Sunday Salon: What Makes for a Literary Pilgrimage?

What makes a trip a literary pilgrimage?

Somebody mentioned literary pilgrimages on their blog a few weeks ago which got me thinking about all the literary trips I’ve been on.  Listing them in my head I was able to come up with quite a few. But once I starting thinking about what makes a trip a pilgrimage, I had to wonder if I should count all of my book related trips as literary pilgrimages.

So some ground rules seemed in order.  We must agree that a pilgrimage is different from a trip.  A true pilgrimage is taken for spiritual reasons.  It’s a significant journey, often one involving hardship of some form.  The trip to Makkah is one most Muslims can only once in their lifetime.  The journey to Canterbury featured in Chaucer’s tales was taken only once a year and involved several days of travel for most pilgrims.

So we’re not talking about an afternoon at the bookstore even if you have to drive three towns over to get to yours.

I am defining a literary pilgrimage as a book related trip that involves staying away from home at least one night.  It’s also a trip taken specifically for book related reasons.

For example: several years ago, C.J. and I traveled to Portland, Oregon to visit Powell’s Bookstore.  We saw several other sites while in Portland and visited friends on the drive there, of course, but the reason for the trip was to visit Powell’s.  We had a great time.  I bought 12 books.   This trip counts as a full pilgrimage.

We have also taken several day trips to Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, California.  I highly recommend Jack London State Park. It’s the ranch Jack London lived on for many years where you’ll find the ruins of The Wolf House, the dream home London built with the money he earned from The Call of the Wild.  Since this is not an overnight trip for us, it only counts as a partial pilgrimage.

The same goes for Hannibal, Missouri, boyhood home of Mark Twain which I’ve visited several times since my family is from the St. Louis area which is only a few hours away from Hannibal.  Hannibal is also lots of fun, but not a pilgrimage if you live nearby or if you really went to Missouri to visit relatives, which I did.

I am counting my trip to New Haven, Connecticut where I spent a summer at Yale studying Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as part of  a National Endowment for the Humanities program as a full literary pilgrimage.  I traveled across the country and spent six weeks in New Haven living in a dorm room.  Hardships abounded.  I went to study Canterbury Tales and also because the program promised me access to the Yale library which is a marvel.  I spent even more time wondering the stacks and reading the obscure wonders I found there than I did reading Chaucer.

While at Yale I traveled to Hartford to see Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s homes and to Lenox, Massachusetts, to visit The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home.  Neither of these count has full literary pilgrimages since I did not stay overnight at either location.

While visiting England, C.J. and I took two trips outside of London, one to Canterbury and one to York.  I’m counting both as full literary pilgrimages because we stayed overnight in both and went to each for mostly literary reasons.

Canterbury because of Chaucer and because we found a bed and breakfast in a building that would have been the home of David Copperfield had he been a real person instead of a character in a book and because from Canterbury we could take a day trip to Rochester which has a Dickens Center.  Rochester, England turned out to be a charming town, though the Dickens Center is basically a tourist trap.  Canterbury is wonderful, especially if you stay overnight since the tourists are all there on day trips from London.  After four in the afternoon, you have the entire Medieval town to yourself.

York itself was not a literary destination, but from York we could take a day trip to Haworth where we visited the Bronte Parsonage.  This trip was taken via train and bus and took up the entire day but was completely worth it.  The Bronte Parsonage is probably the best literary pilgrimage site I’ve ever been to.  C.J., who had never read the Brontes at the time, loved it as well.  While York is well worth a trip on its own, we only went there because there was no way I was flying all the way to England and not seeing the Bronte Parsonage.  I’m a lifelong Bronte fanboy.

We’ve been to many, many other literary sites–Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris, the home of Georges Sand also in Paris, the home of Anne Frank in Amsterdam, Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London, Oscar Wilde’s grave in Paris, The Strand Bookstore in New York City, City Light’s Books in San Francisco, the Winnie-the-Pooh display at the Public Library in New York City .  But none of these trips we taken solely, or primarily for literary reasons and many of them were not overnight trips.

Which leaves me with four literary pilgrimages, Powell’s Bookstore in Portland; Yale University; Canterbury, England and Haworth Parsonage in England.

What literary pilgrimages have you taken?

23 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: What Makes for a Literary Pilgrimage?

  1. Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott. Bateman’s, which is Rudyard Kipling’s house. Both lovely. Uppark sort of counts as that’s where HG Wells’ mum was housekeeper and he spent his early years there, but that’s not why we went. Oh, and a day in Alloway to visit all things Robert Burns.

  2. Well, following your rules 🙂 not that many. But I did visit Haworth in Britain, which I loved, and as long as I was in the neighborhood I also visited Sylvia Plath’s grave, which was a bit surreal as it involved a Pakistani cab driver who kept asking me if Plath was my sister and an old man at the cemetery who shrieked at me when I asked if he knew where her grave was. Otherwise, the other overnight trip was to Walnut Grove, MN, where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived for a while and where On the Banks of Plum Creek is set. The LIW Museum there isn’t much to look at, but the sod dugout house on the banks of Plum Creek is wonderful. But the waitress at Nellie’s Diner was kind of creepy. Oh, and twice I’ve done weekend workshops at the Iowa Writer’s School in Iowa City, and spent time at the wonderful Prairie Lights Books.

    1. I think the Laura Ingalls Wilder trip is an excellent pilgrimage since there was relatively little to see. It sounds like a journey only a true believer would make. The Plath trip is an excellent story, even if I wouldn’t count it as a true pilgrimage.

  3. The summer after I graduated from high school, my parents asked me where I’d like to go for vacation, since we all realized it might be the last family vacation we’d take. I said I wanted to go to Oxford, Mississippi, to see the home of William Faulkner. And so we did. We read a couple of his books together before the trip (mom wasn’t impressed, Dad thought they were cool), and then off we went. We saw the various sites, we had a map of Yoknapatawpha with us, and generally had a whee of a time.

    Last summer I traveled to Kansas and spent a week in Chase County, following the trail of William Least Heat-Moon’s Prairy Erth. And in my most memorable pilgrimage, I traveled to Clarksdale, Mississippi, for the Juke Joint Festival, and stayed at Uncle Henry’s at Moon Lake, the old Moon Lake Club that featured in so much of Tennessee Williams’s writing. My great claim to fame is that the post I wrote abou that got picked up by the Moon Lake Improvement Club for the history section of their web page, and it’s now a footnote in Wikipedia. Be still, my heart. 😉

    1. I think your comment really gets at the heard of what makes a literary pilgrimage different from other trips. I’ve been a footnote on Wikipedia myself for an author interview I did years ago.

  4. I think by your definition, my trip to Haworth might be the only literary pilgrimage I’ve taken. I went to Yorkshire several years ago largely because Haworth was there. I traveled around the area and saw lots of other stuff, too, including the site of the school that was probably the basis of Lowood. I agree that Haworth is well worth visiting–I loved walking around the countryside near the town. (And I may be going again next year! Hooray!)

    I made a day trip to Bath one year largely because of the Jane Austen connection, but it didn’t have an especially pilgrimage-y feel to it. I was in London, and it was a handy day trip that my mom, whom I’d brought along, would particularly enjoy. As I think about it, though, my trips to England as a whole have a pilgrimage sort of feel. A lot of my love of England is rolled up in my love of English literature. I don’t think I’d be all that interested in going if it weren’t the home of Shakespeare, Sayers, Wilde, Hardy, Austen, the Brontes, etc.

  5. Jack London State Park sounds like a lovely place to visit; perhaps I will make it there someday. I would also like to make it to City Light’s Books and Anne Frank’s home. Of places you have been, I have also visited Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. I was on a high school Europe trip and managed to wrangle some free time so I could visit the bookstore – a marvellous coincidence but it doesn’t fit your definition of pilgrimage. I hope to take a full literary pilgrimage to Paris someday! I also visited the Winnie-the-Pooh display in NYC, along with a number of other bookstores (my favourite was the children’s bookstore Books of Wonder) – this one fits the definition, as my primary reason for going was to visit the NYPL and bookstores.

    The trip I really believe to my literary pilgrimage, though, occurred last August when I went to Oxford. The primary purpose was to visit Tolkien grave’s (I never visit graves, but this was important to me), and do other Tolkien/children’s lit related site-seeing. I took a river cruise following the path Charles Dodgson would have taken telling his story to Alice, did a tour of the Bodleian Library (where an exhibit of maps and illustrations from children’s books was on display at the time – I nearly died with delight at seeing Tolkien’s art firsthand), spent many hours at Blackwell’s bookstores, and visited other Tolkien-connected sites. Oxford is a beautiful city. Now that I’m getting back into blogging, I will have to make a post like this, about my trips to New York and Oxford. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Oxford definately counts in my book. I’ve not made a pilgrimage to a gravesite, but I have been to many. George Eliot in Highgate Cemetary in London is one. Jack London and his wife are both buried near the Wolf House in Jack London State Park.

  6. Franz Kafka’s home in Prague, Jack London’s in California, want to go to the John Steinbeck Centre next time I visit my sister who lives in San Francisco and City Lights bookstore. Does Elvis’s house in Mississippi count? (joke). With me it is more of a bit of travel to a place and then see if an author lived nearby and then visit so I can;t say pilgrimage covers it. Enjoyed the places you visited though if only via hearsay.

  7. I don’t think I’ve done any! You’d think I’d have managed at least one or two, but I can’t think of any trips I’ve taken purely for book reasons. My affection for London is certainly colored by stuff I’ve read in books, but I love it on its own merits. So, yeah! None so far! I need to step up my game.

    1. Maybe they’re not for everybody. There are quite a few you can take from London next time you’re there. We loved Canterbury and York both, and from the comments above, Bath looks terrific. I’ve always wanted to do the Thomas Hardy tour, myself.

  8. You’ve got me thinking and I’ve only come up with one! A trip to WB Yeats grave in Sligo, but given I live in Northern Ireland then that’s a pretty short pilgramage! On a 3 month trip to the US I did specifically go to San Francisco because of Tales of the City. Does that count?!

  9. Tales of the City certainly does count. Did you visit Tales related sites while in San Francisco? I often take out of town guests to Macondry Lane, which is the model for Barbury Lane when I can. There are still many places mentioned in the book that you can go to, but not as many as there used to be.

  10. Absolutely LOVE this concept – and while I have not taken any “full” literary pilgrimages, I have many dreams for future ones. When I went to Paris in 2011 I had many goals, but one was to visit the St. Antoine faubourg, home of the DeFarge wineshop in Tale of Two Cities. I also went to the original Bastille (which is nothing much to look at if you don’t know the history) and the Conciergerie. I took many pictures and continue to use them when I teach the unit.

    1. We saw so many literary sites in Paris that I was very tempted to count it. But the truth is we went to Paris to see Paris. I think most Americans who visit go for just that reason.

  11. I can think of two, from my last trip to England. One was to Oxford, where I tried to find Peter Wimsey sites (I’m sure I looked a bit strange swooning over Balliol College’s entrance). But it was Chawton and Jane Austen’s house that felt most like a pilgrimage. I pored over every inch of the house and grounds, reading every placard, and buying relics. Thinking about it, I guess I could also count my first trip, when we went to Winchester just to see her grave, and the house where she died.

    I’ve done more historical pilgrimages than literary ones, really.

  12. Top of my list for my 2nd trip to NYC was to visit Winnie the Pooh in the children’s library, and I engineered a holiday to Northumbria so we could visit Barter Books in Alnwick. Basically I try to build literary visits into every holiday – but choose the destination first, then look for the bookish things to do – does this count as pilgrimages, or should it be the other way around? Whatever, a holiday without a bookish experience would be missing something.

    1. It sounds to me like the Northumbria trip to Barter Books could be a pilgrimige. To be a true pilgrimage the purpose of the trip has to be literary. If you’re seeing New York as secondary to Winnie the Pooh, then you can count it. It’s a fine line sometimes.

Comments are closed.