What is it about birthplaces? All writers have at some point been born, of course, and born in a particular place too, but not all births and birth-places are celebrated. Very few authors are helpfully imagined as babies; one object that usefully describes the comic impropriety of this is the display of John Ruskin’s christening-bonnet at Brantwood, which seems altogether beside the point. On the whole, where there is excitement about ‘cradles of genius’ it’s because there’s a desire to celebrate national genius arising appropriately out of a native place.
Shakespeare’s cradle, Stratford
This is a period reconstruction of a Tudor cradle which you can find in a first floor room in Shakespeare’s ‘Birthplace’ in Stratford. The room was first identified and displayed as the ‘birthroom’ by the actor-manager David Garrick in conjunction with his Jubilee celebrations in 1769; The desire to view Stratford as the place in which Shakespeare was born (as opposed where he had lived or died) turns up just a little earlier. It gave rise in turn to a Victorian cult of Shakespeare as an infant and a young boy. Recently scholars have agreed that the house itself was extensively remodelled well after Shakespeare’s birth, although it does occupy the probable site. Celebrating Shakespeare’s birth here was for the late eighteenth century through to perhaps the mid twentieth century was a way of celebrating Englishness; recently, the emphasis has shifted towards telling a story of the birth of global genius.
Also on Shakespeare and Stratford see http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=127
Samuel Johnson’s ‘Birthroom’, Lichfield
This is a room in the house in which Samuel Johnson was born and brought up. The museum has devoted different rooms to different phases in his life. The display claims that Johnson was born in this room; to give visitors the feeling, in lieu of an actual cradle we are provided with Johnson’s autobiographical meditations upon himself as a child. The importance of Lichfield as a literary location was developed really by James Boswell’s biography (1791), which emphasised Johnson’s rise from humble provincial origins in his father’s bookshop to the author of the magisterial Dictionary and moralist for his time and subsequently.
The bed Robert Burns was born in, Alloway
This is the recent redisplay of the Cottage and the alcove bed in which Burns is said to have been born. The Cottage itself was celebrated as Burns’ Birthplace from the 1790s onwards, and visited by admirers as such. Such visitors invariably commented on how remarkable it was that a bard should arise from such humble beginnings. This display of illuminated baby nightclothes seems to conceive the birth of Scotland’s national poet as an ambiguous amalgam of enlightenment, ghostliness, and apotheosis.
Also on Burns and Alloway see http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=124
Mark Twain’s Birthplace, Missouri
This is a period cradle housed within the actual log cabin in which Samuel Clemens was born. It is remarkable not just because it celebrates the poverty-struck origin of the first wholly ‘American’ writer, Samuel Clemens, but because it is enclosed in a large aggressively modernist and very expensive building.