years Linda and I have looked for poetry, novels, history and art books in stores such as Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, Recycled Books in Denton, Texas, Dickson Street Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Half Price Books in Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth. In Tulsa, I’ve found some literary gems at Gardner’s Used Books on Mingo.
Thanks to the Tulsa Literary Coalition and people like Jeff Martin and the late, much-beloved Cindy Hulsey, Tulsa now has its own literary bookstore, Magic City Books. That means Linda and I don’t have to go far to find the literary atmosphere that we have been seeking all these years.
Yet the lure of the literary road trip remains. Summer is coming and there are new places to explore, more chances to see for ourselves what an admired writer might have seen and to find new books that will help us better understand our world and ourselves. Although she spend most of her days in Amherst and was not much of a traveler, Emily Dickinson said it well: “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.”
John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).