Professors Plan Roadtrip to Record 'Dead Writers' Podcast for Maine Public Radio

By Rebecca Goldfine
English professors Tess Chakkalakal and Brock Clarke will drive the backroads and highways of Maine, stopping at homes and sites connected with long-gone writers.
Illustration for Dead Writers
Illustration by Mark Hoffman.

Along the way, they'll talk to a broad range of characters associated with the houses today. And they'll banter about the purpose of preserving these literary homes.

"He thinks they're kind of stupid," Chakkalakal said, "and that what we should really be doing is just reading the books. And my thing is—of course we read the books, but by going to the houses where they were written, we learn something about the authors and how they were written that enriches our reading experience."

Accompanying the two at-odds faculty will be audio producer Lisa Bartfai, who will record their travels as they trace the legacies of eight novelists and poets who lived and worked in Maine in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

If Chakkalakal can raise $50,000 in the next few months to pay for production costs, listeners will be able to tune in by summer's end to the podcast Dead Writers on Maine Public Radio. 

During spring break in March, the team's itinerary includes stops for William Dean Howells in Kittery Point, Sarah Orne Jewett in South Berwick, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland, Harriet Beecher Stowe in Brunswick, James Weldon Johnson in Wiscasset, Edna St. Vincent Millay in Camden, Nathaniel Hawthorne in Raymond, and Edwin Arlington Robinson in Alna and Gardiner.

Map of route
A map of the upcoming Dead Writers intinerary. "A work in progress!" Tess Chakkalakal writes.

Most of the sites they'll tour are homes, though not all are open to the public. They'll also visit Robinson's archives at Colby College, and for Johnson they'll go to the railroad crossing where his car was hit by a train in 1938, killing him and injuring his wife. 

The point, Chakkalakal said, is "to tell the story of the authors' lives through the area where the house or site is."

"It is also a way to commemorate the production of American literature," she added. "As a professor of American literature, I think a lot about the books that changed American history."

Another reason she wants to create the program is to meet her students and their generation "halfway." As someone devoted to books, she nonetheless accepts that podcasts are a popular way people these days enjoy stories and absorb cultural analysis. So she'll make the pod, she said, but she'll also use it to make a pitch for why we should continue to crack open the books of dead writers. 

Dead Writers team portraits of Clarke, Chakkalakal, and Barfai
Dead Writers team: Host Brocke Clarke, host and creator Tess Chakkalakal, producer Lisa Bartfai.

Chakkalakal invited Clarke to be her cohost on Dead Writers because she knew he would provide a saucy counterpoint to her "obsession" with literary homes. (She has called them the "Disneyland of literature.") Clarke is, after all, the author of the novel An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England.

As the title suggests, Clarke is dubious about the instinct to enshrine the homes of authors. "I can't quite tell why people go into them," he said. "Do people go to writers’ houses because they really love the book and they want to see what's behind it? Or is going a substitute for reading the book?...Or is it, 'It's raining for the tenth day in Maine, therefore I have to do something; I’ll go do this thing that makes me feel virtuous.'"

Perhaps, he conjectured, visiting literary homes is an attempt to solve something about books "full of mystery." But for him, books and their mysteries are always enough. "That's the final reason I agreed to do this," he wrote in an email, "to find out what I'm missing when it comes to dead writers' homes."

Chakkalakal, on the other hand, has made literary homes a big part of her life. A scholar of nineteenth-century American books, she never anticipated she'd become so entranced with the stolid structures in which they were created. But a serendipitous turn or two along the way led her to this point.

In graduate school, she wrote her PhD dissertation on Uncle Tom's Cabin, the best-selling antislavery novel written by Stowe in Brunswick. Then, early in her career, she got a job teaching at Bowdoin, "and there was this house where [Stowe] actually wrote" the book that President Lincoln is said to have credited for starting the Civil War. Not only that, Stowe harbored fugitive slave John Andrew Jackson for one night in that house, just one year before she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1851.

About a decade ago, Chakkalakal began advocating for the restoration of the Bowdoin-owned Stowe House on Federal Street to its 1850s appearance, the period when Stowe lived there with her professor husband and their children.

The Stowe house is now listed as a National Historic Landmark and has been included in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom by the National Park Service. Following this success, Chakkalakal began giving talks at other literary homes, including Melville's home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the home where Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts.

As she toured these often grand homes and chatted with the people who work or volunteer for them—or who are the reason the house was preserved in the first place—she started to mull over an idea for a literary-themed podcast.

The restored Stowe House.
The restored Stowe House.

"One of the reasons I started this whole thing was because of my work on the Stowe house," she said. "It taught me a lot about preservation." She was also struck, particularly during her travels in England and France, by how much some places revere and commemorate their dead writers. "Their writers are part of these nations and how people understand their connection to one another and where they live," she said.

In the US, she observed a different pattern. Individuals or groups of people on their ownoften as volunteerswill make it a project to protect buildings or sites associated with dead writers. "They're doing it for the love of literature," Chakkalakal said. "I love the enthusiasm for literature that inspires these people. I have felt that myself." 

Though the podcast's tone will be conversational rather than overly professorial, Chakkalakal considers the show an extension of her teaching. As part of many of her Bowdoin classes, she leads students on walking tours around Brunswick, encouraging them to imagine Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Stowe walking the same routes a century or more ago, perhaps pondering their next sentence or chapter.

Chakkalakal's desire to share her knowledge and passion with a broader audience is one of the reasons Bartfai is excited about producing Dead Writers. "I am so inspired and impressed by Tess’s devotion to the public humanities, and her insistence on taking this amazing scholarship she made at Bowdoin and making it accessible and inviting people into it," she said.

One way the team plans to do this is by speaking with the people—the docents, the literary enthusiasts, even the cleaners—who inhabit the spaces where these dead writers once made their marks.

"When we were thinking about how to take the pod out of the home and away from two literary critics going 'blah blah blah,' we decided to find people to interview, like the twenty-year-old former art student who cleans the Longfellow house," Bartfai said.

Though Clarke might not in the end be won over by the houses themselves, he, too, is looking forward to meeting the characters "who work at them, who visit them, who walk by them on the street not knowing, say, that Sarah Orne Jewett lived there, and for that matter not even knowing who Sarah Orne Jewett is, or was," he said. 

"I'm trying to make the podcast relevant to today," Chakkalakal said. "It is not meant to be comprehensive or a rigorous literary analysis, it's to get people moving," to go check out a house, or maybe even a book.