When I travel (remember travel?) I try to visit the places of famous writers. It doesn’t matter much whether I’ve read a lot of their material; I know kindred spirits when I feel them. Last summer—the one before the pandemic—I had to make a business trip to Oxford. Now Oxford has a long, long list of literary illuminati, and I didn’t have much free time. My hotel, however, turned out to be just a couple of blocks from the house of J. R. R. Tolkien. One patch between meetings, I wandered over to the house. It’s behind a high wall, so you can’t see much. Like most European private homes, it isn’t ostentatious—over here we like to make it obvious when we’re wealthy. In any case, I stood as long as a stranger can comfortably stand outside someone else’s house and tried to commune with the spirit of the former occupant.
Just the other day I noticed a New York Times headline that stated a movement is afoot in merry old England to purchase Tolkien’s house to make it a museum. Although there’s no scientific way to prove it, people are somehow connected to the places they live. There’s no other sensation like returning to your home town. If, for some strange reason, anyone wishes to recall me after I’m gone (perhaps my pen name will take off someday), they’ll find precious little. Not one of my pre-college homes still stands. Not that that’s that unusual in the low rent district. Still, when I visit my hometown, small as it is, almost nothing of me remains but it still feels like I belong.
I can’t say that I felt much other than my own awe at standing outside Tolkien’s house. It’s on a residential street, and people were driving and walking by. I was the only one who seemed to be hanging about. Probably a bit suspicious-looking wearing a tweed jacket and in general appearing like a displaced academic. Much of the tourism industry, however, is based on the draw of certain locations because someone famous lived there. We want to be in touch with them. Show our respects, perhaps. If visiting Oxford weren’t always a work occasion for me, I could quite enjoy wandering its literary haunts and ending up for a leisurely afternoon spent in Blackwells. We congregate in such places for a reason. I’ve lost track of all the authors’ homes I’ve visited over the years. Each time, I’m compelled to say, I’m glad someone thought to preserve them.