Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Writers Stephen Dixon and E.B. White, and the Veblen Cottage in Brooklin, Maine

This time of year, as summer loses its hold on the land, people of means or circumstance return to Princeton from their summer retreats in the north. Through coincidence or serendipity, the story of Veblen House, and the profound meaning a homestead can have in people's lives, will head the opposite direction: north from the unexpectedly endearing vulture family perched on a farm cottage in Herrontown Woods to the town in Maine where a beloved spider named Charlotte once lived. There were many spiders weaving their webs on E.B. White's farm in Brooklin, Maine, but Charlotte became singularly famous for making the leap into White's imagination, and coming to life in the story he weaved.

E.B. White's farm overlooking Allen's Cove in northern Brooklin, with Arcadia National Park rising in the distance, is for sale. For properties with special histories and owners, like E.B. White's farm or, as we'll see, the Veblen's seaside cottage 5 miles to the south, a change in ownership, like the change in leadership of a nation, is fraught with peril. Will a house's special charms be preserved, or be lost to neglect or gentrification? Both E.B. White's farm and the Veblen's cottage in Brooklin came up for sale in the mid-1980s. Veblen's cottage at the time was being rented out in the summer to the writers Anne Frydman and Stephen Dixon, who loved the cottage like E.B. White loved his farm. How E.B. White's farm fared since being sold in 1986, perhaps aided by its historic designation, is described in this article in New England Today. The trajectory of the Veblen's Maine cottage is described in the correspondence I had with Stephen Dixon, below.

The Veblens would journey north from Princeton each summer to their rustic cottage on Nasqueg Point in Brooklin. They had discovered the area through Elizabeth's sister and brother in law, Charlotte and Clinton Davisson, who had bought a house there. Beginning in the mid-1960s, with Oswald gone and Elizabeth getting up in years, the cottage stood empty for about ten years, until poet and translater Anne Frydman found it and convinced the Veblen's niece Elizabeth Davisson to let her rent it.

From 1979 to 1986, Anne and her husband, writer Stephen Dixon, spent their summers there, surrounded by the simplicity and soul of the cottage, and breathing what must be the most delicious ocean breezes. As Stephen describes in his emails to me, he and Anne left everything in the cottage just as it had been when the Veblens lived there--the formidable cooking wood stove, the bookshelf of Ulysses, Conrad and Yeats, the antique clocks, even the Veblen's spicerack, with spices long since hardened in their jars. The cottage was "too beautiful to change", even the curious combined toilet-shower accessed from the patio (knowing about it adds extra meaning to a similar toilet-shower combination in the Veblen House).

Like E.B. White's farm, whose barn and animal life found its way into Charlotte's Web, the Veblen's cottage in Maine found its way into stories Stephen Dixon wrote while living there. He sent me a list, which I'll include here further down, and the cottage shows up in photos on the front and back of a book of Anne Frydman's poetry, published posthumously in 2016, The Three O'Clock Bird.

There are many characters in the story of Veblen House, and not all of them are people. Some are animals, others are plants (the writer of the story being a botanist), and a number are the buildings themselves. Along with the Veblen House and the Maine cottage, there was, and still is, the cottage in Herrontown Woods that began as a farmhouse in 1875. Both cottages were unwinterized when the Veblens owned them, with two chimneys and a large cooking stove.

Brooklin, as described on its wikipedia page, sounds like "Herrontown North". Fish fertilizer was used to make the rocky ground productive, and back in the 1880s, around when Veblen was born in Iowa, the town of Brooklin was known for its smoked herring. All this can also be said of northeastern Princeton, which was originally known as "Herringtown". Is it chance that a man whose grandparents had come to America from Norway would be drawn to rocky landscapes and live his summers with a view eastward across the Atlantic?

In our work to save and repair the Veblen House and cottage in Herrontown Woods, there's been discussion of whether it's worth saving the cottage, which is in considerable disrepair. Veblen bought it in 1936, and used it for his study. Now it is unique in Princeton, a small, simple but well-built farmhouse, made both vulnerable and enchanting by its isolated setting surrounded by woods.

Both E.B. White, writing at a simple bench he built in a converted boathouse, and Stephen Dixon's descriptions below, speak to the affection people can hold for simple but elegant shelters. E.B. White's favorite book is said to have been Thoreau's Walden. Less can be more, and the cottage in Herrontown Woods can be an enduring reminder of a simpler past if we are able to save it.

I learned of Stephen Dixon and his 8 years residency at the Veblen cottage in Maine through Jane Smith of Charlottesville, Virginia, a good friend of the Veblen's niece, namesake and sole family heir, Elizabeth Davisson, who inherited the Veblen cottage when Elizabeth died in 1974. Stephen taught in the Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins for 26 years, and over the course of his life has written more than 500 short stories and 15 novels, two of which were nominated for the National Book Award.

During the summers they spent in Brooklin, the Veblen Cottage found its way into their hearts and into their writings. After a lifetime of writing on a manual typewriter, Dixon's hands overpower a computer keyboard, like a steam engine casting sparks of collateral letterage as he types his emails. The collateral letterage has been edited out, the better to appreciate all he has to tell.

Of note in the correspondence is what he heard about Oswald (that "he got his best ideas chopping wood"), the gradual memory of the special kind of tea the Davissons drank (lapsang souchong, which is truly distinctive and delicious), the mention of caretaker Stan Gray (who served in Maine as Max Latterman served at the Veblen House), and Stephen's deep appreciation of the cottage's charm and simplicity. There is a mix of joy and sadness. While the Veblen's farm cottage in Herrontown Woods suffered from neglect after it was donated to the public trust, the Veblen cottage in Maine experienced the opposite when it was sold in 1986--a gentrification that preserved the cottage while sacrificing the qualities that the Dixons had found so appealing.

The correspondence can be seen by clicking on "Read more".

12/31/15 From Stephen Hiltner to Stephen Dixon:

I am a botanist/jazz musician/writer/actor working to save and rehab the Veblen House in Princeton, NJ, and am researching the history of Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, and others associated with their house and cottage(s). Jane Smith in Virginia gave me your name, and said you and your wife had lived in the Veblen cottage. She said also that when the Veblen's niece, Elizabeth Davisson, died, Jane had sent some 46 letters to you that your wife had written to Elizabeth. At first, it sounded like you had lived in the Veblen's cottage located next to the Veblen House in Princeton, but then Jane realized that you had lived in the cottage in Brooklin, ME. If it's of interest, this link should take you to some posts about the sleuthing some friends of mine did to track down the Brooklin cottage.

I'd very much like to find out if you still have the letters, and/or anything else you might be willing to share, e.g. photos, memories. I'm interested in the history but also in gathering stories and getting a sense of the Veblens and others as people. 

Best wishes for the new year,

On Mon, Jan 4, 2016 at 11:30 AM, Stephen Dixon wrote:
Dear Mr. Hitner: I received your message by way of my former
department, the Writing Seminars, at Johns Hopkins University.

My wife, Anne Frydman, who died Feb. 23, 2009, brought me to the Veblen Cottage
in June, 1979, and we summered there together, 2-3 months a summer, till 1985.

In 1986 it was sold to a couple, who winterized the cottage, and threw out most of its wonderful books (early Ulysses, complete works of Conrad, much Y.B. Yeats). We wanted to buy the cottage and keep it the way it was, but we didn't have the money. Soon after the house was sold, the new owners sold about half the cove that came with the cottage.

Anne came to Maine because her doctoral advisor, Rufus Mathewson, summered in Brooklin with his family near the Veblen Cottage off of Naskeag Pt. Rd. about 2 miles away. Anne
spent some time with the Mathewsons, and wanted to spend some more time in Brooklin. She
hunted around and found that the Veblen Cottage might be available if she talked to Elizabeth Davisson and her mother, who was the sister of Veblen's wife.
Anne must have charmed the Davissons, for they rented her the cottage at a very fair price. All
Anne had to do was bring in electricity--it had been dormant for about 10 years, and also water. The well operation needed fixing.
That was 1976, I believe, and Anne rented the cottage by herself the next 2 summers, and from 1979-1985, we rented it together.

We always called it the Veblen Cottage and kept "Veblen Cottage" on the
mailbox and in our mailing address.

I'm surprised the cottage has a view of the bay. When we had it, we were unable, because of some
local restriction, to cut down any trees between the cottage and the cove.

There was a boathouse then in the coves, but I'm sure that's gone too. It was gradually falling apart.

I remember the shed, but it wasn't enclosed. It's where we kept firewood.

There were many piles of firewood around the cottage and in the woods.
We were told that Oscar Veblen used to say he got his best ideas cutting wood.

A few years ago I drove down to the cottage with my daughters and didn't
recognize the place. Nor the setting. The cottage hadn't been moved. Just
that the area and cottage had been so beautified.

Anne used to have tea lapsus olong? sp?) every summer with the Davissons. For
some reason that tradition didn't continue when I was with Anne there.

I vaguely recall Anne receiving some of her correspondence with Elizabeth Davisson from somebody
but don't have them. I've gone through all of Anne's papers and they don't seem to exist anymore.
Anne has journals and maybe there's something in them about the cottage and the Davissons.
I remember Elizabeth had a brother with a very boyish name: Chckie or something.

Elizabeth was very sorry she couldn't sell the cottage to us--we always
thought she would and that the price would be affordable (I was still an assistant professor and
publishing books of fiction that made little money and
Anne was teaching for a few thousand dollars a semester and translating Sergei
Dovlatov, a Russian emigre fiction writer), but a real estate broker in Blue Hill
thought it best she get what she could for the property. Of course, from a business
point of view, he was right. Of course, the new owners sold part
of the cove for what it cost them to buy the entire property. We were so naive.
We wanted to keep everything as it was.

Anne even kept the old spice rack going back to the Veblen days, all the spices hardened in their containers.

We bought some Veblen furniture from the new owners. A dining table, some
chairs to go around it, and a rocking chair with a cracked seat. We had it all shipped to our home in Ruxton, Md, and still use them.

We also bought a child's chair, but I don't know what happened to it. I think it's stored in the last house we rented in Cape Rosier--we continued to come to the area through the summer of 2007, and thought we'd come back but Anne got very sick--complications of her MS--in 2008, and my daughters didn't make it back for 3 years.

Anne has some writings about the cottage in her notebooks. If I can, I'll try to find them. I wrote a lot about the cottage. One story, "Only the Cat Escapes," in a story collection called FRIENDS. Another story, "Small Bear," in a collection called MOVIES. And a story called "Frog Fears" in my novel FROG, and many other parts of FROG have the cottage in it. Same with my most recent novel HIS WIFE LEAVES HIM. Incidents that take place in the cottage. One scene where I first encountered the cottage and Anne says "Do you like it? (We're unpacking the car. "Like it?" I said (or the character does). "It's gorgeous. This is heaven, and to be here with you for the next 2 months?"

The one problem of the house was the mosquitoes. Whatever mosquito-proofing I did, the pests got in some way and kept us up many nights. Also, bees came down the stone chimney. Looking back, minor problems.

One thing Anne and I always said we'd never do, if we were fortunate enough to own the cottage, was winterize it. It was too beautiful to change and we had no intention to reside there any other time but the summer. Everything about it, including the toilet-shower that was off the porch (you had to go outside to get to it) and that wonderful old stove in the kitchen we sometimes got hot enough to make biscuits.

I forgot to mention the beautiful dishware and cutlery the Veblens, childless, picked up on their many travels in Europe. Their lives were deeply imprinted in that cottage.

Best to you...Stephen Dixon

On Mon, Jan 4, 2016 at 1:04 PM, Stephen Hiltner <stevehiltner@gmail.com> wrote:

Thanks so much for this! I like that the cottage, in its original form, lives on in your stories. The Veblens' cottage here in Princeton, a few hundred feet down the path from their house, is in the woods at the intersection of some trails. Parents tell me that it stirred the imaginations of their children, who thought it was out of a fairy tale, and the many large boulders in the woods were monsters. The kitchen of the cottage here has lost its roof and outside wall, and now looks like a stage set for a play, which makes me think we could actually stage plays there, outdoors, rather than replace the kitchen, particularly given how the cottage has already been a significant prop in a lot of Princeton kids' imaginations.

That's a delight to hear that Veblen got his best ideas chopping wood. I've found that physical work has a similar effect on me. They called him the "woodchopping professor", who led his colleagues on brush clearing ventures in the Institute Woods. I looked up oolong and lapsus and got this: "Oolong ist Oolong – könnte man meinen. Wer nicht gerade zu den Teekennern gehört, dem sei so ein Lapsus verziehen". My German's not the best. Elizabeth established tea as a lasting tradition in the math department and later at the Institute.

I will look for your books and add them to the library (the Veblens wanted their house in Princeton to become a library and museum). The "library" thus far is a couple of shelves in my house until we can acquire the Veblen property. Eric Hatch, who was later a writer at the New Yorker and wrote The Year of the Horse, was briefly married to the daughter of the couple who originally built the house, which is a prefab from the 1920s. The house, by the way, has a toilet/shower, though indoors, next to the pantry.

I'm grateful for anything else that occurs to you about the Maine cottage and the Veblens, and if you find your wife's journals that would be wonderful.

On Mon, Jan 4, 2016 at 4:11 PM, Stephen Dixon wrote:
I''ll get you the name of the tea the Davisson women favored.
It's the one that has a very distinctive smell, like nothing else. My market
sells it. It'll probably come to me, like a lot of things do, when I'm not
thinking about it. It's not oolong. Lapsus something.

I'm sure Veblens' brother-in-law and sister were Davissons.

Still have the 6th American edition of Ulysses. My wife and a friend fished it out, with
a number of other books from the Veblen library. Stan Gray was told to throw a lot of things away. He was the caretaker of the cottage when we were gone for the summer. Every year something precious was stolen from the cottage over the winter
by antique thieves. I remember 2 beautiful clocks. Stan lived in a shack about a mile from us on the way to Naskeag Point.

The directions we always gave to the cottage were head to the point. If you pass Amen Farm on the right, turn around and take the first driveway on the right heading to town. It was where the road curved.

The poet, Mark Rudman, and his wife Madeleine summered for about a month in the Davisson cottage when the Davissons weren't there. 

On Mon, Jan 4, 2016 at 4:50 PM, Stephen Hiltner wrote:
Okay. Well, a pleasure corresponding with you. I'll just send along what I was writing:

The Veblen House here has a parallel story. The Veblens left behind a Charles Oppenheimer painting above the mantle. The house was rented for two decades after the Veblens had passed, and after the tenants were told to leave and the building boarded up, someone ripped the painting apart, hoping to find treasures hidden behind it. All they found was a brick chimney.

Stan sounds like the counterpart of Max Latterman, who was their faithful caretaker in Princeton. We now have someone of similar inclination on our board, who loves outdoor work--the woods is his gym--and has cleared the Veblen grounds of invasives.

Veblen sounds like he had an unusual mix of taste for beautiful things, like clocks, and the crystal that was said to fill the Veblen House, and a love of simplicity, physical work and the outdoors. What's left, after so much has been looted or lost, is their legacy and who they were, their values, and the simplicity of boulders that couldn't be lifted and wood that has resisted decay. 

On Mon, Jan 4, 2016 at 6:30 PM, Stephen Dixon wrote:
You put it very well.

tried to find Mark and Madeleine Rudman's email address,
but that slipped away from me too.
Other people who rented the Davisson Cottage--you
know Davisson was a Nobel-Prize winner--were Paula Fox and her husband Martin Greenberg.

If I didn't need the Veblen table and 2 dining room chairs that came with it, and the rocker, I'd give them to your Princeton Veblen Cottage. The table is a beaut. It has the head of a nail sticking out of its top. I've left it that way, afraid if I dislodged it the table would fall apart. Maybe one day...

And maybe I told you. You can have the Ulysses I have, but it's in such bad shape--it looks sick--that I doubt you'd want to touch it. The only other book from the Veblen Cottage library I have--by "library" I mean a bookcase built into a wall--is Conrad's SET OF SIX. I'd send that to you too.

I don't know how it escaped the dump. I have no other possessions from the Veblen Cottage. I do have 2 photographs Anne took the summer before I met her. They show part of the living room looking out to the back deck. Her Siamese cats are in the photos, or one is. A Veblen tea kettle holds the door ajar. They are temporarily in the possession of the editors of Passager Books. They saw the photos--they're in one frame--in my house and wanted to use them for the front and back covers of Anne's book of poetry they're publishing this May. The book will be Anne's first of poetry and called THREE O'CLOCK BIRD.

I am still trying to recall Elizabeth Davisson's brother's first name.

As well as the tea. I'll get it. Both.

That's all. Very nice corresponding with you.


On Tue, Jan 5, 2016 at 8:34 AM, Stephen Dixon wrote:
Dear Stephen Hiltner:

The Davisson tea: Lapsang Souchong

The Davison son: Dicky

And another Veblen Cottage story of mine,
this one from my story collection LOVE AND WILL: "The Cove."

I took another look at the Ulysses, and it's in such bad shape that I'll have to
throw it out before it infects the other books on the shelves. It's absolutely unreadable and untouchable.

Best to you and lots of success with your project.

Tue, Jan 5, 2016 at 8:45 AM, Stephen Hiltner wrote:
Maybe take a picture of the Ulysses book and send that? That would be a good image to accompany the story of how Veblen's books ended up in a dump!

Great to have the tea name and other info.

On Tue, Jan 5, 2016 at 8:56 AM, Stephen Dixon wrote:

I'll have to wait till one of my daughters visits me again.
They were just here for the Christmas holidays.
But I'll have one of them do it when she comes here.
I'm incapable of doing it myself and my cellphone is
basic, just for keeping in touch with my daughters.

I see where Oswald Veblen died in August 1960 in Brooklin, Me.
He might be buried in the small cemetery opposite the church
halfway between Veblen Cottage and Naskeag Point, on Naskeag Pt. Rd.

I don't know if his wife, Elizabeth, predeceased him or died
sometime after but before her death continued to spend time in the cottage.

On Tue, Jan 5, 2016 at 9:19 AM, Stephen Hiltner wrote:
Elizabeth died in 1974. There's some mystery associated with where they are buried. The county naturalist from back then says he knows, but refuses to tell. The Veblens had a funerary, or at least that's what I've heard it called--a circle of stones a couple hundred feet away from the house, about ten feet in diameter. That may be where their ashes are buried. Brooklin has a "Keeping Society", and they helped us a little with finding the cottage. I could check with them about the cemetery. Circles are a recurrent theme at the Veblen House. There are the circles of stones outside, for the funerary and the horse run, the two ovals of stone and earthen berm that encircle the house, the many wells, and inside the house there are curved walls and windows.

Was E.B. White's farm in Brooklin interesting? I asked the "Keepers" if Veblen was friends with E.B. White, but they didn't think so. I liked reading E.B's essays. At least the way I remember them, they didn't exactly signal from the outset where they were headed. They were more like taking a walk, where you don't really know what you're going to encounter. All you know is that you like the company. Now, with everyone in a hurry, there's this need to announce out front the subject at hand. It's not how the mind works.

On Tue, Jan 5, 2016 at 9:58 AM, Stephen Dixon wrote:

Stephen: How interesting. I didn't know about the Veblens' interest
in circles. Or maybe my wife Anne told me about it early on. but I don't think so. You see, Anne was cremated 2-3 days after her death and I buried the cylinder the ashes were in under a star magnolia
on the grounds outside our house here and made 2 concentric circles composed of sea-polished stones we'd gathered over the years at Schoodic Pt. in Acadia National Park, on top of the burial spot.

I believe the church and cemetery on Naskeag Pt. Rd, which is also where
Anne's doctoral adviser, Rufus Mathewson is buried, are called Mt. Zion.
But correct me if I'm wrong.

I apologize for all my truncated emails.

Jan. 6, From SKH
That's a beautiful burial you describe. Makes me think of fresh air, windswept beaches, companionship in discovery, and vice versa. Something found, together. We could all wish to be remembered that way.

We're thinking of the two ovals around the house as symbolic of the ripples that extended outward from Veblen's legacy. They make the house feel a bit like a boat--an Ark. Also, many of the boulders in the preserve have magnetic elements, and magnetism is often represented as concentric circles extending outward.

Stephen Dixon and Anne Frydman write about the cottage in the following books. Thanks to Stephen Dixon for sharing this list, and his memories of the Veblen Cottage in Brooklin, ME.

"Only the Cat Escapes," in a story collection called FRIENDS.

"Small Bear," in a collection called MOVIES.

"Frog Fears" in my novel FROG, and many other parts of FROG have the cottage in it.

Same with my most recent novel HIS WIFE LEAVES HIM. Incidents that take place in the cottage. One scene where I first encountered the cottage and Anne says "Do you like it? (We're unpacking the car. "Like it?" I said (or the character does). "It's gorgeous. This is heaven, and to be here with you for the next 2 months?"

"The Cove", from my story collection LOVE AND WILL.

THREE O'CLOCK BIRD - Poems of Anne Frydman

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