When my husband asks me where I want to go on vacation, my first thought is my favorite writers. He doesn’t know this, mind you, but he learns it soon enough. Chances are, I will drag him and the kids to at least one writer’s house—if not his/her gravesite or family plot—on our family vacation. They put up with it good-naturedly, and at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, my daughters even asked questions. Sure it was about the dollhouse Thoreau built for Emerson’s children, but still, it was a question.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of my all-time favorite authors, and when I visited Concord, Massachusetts, a few years ago, it felt like a dream come true. I remember one of my professors asking me about a favorite author. When I answered Ralph Waldo Emerson, his face seemed to say, “Emerson is no one’s favorite author.” But he was mine. Sure his essays could be difficult, but once in a while, I would happen upon a line that I thought was meant just for me. “What your heart thinks is great, is great. The soul’s emphasis is always right” is one of my favorites.
When I found out Willa Cather, a Nebraska writer much revered in the Midwest, was a fan of Emerson too, it felt as if we shared a secret. His words had set her heart aflame a time or two, and for a long time I was a Cather fanatic. I presented on her work for the South Dakota Humanities Council and even considered writing a dissertation on her. I loved her fiction and non-fiction as well, especially her essays about art. She once said, “The further the world advances, the more it becomes evident that an author’s safe course is to cling to the skirts of his art, forsaking all others, and keep unto her as long as they two shall live.” I find that quote grows truer every day.
Mark Twain is another midwestern writer with whom I became preoccupied for a time. He was honest in a way that some teachers and writers weren’t, and I always admired his quote, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” After my husband and I listened to the audio version of Huckleberry Finn on a cross-country road trip, I knew my curiosity wouldn’t be satisfied until I visited Hannibal, Missouri, the author’s hometown. Except for the bats in the cave tour, the trip was a great success. It was in this cave Samuel Clemens etched his name before he became known as Mark Twain.
“Mark Twain” means entering safe waters. Maybe there’s safety in treading water with authors who inspire us, or maybe there’s security in books. When we are troubled, unreachable, we delve back into our favorites. Like a friend, they get us through the difficult times. Twain once wrote, “My works are like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everyone drinks water.” I would add that everyone gets thirsty, and when they do, there is nothing as quenching as drinking from the well of a favorite author.