|Visiting Strawberry Hill|
Much of what I know about English literature I learned in the Bronx. The peculiar indirection of my path—a German approaching British culture by taking the Lexington Avenue Express—did not escape me then; and even though I had no doubt as to the qualifications of those who taught me, I decided, upon finishing my Master’s thesis on the Scottish essayist-translator Thomas Carlyle, to go after something that, geographically speaking, lay closer to my temporary home.
Never one for obvious choices, I wrote my doctoral study on US radio drama, a subject that, however arcane, struck me as being rather more compatible with life in a Mecca for the enthusiasts of American popular culture among which I numbered. It also made it possible for me to take advantage of some of the resources particular to Manhattan, the isle of Radio City.
Not that I considered studying British culture so far removed from the Globe Theatre, the Scottish Borders, or the wilds of Yorkshire much of a disadvantage, being that I had adopted a subjective mode of reading that favors response over intention, that explores the reception of a written work rather than tracing is origins. Call it rationalizing, call it kidding yourself—I thought that I should make a virtue of vicariousness.
|A most un-Gothic—but glorious—day at Strawberry Hill|
Originally a small cottage in rural Twickenham, Strawberry Hill was transformed by Walpole into a gothic castellino; it also housed the author’s own printing press, although Otranto was published in nearby London. The crenelated battlements were made of wood and needed to be replaced more than once in Walpole’s lifetime. “My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole famously declared, “and both will blown away in ten years after I am dead.” This could well have happened; but, despite the relative weakness of his materials—a spurious medieval romance and the less than solid additions to Chopp’d Straw Cottage—both survive today as a testimony to Walpole’s enduring influence on popular tastes in architecture and literature.
Visitors to historic houses, like readers of fictions, must always be prepared to supply the fittings, to construct in their mind’s eye what the supposedly first-hand experience of seeing for ourselves can never make concrete and, therefore, never quite smash or supplant. Where, if not in our reading, dreaming, thinking selves does the spirit of literature reside?
The audio guide at Strawberry Hill is a self-conscious acknowledgment of this sightseeing conundrum; it plays like a radio drama—my studies of which have not gone to waste altogether—that teases us with the voices of the dead and the echoes of their footsteps. Our own footfall, meanwhile, is muffled by the protective plastic coverings provided for our shoes at the entrance to the site.
Walpole’s paper house has been given a permanence in the midst of which I am reminded of the paper-thinness of my own existence. What lingers is the anxiety of leaving here—or anywhere—without having left a trace at all.