Bringing Books, Authors Back to Life
Some of the most renowned writers and poets in recent history have hailed from the United States, and a number of tiny museums provide literature fans with the opportunity to pay tribute to these icons. Specifically, museums in Salinas, CA, West Hills, NY, Richmond, VA, and Montgomery, AL, honor greats like John Steinbeck, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Here's a rundown on each.
National Steinbeck Center: Salinas, California
No literary museum is as famous as the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA. The facility pays homage to Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, a native of Salinas, who wrote about the life of California Central Valley farmers in numerous books including "Of Mice and Men," "The Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden."
This museum is all about interactivity. One wing boasts multisensory exhibits for all ages and backgrounds, priceless artifacts, entertaining displays, educational programs and research archives. In another part of the museum, 7 themed theaters continuously showcase "East of Eden," "Cannery Row" and other movies based on Steinbeck's novels -- adding to the immersion.
Perhaps the museum's most popular attraction is the annual Steinbeck Festival. This shindig, held every August, attracts Steinbeck scholars from all over the world to discuss different aspects of the author's work. The theme of the 2008 event: Steinbeck and Mexico, where he spent time in the 1930s and wrote "The Sea of Cortez," among other books. Many literary experts regard the works of Steinbeck's Mexico oeuvre as some of his best.
After a day learning how Salinas used to be, get out and explore the modern-day city by driving down Highway 101 and stopping at roadside produce stands. For lunch, stop at Hullaballoo Restaurant, an eatery in Oldtown Salinas that prides itself on using only local ingredients. Steinbeck would be proud.
Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site: West Hills, New York
Considering how much he worshipped nature, poet Walt Whitman would probably wince to know that Long Islanders have named a mall in Huntington, NY, after him. Still, the understated but informative Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center in nearby West Hills definitely does the writer justice.
This 19th-century farmhouse where Whitman was born (in 1819) and raised has been restored to provide shelter for an exhaustive exhibit titled, "Walt Whitman -- Long Island and the World." The exhibit uses photos, ancient manuscripts and memorabilia to tell the story of Whitman during his time on Long Island, where he lived until 1873.
The exhibit is largely self-guided; on slow days, you'll be hard-pressed to find any interpretive guides beyond the front desk. Still, the history is irresistible; despite international fame for his 1955 book of poems, "Leaves of Grass," Whitman spent most of his life on Long Island, running newspapers (one of which still exists today) and writing in his spare time.
No trip to the birthplace of Walt Whitman would be complete without a visit to the aforementioned Walt Whitman Mall, which has nearly 100 stores. For dinner, head to Cirella's, one of the most highly acclaimed Italian eateries on Long Island. Who knows? Back before suburbia, this could have been the spot that inspired one of Whitman's paeans to nature.
Poe Museum: Richmond, Virginia
America's Shakespeare, also known as Edgar Allan Poe, spent much of his life living and working in Richmond, VA, so it's fitting that the city is now home to the Poe Museum. Opened in 1922, the museum is only blocks away from Poe's first home and his first place of employment, the Southern Literary Messenger, in the city's historic Shockoe Bottom district.
The museum has amassed the world's most extensive collection of Poe's manuscripts, letters and personal belongings. A self-guided tour of separate exhibits allows visitors to see Richmond as it was during Poe's time (the 1800s), as well as memorabilia, first editions and medical explanations for the author's untimely death in 1849.
Perhaps the most notable exhibit is dubbed "The Raven Room" -- a gallery that boasts 43 original illustrations by James Carling created to accompany Poe's 1882 book, "The Raven." Ultimately, Poe selected another illustrator, Gustave Dore, to illustrate his book. Ever since, the rejected images have attracted a sort of cult following.
After the museum, head out into Shockoe Bottom, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. While you're there, do what Poe would have done, and grab a pint at the Richbrau Brewing Company. One of the most popular brews at Richmond's first brewery is the Shockoe Espresso Stout, made with espresso beans from a coffee shop next door.
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum: Montgomery, Alabama
As far as literary couples go, the Fitzgeralds were quite a pair. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote legendary books such as "The Great Gatsby" and "This Side of Paradise," while Zelda Fitzgerald specialized in short stories. When the duo rented a modest brick house on the outskirts of Montgomery, AL, in 1931, F. Scott worked on "Tender is the Night," and Zelda penned her only novel, "Save Me the Waltz."
Today, the bottom floor of that house stands as the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, the only museum dedicated to this prolific pair. Among the items on display are typewriters, two marble-topped tables from Zelda's childhood home, several of Zelda's paintings, and many photographs and letters the couple exchanged.
Visitors to the museum are greeted by a friendly guide, who shares fascinating trivia about the writers' lives and encourages guests to explore the house on their own. In one corner, an optional 30-minute video documentary about the Fitzgeralds is well worth the time.
After touring the museum, grab lunch at Chris' Hot Dogs, a restaurant near the Capitol that has born witness to Montgomery history since 1917 and hasn't changed much since then. The menu is written on a big board at the end of the room; once you've ordered, sit at the counter or in a booth and chat with locals until the dogs arrive.