It is a widely held romantic notion, that by gazing out of the window of a room in which a favourite author once sat, we gain privileged access to that very same view that inspired the great works of the famous writer. The extent to which our admired authors were taken by their window views, however, is a matter of contention. Older housing stock, with the exception of that built by wealth for show, often turns its back upon the wind, and therefore upon the view, and chooses smaller over larger windows for the sake of snugness. Nowadays too (I reflect, as I watch with regret yet another undergraduate pull down a blind over a window in the Reading Room so that she can continue to stare into her computer screen free of the glare of natural light), the real purpose of windows has been forgotten. For most of history, as far as the writer is concerned, windows were not primarily desirable for the view they offered (which must frequently have come with a nasty draught), but for the natural light they offered to assist with reading and writing. They were not, in short, solely for looking out, but for letting light in. Hence, John Joseph Enneking’s canvas Interior with Figure (1892) shows a man reading with his back to the window to make the best use of the light.
This said, the most celebrated instances of writer’s windows dramatise the author actually writing on the window-pane itself. Of these types of windows within the writer’s house museum, the most remarkable is in the grey clapboard house known as the Old Manse, Concord, Massachusetts. It was here in 1834 that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his seminal essay ‘Nature’, and here that on July 9th 1842 Nathaniel Hawthorne and his new wife Sophia Peabody came to take up tenancy on their wedding night. They lived here for the next three years, leaving in 1845. The most interesting room within the house is certainly the study. In there, a single window pane is marked with alternating inscriptions that form a conversation between wife and husband about the view:
Man’s accidents are God’s purposes
Sophia A. Hawthorne 1843
This is his study
The smallest twig
leans clear against the sky
Composed by my wife
And written with her diamond
inscribed by my
husband at sunset
April 3d, 1843
In the gold light
Famous by at least 1897 when Theodore Wolfe recorded it (inaccurately) in his homes and haunts book Literary Shrines, Shirley Hoover Biggers’ gazetteer of 2000 (titled American Author Houses, Museums, Memorials, and Libraries) comments with regard to this inscription (‘the main attraction’) that ‘It was the study… where the Hawthornes left their most indelible mark, both figuratively and literally.’ The power of this inscription lies first in this supposed ‘indelibility’. The glass is imagined as more enduring than paper and more integral to the house-structure (physically of course this is mistaken; glass is more fragile, and panes of glass can be lifted readily from their frames). It lies too in the way it dramatises writing and reading in the historical moment: it captures writing forever within the glass; imagining hand and writing in a defined instant of lit time, it is a sort of vitrine of writing.
On my own visit in 2007, we saw this inscription, the further two by Sophia Hawthorne in the dining-room downstairs, and another, at the time much less celebrated because much less accessible, being in the attic, accessed by narrow and slightly rickety stairs. Adventuring with the curator, frustrated with the lack of custom and anxious to show the haunted rainy-day back-spaces of the house celebrated by Hawthorne in his essay in Mosses from an Old Manse (1882), he showed us a pane in one of the attic windows bearing Hawthorne’s signature. If the study-window inscription stakes a claim at once to the study as a space of the visionary and the view as Hawthorne’s imaginative heritage and territory, the signature in the attic lays claim to the whole house’s history, for the attic is full of graffiti and writings by older hands than Hawthorne’s, upon which he comments in Mosses, as he hunts among the old books heaped up there for ‘any living thought which should burn like a coal of fire, or glow like an inextinguishable gem’.
The inscriptions prove to have a special ability to capture the imagination of tourists. They feature on postcards, and fire enthusiastic, if often inaccurate, entries on Tripadvisor. Their appeal depends on the way they dramatise both the act of writing and of reading. They bypass literary and print culture to animate a particular moment in time, and a particular moment of vision. Ultimately, they require a sort of reading and reader quite foreign to that constructed by print, standing there, in the right light, to decipher scratches that defy the eye of human and camera alike.