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A Southern, Literary Landscape

It would have been bad form for groups to knock at the front doors of these six Southern literary giants while they were working, but today, thousands of visitors step into the homes where some of America’s greatest stories traveled from ink to paper.

Because Southern fiction is characteristically tied to a sense of place, Southern writers steal most of their fiction from the house, the grounds and the people around them. By visiting their homes, groups get to see the real-life details that wound their way into fiction. These six homes also divulge the storied lives of the writers and their families, from Ernest Hemingway’s expensive party home in Key West to Flannery O’Connor’s quiet dairy farm in Georgia.

William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak

Oxford, Mississippi

Rowan Oak was William Faulkner’s home for more than 30 years until the time of his death in 1962. When he bought the Greek Revival house in Oxford, it didn’t have running water or electricity, and the author made many of the home renovations himself.

The 29 acres of woods and trees surrounding the home include 55 species, none of which are the “Rowan” or the “Oak.” That’s Faulkner’s sense of irony showing through. He wrote several of his most important works at Rowan Oak. The outline of the plot for his novel “A Fable” remains on the walls in one of the rooms. The story goes that the room was part of a new addition he began while his wife was away, and he planned to paint over the writing when she returned. But his wife was so upset about the new addition that she wouldn’t let him paint it. Both husband and wife were equally stubborn.

“The house is set up for you to discover Faulkner at your own pace,” said curator William Griffith, suggesting that groups stop to listen to a recording of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “The house is full of paintings and furniture original to the Faulkners, as well as exhibits and galleries.”

Groups can request tours, but Griffith said he keeps them short so they can explore the house and grounds on their own; the tours include a walking trail through woods that haven’t been logged since 1872.

Ernest Hemingway House

Key West, Florida

While stuck in Key West in 1928 waiting for a Ford Roadster to arrive, Hemingway began writing with such clarity that he banged out the first draft of “A Farewell to Arms” in just three weeks. He and his second wife, Pauline, decided to stay. The 1851 Spanish Colonial home that they purchased and remodeled is now open as the Hemingway House, one of the most fascinating author’s homes in the country.

Hemingway ended up writing most of his major works in his studio, which was only accessible by a bridge that extended from the upstairs bedroom. Visitors can still see the Royal portable typewriter sitting at the desk where he wrote. Almost everything in the home is original, from the European antiques the Hemingways collected during their travels and the trophy mounts and skins from their hunting trips to the urinal garden fountain and the monastery gate the author used as a headboard.

“One thing many people stop by to see are the famous six-toed [polydactyl] cats,” said curator Dave Gonzales. Hemingway kept nearly 50 cats for good luck, and today, 54 cats — all descendants of the originals — roam the estate.

Several Hemingway aficionados guide groups throughout the home and gardens and offer details about three new exhibits that focus on his Paris years, his fishing yacht Pilar and his trip to Africa.

O. Henry Museum

Austin, Texas

Before embezzling money from the Austin bank where he worked, running from the law, serving three years in an Ohio prison and then moving to New York City to become one of the greatest short-story writers of all time, O. Henry lived in a quaint little cottage with his wife and daughter. Today, the cottage is the O. Henry Museum, and groups can wander the rooms where the author lived from 1893 to 1895.

The museum collection includes his correspondence, his drawings and his unpublished manuscripts, as well as several of his personal belongings.

“Everybody wants to know, ‘Did he take the money or not?’” said Michael Hoinski, culture and arts education coordinator for the museum. “We actually have the chair that he sat in when he worked at the bank and allegedly embezzled the money.”

Two other prize possessions at the museum are O. Henry’s writing desk and his personal dictionary. The author would offer his guests nickel bets that he could spell any word they chose from the dictionary. As a nod to O. Henry’s love of word play, the museum sponsors the O. Henry Pun-Off the first weekend in May. It’s in its 40th year and a favorite event in Austin.

Other personal items around the house show the author’s interests beyond writing. The museum houses the piano his wife played; both husband and wife performed in music and theater around Austin. His artistic skills are on display through his drafting table and several sketches.