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'Writing America' visits some of the nation's great literary landmarks

Tribune Newspapers

"Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee: A Reader's Companion"

Rutgers University Press, $34.95

She does not purport to be comprehensive. Rather, author Shelley Fisher Fishkin has chosen a baker's dozen of literary names and places to explore in this fascinating literary guide to the United States. She begins at Walt Whitman's birthplace in Long Island, N.Y., journeys to Walden Pond and the New Bedford Whaling National Park before stopping at Harriet Beecher Stowe's house in Connecticut.

She continues her literary trek by visiting Mark Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, Mo., and the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn., moves westward by remembering the massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D., and then back east to Paul Laurence Dunbar's house in Dayton, Ohio.

She drops by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City and examines the Main Street Historic District in Sauk Centre, Minn., before discussing the work of Asian-American writers at Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco and the Manzanar National Historic Site in the California desert; African-American literary culture in Harlem; and Mexican-American writers in Texas. She ends her journey along the Hollywood Boulevard Commercial and Entertainment District.

"One can grasp more fully the roots of these writers' frustration and despair in visits to the locales that shaped their art …," she writes. Moreover, a community's sense of identity, Fishkin says, shapes not only which writers achieve "canonical status … but which of their works become canonical, as well."

Each site consists of a lengthy essay exploring the individual writer's background and work and what the writers experienced at these particular sites. Most important, perhaps, Fishkin makes clear that these writers' works should not be considered in a vacuum. Thus, she eagerly searches for echoes in contemporary literature.

Thoreau's Walden, she suggests, inspired later generations of writers from William Carlos Williams and Wendell Berry to Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez. In addition, Fishkin accompanies each essay with discussions of related sites and a list of further reading. An exploration of the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, for example, not only leads to a discussion of Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty but also a study of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, in Greenwich Village, which killed 146 workers, mostly young and female Jewish and Italian immigrants.

The book is a vibrant and thoughtful guide through American literary history.

"Oxford"

Interlink, $17

Many people only know Oxford through books. In 1817, John Keats called it "the finest City in the world," and in the Victorian literary classic, "Jude the Obscure," Thomas Hardy describes it as "(G)rey stoned and dun-roofed," a city of "many spires" and "domes."

Author Martin Garrett also knows Oxford, but from a firsthand basis: He studied and met his wife there, and here he fondly recalls the city's rich literary traditions. Few writers are more associated with Oxford than Lewis Carroll. Indeed, Garrett notes, readers "have delighted in spotting Oxford references and visiting Alice-connected sites" since the publication of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" in 1865 and "Through the Looking-Glass" in 1872.

Another literary figure closely associated with Oxford is J.R.R. Tolkien. "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," he began in 1930. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other literary friends would often meet in the wood-paneled back room of the Eagle and Child pub, sometimes at the larger Lamb and Flag across the street or in Lewis' sitting room at Magdalen College. Lately, Oxford has been the preferred home of various crime writers, from Dorothy L. Sayers to Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse novels.

Garrett discusses such quintessentially Oxford pastimes as rowing and punting. But he also examines its complicated history and the tension between "town and gown" that dates to the Middle Ages. There also are chapters on architecture, religion (including the famous Oxford Movement), theater, film and art. He explores, too, the changing demographics of Oxford and its industrialization, spurred largely in part by the extraordinary growth of the automobile industry.

June Sawyers is a freelance reporter.

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