Dead or Alive: In Mansfield, Missouri with Laura Ingalls Wilder


Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage    


–By Robin McCarthy


There’s no sense of discovering a long-forgotten treasure when visiting a Laura Ingalls Wilder literary landmark. In most instances, it would be difficult to miss the place where the cabin might have stood or find the well from which Caroline Ingalls might have fetched water. Rather, Wilder sites are widely publicized and celebrated. In Pepin Wisconsin, visitors gather each fall for “Laura Days,” a celebration of pioneer life near the “Little House in the Big Woods” where Wilder was born. DeSmet, South Dakota offers Wilder fans a tour of not one but two former Ingalls homes as well as other buildings featured in the story, as well as a pageant each July that re-enacts a different book from the Little House series. Just outside Independence, Kansas, a replica of the Ingalls’ log cabin, the home in which Little House on the Prairie is set, is a prominent feature of the area’s annual “Lamplight on the Prairie” and “Prairie Days” festivals. Lots of places stake their claim to Wilder fame because the truth is that the Ingalls family moved around a lot. While much of Wilder’s youth was spent in DeSmet, and her adult life was lived largely in Mansfield, Missouri (where the house is now a museum), there are twelve U.S. towns that boast their connection to Laura Ingalls Wilder as a tourist attraction. Continue reading

Dead or Alive: Sarah Orne Jewett in South Berwick, Maine


Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage    

–By Robin McCarthy 


SOJ house, front

I return home to Maine in August for one of the last weeks before the semester begins back in Michigan, before the berries go by and the snow starts to fall and the miles between where I grew up and where I live become more difficult to cross. On the day we leave Maine, there are things to acquire; pint of berries from the field, whoopie pies and Italian sandwiches in the manner only a Maine gas station can make them, glass growlers to fill with favored small-batch IPAs.

With these things packed into the Honda Civic that has now looped it’s way between the nation’s coasts for over 260,000 miles, my boyfriend and I drive west across the interior of the state and then South on the interstate. Leaving Maine is my least favorite activity, although I’m too old for homesickness like this, and I know my absences are largely temporary. And so I am happy to stop for a while in South Berwick, just on the Maine side of the New Hampshire state line, to parallel park in front of Sarah Orne Jewett’s childhood home, to eat the first of the squirreled-away sub sandwiches on the bench outside. Continue reading

Dead or Alive: With H.D. in Bethlehem, PA

Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage    

–By Robin McCarthy  

DSCF1659 (360x640)


I visit Bethlehem, Pennsylvania about twice a year to spend time with my boyfriend’s family.  A few years ago, during one of these visits, I discovered a sign rising out of the sidewalk outside the public library announcing that the poet H.D. had been born in Bethlehem and was buried nearby.

My senior year of high school, my English teacher placed a copy of H.D.’s poem, “Helen”, in front every student in the class. The poem is neither long nor particularly dense. I remember reading the first stanza, “All Greece hates/ the still eyes in the white face,/ the lustre as of olives/where she stands,/ and the white hands” and being eager to dig into the poem. I was just learning to assign significance to literature and the process of decoding felt like a perfect challenge. In part, I was fascinated by the gender ambiguity of the artist’s name, those two staunch and commanding letters—H.D.— at the top of the page. I was preparing to write a humanities paper on women whose literary careers hinged on the obfuscation of their gender. I had just been introduced to George Eliot and recently learned Louisa May Alcott published as A.M. Barnard for years before Little Women was published under her own name. The initials seemed a way of entry into the male-dominated world of publishing. Continue reading

Dead or Alive: Robert Frost in Ripton, VT


Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage  


–By Robin McCarthy  



Robert Frost owned two homes in Ripton, Vermont, and both locations are now owned by Middlebury College. The more elaborate of the two summer homes, Homer Noble Farm, is nestled on the outskirts of the college’s Bread Loaf campus and privy to the action of the summer conference that has drawn writers to Ripton, Vermont every summer for nearly ninety years. The second Frost home is a remote cabin tucked away into the woods a mile and a half down the road. While guests often stayed at the farm, Frost himself preferred to spend his visits to Ripton in the rustic cabin removed from the campus.

When I visited Bread Loaf a number of years ago, I was struck by how impossible it is to separate Frost’s relationship with Bread Loaf from the identity of the summer writers’ conference. The poet was influential in establishing the Bread Loaf school and remained a frequent visitor and lecturer for most of his life. There are many writers celebrated at Bread Loaf, both past a present, but none so storied or active in their own mythology as Frost. Continue reading

Dead or Alive: Eleanor Brainerd in Iowa City, IA



 Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage


–By Robin McCarthy




Iowa City is hot in late June. It is, perhaps, not the ideal time of year to wander aimlessly through five sprawling city blocks of cemetery searching for a headstone whose existence is only confirmed by a passing mention on Wikipedia. But by the time I was searching for Eleanor Brainerd in Iowa City’s Oakland Cemetery, we were well into a cold and gray summer where I live and I was ready for the heat, ready for the thickness of the air, ready for long hot days building toward evening the thunderstorms swept in off the plains.

Before arriving in Iowa, I had never heard of Eleanor Brainerd. But Iowa City is such a mecca for writers, a place where so many literary heroes have nurtured their careers, that it felt important to discover someone new, someone overlooked, someone whose novels were not placed with covers facing outward at Prairie Lights, someone whose prose was not carved into benches or concrete sidewalk. And so I set my sights on Brainerd, who was born in Iowa City in 1868 and wrote ten novels before her death in 1942. Brainerd is a true child of Iowa City; she was born and spent her childhood at Plum Grove, a large brick Georgian home once owned by the first governor of Iowa Territory. Continue reading

Dead or Alive: Farley Mowat in Burgeo, Newfoundland


 Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage


–By Robin McCarthy

I worked for a while as a cook on a fishing-boat-turned-small-cruise-vessel that traveled from Maine to Western Greenland over the course of my summer aboard. Upon starting this new job, I was shown my berth and handed an ancient hardcopy of Farley Mowat’s The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, required reading for all crew headed to the southern coast of Newfoundland, which I was.

I read Mowat’s account of traveling the south coast by sea in moments before sleep and during long sea passages. My crewmates had all read it before my arrival, and they quizzed me daily on what was happening in the book. Oh, they’re running rum from Miquelon? Fantastic! Has he been dismasted yet? Keep reading! Continue reading

Dead or Alive: Carl Sandburg in Flat Rock, North Carolina



Dead or Alive is a new PANK blog column that will visit either the home of or memorial to a different writer each month. When Robin McCarthy was a child, her family vacations were pilgrimages to literary landmarks; the house where Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables, each home described in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond. She has been unsuccessful in breaking herself of this habit, and as an adult her frequent road trips are enhanced by incorporating some bookish tourism, most often the home or grave of a writer. These trips are often an opportunity to familiarize herself with an author she may have overlooked and always inspire deep reverence for the varied shapes writing careers assume and the surprising places in which they can be discovered.


by Robin McCarthy


Sandburg House 2012

It’s June of 2012 and dear friends are being married in the mountains of western North Carolina. The wedding is a three day affair held on the grounds of a lovely country resort in a town named Flat Rock, twenty driving hours from my home in the Northeast. The land is rolling, lush, verdant. There is a white peacock. There is a pond beside which to be wed. There are fiddles and pastel-colored drinks served in mason jars. And, a mile and a half up the road, there is the former home of Carl Sandburg.

This is a fact that takes some thinking. Carl Sandburg’s name is so closely linked to Chicago in my memory that I struggle to place him here, just outside Asheville, at the foot of the Appalachians. It is bewildering that the National Park Service operates a sprawling farm in North Carolina as the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site, when his papers and so much of his career are housed in Chicago. Yet, Sandburg and his wife, Paula, and their three daughters moved to the farm, named Connemarra after the region of Ireland, in 1945. He lived there twenty-two years until his death, and a third of his work was created there. Continue reading