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West on Books: Cultural Trails

By Richard West

This month I come to praise the University of Chicago Press’s series, Cultural Trails: Adventures in Travel.  Here’s their manifesto from the website: “Whereas most travel books focus on a particular place—a country, a city, a region—these volumes take as their first subject the exploration of a cultural experience in history, in art, in religion. The result is a ‘cultural trail’ etched out by the author.”

Four years ago I read the first Cultural Trail, Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West, by Erin Hogan, public affairs director of the Art Institute of Chicago, as she sought out objets de art too large for a gallery:  Robert Smithson’s 1500-foot-long spiral of rocks and dirt off the edge of the Great Salt Lake, Walter De Maria’s 400 steel poles comprising his Lightning Field in New Mexico, James Turrell’s Roden Crater near Flagstaff, and others.

Last year’s Freud’s Couch, Scott’s Buttocks, Bronte’s Grave by Cambridge classics professor Simon Goldhill honored the Victorian era’s creation of literary pilgrimages by visiting  five destinations,  along with the three writer homes associated with the title, Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-Upon-Avon and the two Lake District homes of William Wordsworth.

He didn’t’ actually see Sir Walter Scott’s buttocks at his baronial pile, Abbotsford, 35 miles from Edinburgh, but the creases made by same in his chair in the study. Goldhill’s most awe-inspiring moment:  Scott’s library (or perhaps more precisely a litropolis)—holding more than 9,000 books. And thanks to the pilgrimaging professor, the next time someone asks you what singer Loretta Lynn and Wordsworth have in common, you can reply both had bedrooms papered in newspapers.

Goldhill finds Shakespeare’s house in Stratford  predictably cheesy—two plastic chicken pieces in the kitchen pot, plastic fire in fireplaces—but Freud’s house on Hampstead’s Maresfield Gardens Street, where he fled the Nazis in 1938, sounds well worth visiting. Alas, unlike his place in Vienna at 19 Berggasse (now the Freud Museum) there’s no sex shop called Boudoir across the road with blown-up condoms featuring Freud’s face in the windows.

The just-published Cultural Trail, Robert Kaster’s The Appian Way: Ghost Road, Queen of Roads,  literally is a trail, one 353 miles long from Rome to Brindisi, begun by Appius Claudius in 312 BC and eventually part of an astonishing 76,000 miles of Roman Empire roads.  Dr. Kaster, another professor of classics, begins by exploring a few miles leading out of Rome, then in rental car, drives slowly from Brindisi on the Calabrian coast northwest to  Rome.  No doubt the professor recalled, passing wind farms and gas stations, that in 71 BC Marcus Licinius Crassus  crucified some 6,000 of the insurgents following the rebelling slave leader Spartacus along the length of the Appian Way.

It was Horace,  born in Venusia (today Venosa) about mid Appian Way, who wrote the immortal, “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero—Seize the day, put no trust in the morrow”. The Cultural Trails series favors Carpe viam, seize the way, and I look forward to the next  cultural viam.


Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.
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