Cult Following

A holiday guide to coffee-table books with a jagged edge

"America has always been a nation of isolatos, solitaries striking out on their own," argues poet J.D. McClatchy in the text accompanying American Writers at Home(Library of America, $50). "Europeans could never understand . . . why we headed off into the unfamiliar, why we built our cabins on the pond's edge." Erica Lennard photographs the cocoons that famous writers like Walt Whitman and Flannery O'Connor fashioned for themselves in those dark, pre-iPod days of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Bathed in honeyed light, these images are so sumptuous they might be mistaken for layouts from a shelter magazine dedicated to gracious, cozy old houses. Instead, they provide an excuse for McClatchy's meditations on how dwellings and solitude shape the creative process. If these houses look like museums, that's because they are. When regular people die their things are ransacked, most precious possessions parceled out or tossed away. But these show homes halt and preserve a moment in an illustrious writer's life, like an insect trapped in amber. We see Eudora Welty's desk as it apparently looked while she lived: littered with manuscript pages, calendars, and correspondence. Or the corner of Faulkner's pantry, where the camera finds a wall covered with names and numbers scrawled above a black rotary phone that will never ring again.

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