Let us mark the spot …; let us erect a shrine to their memory; let us visit their tombs; let us indulge all the reality we can now have, of a sort of conference with these men, by repairing to the scene which, as far as they are at all on earth, they still inhabit!”
— William Godwin, Essay on Sepulchres, 1809, pp. 44–45.
On 11 February 1809—daughter Mary had turned 12 only two weeks earlier—Godwin published his Essay on Sepulchres, a pamphlet he printed and distributed at his own expense. (A nineteenth century version of Kindle Direct!) It was a short publication, just 141 small pages, many containing fewer than a hundred words. In Sepulchres, he urged that simple markers be installed over the burial sites over “the illustrious dead”—and that a comprehensive map or atlas be published so that the rest of us could visit those places, could stand in awe and admiration and gratitude. We could, he said, even have “a sort of conference with these men.” (And women?)
“Mr. Dyer, you’re a stalker!”
So declared one of my eighth grade students while I was showing 35-mm slides (am I dating myself?) of one of my visits to the gravesite of a famous author, in this case, Jack London. Okay, I admit I was somewhat interested—okay, obsessed—with London for, oh, fifteen years or so, from about 1982 to 1997. As I’ve already noted. And when I showed my slides—hundreds of them—of London and his world (including several of the gravesite on his ranch in Glen Ellen, California), well, my students were sometimes a little puzzled. Eighth graders are not really good about concealing their feelings, so during those years I could see bemused looks painted brightly on their faces, and comments like “You’re a stalker!” occasionally flapped like startled starlings from the maw of some drop-jawed thirteen-year-old.
But I couldn’t help it. I had to know. During my middle-school career, I practiced my stalker-scholarship only on the principal authors I taught: Shakespeare, Jack London, Anne Frank, Mary Shelley.
Things changed when I started teaching American literature to college-prep juniors at Western Reserve Academy in 2001 and was responsible for the entire American literary pantheon—writers from Anne Bradstreet to Tobias Wolff. As I began my journey, I felt a bit like those early wagon-train pioneers who crossed the endless prairies, only to discover the Rockies, then the desert, and then the Sierra Nevada confronting them. How could I possibly know everything about everyone I was going to teach? How could I possibly read everything they wrote, not just the texts I taught? It was impossible.
So I started doing it. My wife, Joyce, I am glad to report, is as mad as I, and soon we were spending all our summer vacations driving to literary sites all over the country, visiting the homes and haunts and graves of writers we taught. A partial list, in alphabetical order, of what we saw—
[to be continued]