Journeys to Authors’ Graves
in Upstate New York
IN the spring of 2016 I went to Los Angeles for the annual conference of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs, fondly known to scribblers as AWP. I flagged a taxi outside my hotel to the convention hall and I got an Iranian driver. He wanted to know what the conference was about. He said, “You mean there are poets?” I said yes, there were. That got him excited.
I said, “You love your poets in Iran, don’t you? How about Omar Khayyam ?” And I recited a few verses from the Rubaiyat that I knew in English, which pleased him grandly.
He said that in Iran he made pilgrimages to Khayyam’s tomb, and that many others do as well. “He was an atheist, you know. But we go anyway.”
I thought about that encounter for a long time. Americans go a-pilgrimming too. Thousands go to Graceland every year, to the DC monuments, or to the Gettysburg battlefield. Many travel to monasteries to stay as guests in silence. I had visited the graves of Robert Frost and Kenneth Rexroth. My Massachusetts cousins graciously took me to Emily Dickinson’s plot. Those were pilgrimages too.
But many of us have an aversion to cemeteries, for a variety of reasons. We associate them with our personal grief, or maybe we have not reconciled ourselves to the reality that our own lives have an end date, and some are afraid of ghosts. My friend the poet Mihaela Moscoliuc has said that in her native Romania people commonly go on Sundays directly from church to a cemetery, bring their picnic lunches and spend a good share of the day communing with the spirits of their dead family members.
Here, some never visit the graves of their grandparents and other elders. In fact, among the things that people of older countries find puzzling in America are our disconnection from our history, and a passivity toward our ancestors. Some know little about their great-grandparents. Many could not name a living American poet, far less a dead one. Yet, I think if we did, if we did recognize those singers and storytellers and cultural shamans who came before us, if we noted not only what they wrote, when they lived and where their remains went to rest, it would help us preserve a sense of ourselves, instill a sense of lineage in our young and wavering culture.
Taking on the task
It occurred to me that someone needed to write a travelogue for literary pilgrims. I was driving through New York’s Finger Lakes region with my partner Betsy, and we decided to take a detour to a cemetery on a back road in Lakemont where I had heard that Paul Bowles, American novelist, translator and composer, is buried. I was a little astonished to find him there in a rather lonely little cemetery, three hundred miles from his birth place in New York City and thousands of miles from Tangier where he lived most of his life and died. I left a small stone on his marker, where someone else had left a bronzed pine cone on a slender stick. When I told my friends in Rochester where Bowles is buried, they were, every one of them, surprised. Why was he buried there? What was his connection to Upstate?
It was just such questions that I set out to answer when I decided to take on this project. I would concentrate on Upstate New York, my home ground. I would search for the graves of authors Upstate and record my journeys. I would search out not only the celebrated writers buried in New York soil, like Bowles, Mark Twain, John Gardner and James Fenimore Cooper, but the lesser-known who also deserve our reverence and respect. Moreover, I would call this blog an account of journeys, rather than of pilgrimages since, while a trip to the grave of an author whom you have loved and who may have had a profound influence on your life could certainly be called a pilgrimage, the discoveries that I hope this blog leads you to—of writers you may be only slightly aware of, or only discover through this blog—will be perhaps not pilgrimages except by the broadest definition. But, by going to their graves, and being introduced to their books, they may become part of your journey through New York literature.
I want this blog to do more than revere the writers and their resting places; I want it to help raise Upstate New Yorkers’ awareness of our literary heritage. I am an Upstater by identity, and this is an Upstate blog. Had I included New York City, its exurbs and Long Island, those regions would have dominated it and made it just another guide to the big city.
I have included one person, Edward R. Crone, who was not a writer, but as the real-life model for the character Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five he is an icon of modern American literature. He is in his family’s plot in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester.
Without a doubt, I will find that I have left someone out. Probably more than one. My readers will let me know, I hope. But here I want to lay before the reader my criteria for inclusion. The writer must have published at least one significant full-length book, play, or screenplay (recognizing, of course, that a full-length book of poems is usually slim by comparison to most other genres; recognizing also that screenplays are often written by two or more authors). Pamphlet writers then, and those whose works have appeared only in journals or magazines, are not included. The individual must be remembered primarily as a writer, with certain exceptions if the writer is best known for something else but has written an unarguably important book, such as Susan B. Anthony who is famous for her activism, yet co-authored the massive History of Woman Suffrage with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper. Lastly, the author, or the author’s ashes, must be interred in Upstate New York.
They were here too!
I have included an Appendix of Upstate New York authors [to come], or those who had a notable association with Upstate, but who, for one reason or another, are buried elsewhere or in some cases nowhere at all, their ashes stored or dispersed according to their wishes. That section includes such notable writers as Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of The Oxbow Incident, and Samuel Hopkins Adams, author of Tales of a Grandfather, Canal Town and It Happened One Night, and L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. While cemeteries are not museums, they are often a microcosm of an area’s history and culture, and for that reason I often make mention of other notables interred therein.
This blog makes no pretension to in-depth biography or literary criticism (and I do not call myself a scholar, and not an historian, only a writer). Nor is it truly a travelogue. However, you might consider it a pathway to the works of those included herein. All of them are worth further exploration. All had reputations that extended far beyond the borders of our state, and yet they have made the ground of our Upstate New York heritage richer. The Annotated Bibliography included herein [to come], is neither scholarly nor complete, but meant to serve as a list of titles for anyone wishing to pursue these writers’ works. In the cases of those who were most prolific, I have listed only the most prominent titles, or those that I like the best. Enough to get you started.
This blog is for the curious traveler who needs no excuse to search out-of-the-way Upstate New York, its back roads, rivers, bars, diners, parks and other places worth a short sojourn. It is also for the traveler who shares my compulsion to explore books. In my research I drove thousands of miles, visited local libraries, town halls and delis, used book stores, places that also add to our sense of home ground. Off-the-path Upstate New York is a soulful place, not the “colorless hinterland” that Norman Mailer once called it. Many times I swept the gravestones clean of dirt and scraped off the moss and bird-droppings. Often I talked to local people who were unaware that a noted author is buried in their neighborhood, but usually they seemed intrigued and happy to find out. I met wonderful people who cheerfully gave me directions to remote cemeteries, and where to get a beer and a burger afterward.
Traveler, consider my Upstate, my home ground.
Rochester, New York
Steven Huff is the author of three collections of poetry, including A Fire in the Hill , new from Blue Horse Press, and two story collections, including Blissful and Other Stories (Cosmographia, 2017). He is editor of Knowing Knott: Essays on an American Poet (Tiger Bark, 2017). He is a Pushcart Prize winner in fiction and an O. Henry finalist. The Founding Publisher and Editor at Tiger Bark Press, he teaches creative writing at the Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program at Pine Manor College in Boston. He lives in Rochester NY.
Text and top photo copyright 2018 by Steven Huff
Author photo copyright 2015 by Jim Dusen