PHOTOS: Mary Ann DeSantis+provided
The South is known for its stories, especially those written by legendary writers whose works transcend time. Some of these great authors have left behind homes in the South that became mythical destinations for generations of readers.
The late poet and author Maya Angelou said, “When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading…”
Spending a day at the homes of these literary legends provides a glimpse into how they lived, found writing inspiration, and gained their own sense of self. You also might discover your own reading muse!
MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS
Cross Creek, Florida
If the “official” Southern Literary Trail ever expands into Florida, the first stop should be the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and longtime Cross Creek resident, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, whose land and homestead are now a Florida state park. Best known for her classics, “The Yearling” and “Cross Creek,” Rawlings came to Florida in 1928. She found her “place of enchantment,” as she called it, in rural Alachua County surrounded by orange groves. Her first husband, Charles Rawlings, did not find it as charming. The couple divorced in 1933 and Rawlings, quite an independent woman for her time, kept up the property while writing a string of successful books and stories. She remarried Ocala hotelier Norman Baskin in 1941, and it was Baskin who returned many of the home’s original furnishings and Rawlings’ beloved books when the house was opened to the public.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO: Rawlings’ home offers an accurate glimpse of Florida cracker life with chickens still running around the yard and oranges and grapefruit that are yours for the picking. Seriously, park guides insist you “take home some fruit from one of Marjorie’s trees.”
TOURS: Thursday–Sunday, 10 a.m., 11 a.m., and on the hour from 1–4 p.m.
Photo courtesy of Cody Eason, Dept. of Alabama Tourism
F. SCOTT & ZELDA FITZGERALD
“The Great Gatsby” author may not have been Southern, but his stunningly beautiful wife Zelda Sayre was a Montgomery native, and during one of their saner moments she talked him into moving to her hometown where they could have some semblance of a normal life. After all, the Fitzgeralds were known for living like gypsies, averaging only five months per stop during their two decades of marriage. Although they resided in Montgomery less than a year, it is the only existing home where the Fitzgeralds lived as a family. The home is a showcase of historical materials from the Jazz Age and Fitzgerald’s writing career. It’s also where the seeds for the Southern Literary Trail — which officially runs from Georgia to Mississippi — were planted when the organizational meeting was held there in 2005.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO: Most visitors are surprised to learn that Zelda was a talented artist. Many of her works were destroyed, but a sizeable collection is displayed in the home. After Zelda’s death, scholars reappraised her artwork, which shows influences from Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe. One noted curator said the surviving art “represents the work of a talented, visionary woman who rose above tremendous odds to create a fascinating body of work—one that inspires us to celebrate the life that might have been.”
TOURS: Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m. –3 p.m., and Sunday, Noon–5 p.m.
Just down the road from Montgomery is Monroeville, the hometown of legendary writer Harper Lee. The author’s roots run deep in this southeastern Alabama town that was the model for her fictional Maycomb in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the more recent “Go Set a Watchman.” Lee’s childhood home was demolished years ago and a historical marker stands at the corner, but the Old Monroe County Courthouse is now a museum dedicated to Lee and her childhood best friend Truman Capote, who lived in Monroeville and inspired her character Dill in her most famous novel.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO: The 1904 courthouse is a beautiful example of Romanesque and Georgian architecture. Lee often sat in the courtroom’s balcony to watch her father, who was the model for Atticus Finch, practice law. The room was replicated in Hollywood for the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck.
TOURS: Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m. –4 p.m.
For me, a Mississippi native, the Southern Literary Trail could start and end with Eudora Welty’s home in Jackson’s Belhaven area. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author captured the emotions of growing up in the South as well as a sense of place that few writers ever achieve. However, her treatment of universal themes such as justice, adversity, and grace crossed all regional boundaries. She had a lot in common with Florida writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Both women were fiercely independent and loved the company of other writers. Coincidentally, they both graduated from the University of Wisconsin. Any book lover would feel at home at the Eudora Welty House and Garden, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2004. Books are stacked everywhere, and Welty’s guests often remarked that they had to move her books to sit down. The beautiful garden, featured in the book “One Writer’s Garden,” offers an explosion of camellias that were planted by Welty’s mother.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO: The Eudora Welty House is one of the most intact literary houses in America in terms of its authenticity. The exterior, interior, and furnishings are as they were in 1986 when Welty bequeathed her home to the State of Mississippi with paintings, photographs, objects d’art, furniture, and thousands of books left in place. She did not want a “house about her” but about literature and the cultural arts.
TOURS: Tuesday–Friday by appointment
The Trail Continues
Entire books have been written about Southern writers, and the list keeps growing. Here are other literary legends whose homes or historic sites are also worth visiting:
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ZORA NELL HURSTON
Oxford (Rowan Oak home) and New Albany, Mississippi (Faulkner Literary Gardens)[/column]
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Asheville, North Carolina[/column]