It wasn’t all that easy to get to Harrow School from my London hotel. I had to make some Tube connections to the Harrow-on-the-Hill station—a misnomer, I noted in my journal, [because] I had to climb the hill, to the school. It was, I wrote, a lovely place with preppies running around in blue blazers, etc., and the faculty in gowns (modified). I learned in the oldest-looking building that it was, indeed, the oldest—and the only one remaining from Lord Byron’s (and Percy Florence Shelley’s) day.
Fortunately, I did not have to contend with any security measures. Not that there were all that many in 1999, pre-9/11. The schools where I taught most of my career—Aurora City Schools, Western Reserve Academy—both have far stricter access protocols now than they did before 9/11, before the spate of school shootings, one of which—February 2012—was in Chardon, Ohio, only about twenty-three miles north of Aurora.
I stopped a young Harrow faculty member and asked him where I could find Allegra Byron’s
In memory of
daughter of LORD BYRON
and CLAIRE CLAIRMONT
born in Bath 13•1•1817
died Bagnacavallo 19•4•1822
Erected by the Byron Society
Afterwards, I returned to thank the librarian. I told her about my Jack London work, and she immediately brightened, telling me she loved The Call of the Wild.
I walked down the hill, I wrote that day, feeling like quite-a-guy.
It’s a feeling I’ve had many times in my literary explorations. There is something so—what?—animating about finding a literary site you’ve read about so many times. About standing there. And it’s a feeling I had in so many places—in so many ways—from Dyea, Alaska (head of the Chilkoot Trail, a trail that figures prominently in The Call of the Wild), to Red Cloud, Nebraska (home of Willa Cather), to Montgomery, Alabama (where Scott Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre), to Ketchum, Idaho (Hemingway’s final home), to Grand Isle, Louisiana (setting for The Awakening), to Florida, Missouri (birthplace of Mark Twain), to Pittsfield, Massachusetts (Arrowhead—the house where Melville was living when he wrote Moby-Dick), and on and on and on and on.
Late in 2014, writer Richard Holmes (whose Shelley biography I’ve mentioned many times and whose Coleridge biography I admire, as well) wrote in The New York Review of Books about his two conclusions about writing biography. This paragraph hit me with the power that only truth can summon:
The first was the footsteps principle. I had come to believe that the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.
Well, I wasn’t going to be able to do this for Mary Shelley—not completely. But I was trying—and you always get an Effort grade, right?