What’s lit got to do with it? Deconstructing the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site

by Alana N. Seaman

 

Abstract

While ties to literary works and the authors who penned them are capitalized on to attract tourists, justify preservation and revitalization efforts, request funding, and gain historic and protected status, the role of literature in tourism experiences at these places is poorly understood. Utilizing electronic word of mouth (eWOM) data and a deconstructive approach, the purpose of this study was to examine the role of literature in the experiences of tourists at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. 

Keywords

Literary Tourism, Literature, Place, Heritage Tourism, Carl Sandburg

 

Introduction

Authors’ birthplaces, homes, and gravesites have attracted tourists for centuries. Five hundred years ago when Chaucer was entombed in the walls of Westminster Abbey, visitors who came to pay their respects were dedicated readers and wealthy individuals who could afford to travel, had the ability to read, and had access to books (Watson 2). Today, literary ties to places are used for their profitability potential as a tourist attraction. Many locations employ a connection to authors as a means to draw visitors, justify preservation and revitalization efforts, request funding, or gain historic and protected status. Shopping centers bear the names of generation-defining authors, whole landscapes are preserved in the name of local essayists, and souvenir shops sell t-shirts, snow globes, and shot glasses featuring iconic area writers. To create a unique sense of place, hotels, restaurants, and bars claim that famous novelists slept here, ate here, and drank here, cities erect statues to pay tribute to native literary sons and daughters, and otherwise obscure towns host festivals events to authors … all in the name of tourism.

Regardless however of whether this is undertaken as a means to attract tourists or as an honest attempt to honor a person’s creative talents, the related author is memorialized, deemed worthy of recognition for the literary work created. As Lowenthal points out, commemoration in any form implies cultural importance (Lowenthal 27). As such, the values popularly associated with an author and his or her literary works are inscribed upon the local landscape (Rigney 77), and in turn, tourists flock to otherwise indistinguishable destinations simply because literary connections set them apart from neighboring locations (Herbert 80). Tourists’ willingness to visit these places and pay tribute to a writer further solidifies the related author’s literary and cultural significance. In turn, Buell (190) argued that memorializing an author implies readership. Active admiration for an author and the values expressed in texts (in the form of tourism), he contends, works to demarcate related texts as classics: worthy of honoring and reading. Another recent study also suggested visiting a literary location and participating in site-specific, literature-inspired activities may motivate tourists to read the related literary work before and after a travel experience (Seaman 157).

Yet, despite these seemingly intimate relationships between literature and tourism, the role of literature in the experiences of tourists at these “literary” places is poorly understood. Instead, the practice of literary tourism remains heavily theoretical; with many scholars implying literature is central to the phenomena. Despite an absence of empirical evidence to support this, a number of contemporary scholars also agree that anyone who visits a literary site is a literary tourist (see, for example, Lowe 5; Westover 16). And, a number of destinations build on this assumption, both literally and figuratively. Thus, the purpose of this study was to examine the role of literature in the experiences of tourists at one site devoted to an author in the American South. A deconstructive approach was employed to examine a robust collection of electronic word of mouth (eWOM) data to reveal whether literature is, in the mind of tourists, a meaningful component underlying how a place is experienced, a means of to achieve conservation or public space goals, or simply an excuse for kitsch as Luftig (153) asserts.

Literature Review

Literary Tourism

Literary tourism can be seen as a form of heritage tourism, where particular versions of the past are memorialized, celebrated, and more than anything, emphasized for tourist consumption (Lowe 12; Lowenthal 250). While the practice of literary tourism, or travel to places associated with works of literature or authors (Watson 12; Lowe 3), has garnered the attention of some scholars, the phenomena remain relatively unexplored. Nonetheless, the practice of visiting places associated with books and their authors remains incredibly popular even in the age of instantaneous entertainment streaming. Herbert (81) illustrated the links between visitors’ choice to visit three literary and artistic sites in France. Although data suggested patrons appreciated ties to famous artists, authors, and their works, there was little indication these tourists were dedicated fans who sought out a site specifically to honor the memorialized creator. Instead, visitors identified the literary and artistic links as traits setting the sites apart from neighboring heritage sites, prompting a visit. In a later survey-based study, Herbert (330) found tourists to two literary sites in the UK reported a number of reasons for their visit, but many cited literary interest as a motivating factor. Herbert also found most visitors had a good general awareness of the related authors and their works but concluded that overall “literary places prove to be no different from the experience of other heritage places” (329).

Research on other features of the literary tourism experience has also been conducted. Fawcett and Cormack (680) attempted to understand how the story of native author L.M. Montgomery was told across Prince Edward Island, Canada, by examining how authenticity was interpreted at sites dedicated to the Anne of Green Gables writer. Others have examined the long-term effect of literature encountered during childhood as fueling of a desire to travel to associated destinations later in life (Iwashita 75), the growth of literary tourism in the nineteenth century (Watson 2), and the iterations of Mark Twain in tourism in contemporary America (Lowe 7).

Many studies, however, are predicated on the notion that visitors to sites associated with authors or their stories are readers who know the author or text(s) well enough to recognize a destination’s literary references (see, for instance, Earl, 401). Westover (17) contends because visitors who have read a text prior to visiting a literary destination will have the cultural capital to appreciate the literary signs, symbols, and nods to the text experienced during their visit, they garner an added level of enjoyment from their trip. Likewise, upon surveying visitors on a coach tour of Catherine Cookson country in the UK, Pocock (241) found participants were largely dedicated readers who came prepared to see the aspects of the landscape that confirmed their notions of the writer and her fictional works. Later, Johnson (105) explored how the widely read novel Ulysses could work as a tourist guide to the city of Dublin and concluded the text provides visitors with a way to engage with and understand the modern city. Echoing the assumption that literature underlies literary place experiences, several scholars assert that upon visiting a location associated with a literary work, visitors cannot help but simultaneously see the landscape through the eyes of the author and the lens of reality (Pocock 240; Westover 12). Similarly, Lowe (36) argued visitors often cannot (or choose not to) discern between the real lives and histories of an author and the fictional past an author created. She illustrates this by noting how tourists often come to Hannibal, Missouri (Mark Twain’s hometown), hoping to see the white picket fence Tom Sawyer painted in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, associating it with Twain’s childhood. Thus, in some cases, fiction may even eclipse reality (Lowe, 40; see also Alexander 108). Similarly, upon their examination of Dracula-related tourism in Transylvania, Muresan and Smith (83) found visitors were looking for a mix of fact and fiction.

Among scholars who theorize about literary tourism, there is a general assumption that visitors to places of literary importance are driven by, or have at least read, the associated text(s). A number of scholars contend literary tourists are really just readers who have been left unfulfilled by texts and are searching other means of engaging with a book or its author (see Buell 177; Johnson 105; Lowe 40; Santesso 379; Watson 11; Westover 12). Other scholars contend literary places allow readers to further savor a text by learning more about the place or people who inspired the work, where a story was set, or the life of an author (Iwashita 75; Santesso 379; Watson 12). Given that many authors are widely known to use references to real places and actual, identifiable landmarks in their literary tales as a means of grounding the imaginative in reality (Groth 3) and making the entire story more believable (Groth 3; Pocock 51), visiting these locations is enticing for tourists.

Literature and Place

More broadly, the relationship between literature and place has been widely considered. Humanistic geographers, Taun (28) and Lefebvre (86), contend otherwise indistinguishable spaces become specific places (or a location becomes a meaningful and unique destination) in part through how we communicate about it and the ways people move around and act within it. Literature is one of the many ways we communicate about place. Literature gives people a way to visit a place they have never been and to imagine places unknown to them. In turn, literature shapes, in part, the way we think about place (Ryden 32; Taun 28). In the United States, for example, the local color movement in literature is largely credited with creating, stereotyping, and entrenching images of different regions of the country in the minds of the American public (Baker 33; Litwiller-Berte 142; Hsu 37; Shortridge 285). The literary genre, which featured detailed depictions of everyday life (albeit fictionalized and embellished) in geographic locations and social landscapes around the quickly expanding nation, found a huge following just after the Civil War when the railroads were building westward and new areas of the country were accessible to a growing number of people (Baker 35). The public was fascinated by the possibility of travel to these new places, and literary depictions of the local color allowed them to visit without the financial and physical challenges of travel in the late nineteenth century (Baker 36). The popularity of the publications was so prolific that many of the images of regional identity became ingrained in popular culture and are still recognizable today.

In turn, literature not only illustrates for readers what it is that makes a place different from other similar locations but also communicates, in part, what kind of behaviors are expected when visiting those destinations and introduces readers to what activities can be enacted while there. Montana, for example, has always been a sportsperson’s paradise but it was Norman Maclean’s novel A River Runs Through It, and later, Robert Redford’s film by the same name that sparked a wildly successful fly-fishing tourism industry (Fraser; Hepworth; Seaman 52). Both Maclean’s vivid literary depiction and Redford’s beautiful cinematic interpretation gave people a reason to travel to Montana, and an idea of what to expect there; they too could cast a line into a rushing glacier-fed river and pull out a large glistening trout. Some 25 years later, the fly-fishing industry remains healthy (Puckett), and just recently, the tiny town of Seeley Lake has begun hosting a biennial Norman Maclean literary festival. While it is extremely unlikely that every single potential visitor has read, seen, or even heard of A River Runs Through It (in either manifestation), scholars contend the images of place depicted in literature (and film) often permeate popular culture and are powerful influencers of people’s conceptualization of and behavior in place (Ryden 60; Shortridge 285). Thus, while all places, including literary places, may be many things to many people, the ways we communicate about a place are influential in how we think about that place (Lefebvre 42; Taun 31) and influence activities we engage in when visiting there (Edensor 65; Goffman 67; Light, 241). Yet while the connections between place and literature in a broad sense have been considered by scholars in a variety of fields, little research has addressed the effects of specific literary works on the places associated with them or their authors.

The Case—The Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site

To examine the role of literature in the experience of tourists in literary places, a deconstructive examination of traveler reviews about the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site was conducted.

Sandburg and His Literary Works

Carl Sandburg was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet. Born in Illinois in 1878 to Swedish immigrants, Sandburg worked in cities across the Midwest and is perhaps best known for his writing about the rapid industrialization of the country he witnessed as a young man during the early part of the twentieth century (NPS). As a boy, Sandburg grew up on the open Midwestern prairie and worked odd jobs to help support his large family, particularly after his father became underemployed in the wake of the economic downturn of the 1890s (NPS). During his teen years, Sandburg rode the rails around the Midwest and worked in a number of cities (Callahan 17). When the Spanish American war broke out, Sandburg enlisted and was stationed in Puerto Rico, though he never saw combat (Callahan 28). Upon his return from the war, the young veteran enrolled in college for a short time before growing restless and again heading out to ride the rails and work odd jobs around the Midwest. During his travels, Carl witnessed a changing America. Callahan explains that “great social changes during Sandburg’s young adulthood—unions being formed, workers revolting against extreme working conditions, [and] rapidly developing transportation and manufacturing technology was changing the nation from a predominantly agrarian society to a more urban and industrial society” (51). Seeing firsthand how the working class (predominantly immigrants) was exploited greatly influenced Sandburg’s writings (Callahan 73; Niven 84). As a socialist, his literature brought attention to the struggles of immigrants and the working class, the unfair and life-sucking work conditions resulting from industrialization, and the increasing economic divide between laborers and captains of industry. The writer wrote about the life of the working man and for this became known as the poet of the people (NPS).

Sandburg first won the Pulitzer Prize for Corn Huskers (1918), a book of poetry illustrating the many facets of industrialization taking place around the Midwest. His seminal work on Abraham Lincoln entitled Abraham Lincoln: The War Years won Sandburg his second Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and he later won a Pulitzer Prize again in poetry for his work on the depression, Complete Poems (1950). Despite having won the Pulitzer Prize three times, Sandburg seems to remain relatively obscure in contemporary culture. He is not widely depicted in popular culture in the way that Hemingway, Twain, or even, Steven King are. Yet, his home is a National Historic Site owned and run by the National Park Service.

 

The National Historic Site

Regardless of his lack of notoriety, the Sandburg residence became the property of the National Park Service when Carl’s wife Lillian donated it to the public in 1968. The site sits just a few minutes away from a freeway and a little over an hour away from the famed Blue Ridge Parkway—easily accessible to tourists in the western North Carolina area. Located just outside Hendersonville, North Carolina (about 30 miles from Asheville), the homestead features a large antebellum house situated on a small farm perched high on a picturesque ridge deep in the Appalachian Mountains. The home’s front door and large raised front porch trimmed with twin staircases faces northeast, affording visitors a pleasant view of neighboring forested ridges and distant mountain tops. Just a short walk from the main house sits Mrs. Sandburg’s goat barn and barnyard complete with a herd of young goats (direct descendants of her prize-winning herd). Several other original outbuildings are also near the house and serve as maintenance service buildings. The rest of the 264-acre property has over 5 miles of recreational trails that weave through the mountainous natural landscape (NPS).

Until recently, the house, which is also home to Sandburg’s large personal collection of books and the family’s original furnishings, had several roof leaks and areas of rotted wood and mold. However, a multimillion-dollar renovation and restoration project was just completed in mid-2018 (National Park Service; see also Axtell). The National Park Service’s investment in the house implies it believes the site is important not just as a place where the public can come and enjoy the natural local environment, but also as a tribute to the late author as evidenced by the decision to preserve his home and belongings (in order to continue to tell the story of his life and communicate the importance of his writings). Despite the Park Service’s belief that Sandburg is still a relevant and important figure in American history, little is known about how visitors perceive either Sandburg or his literature (either before or after their visit) or how those perceptions impact their experiences at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site.

Methods

Deconstruction

Borrowed from the field of literary theory, deconstruction assumes the meaning of any text is inherently subjective and may therefore be interpreted in any number of ways (Derrida in Culler 78; Saussure in Kneale 105). Text, whether communicating great literary tales, or a weekly grocery list, is essentially just a set of arbitrary signs and symbols that gain meaning from a relationship with and in opposition to other signs and symbols (Culler 113). Thus, the meaning of any text is contingent upon both the individual reading it and the reader’s contemporary culture. Semiotics, based on the same general theory, examines how signs and symbols communicate meaning through a variety of texts, from films, museum exhibits, landscapes, and other cultural artifacts to the experiences of individuals expressed in verbal, written, and artistic forms (Waterton and Watson 24).

The purpose of deconstruction, regardless of the type of text examined, is to tease out the multiple and often warring meanings it communicates to unsettle the dominant interpretation and highlight how a text is, in fact, also working to send an opposing message (Culler 22; DeMan in Kneale 109). The approach highlights how some meanings take precedence over others and instigate further examination of how dominant meanings are cultivated. Additionally, deconstruction is a flexible approach to research to achieve an overall goal rather than demanding researchers adhere to a rigid structure (Plug 387). Canton and Santos (374) for example, used the approach to examine the experiences of motorcyclists traveling Route 66 by investigating a number of data sets including interviews, narrative inquiry, and photo elicitation. Similarly, Chronis (375) used a deconstructive methodology to examine how tourists to the Gettysburg Civil War site derived heritage meaning. Despite its potential, few tourism scholars have used deconstruction as a research methodology. Though underused by tourism scholars, deconstruction is well suited for examining tourist opinions, given that tourism places are often wrought with various signs and symbols created specifically to be read or interpreted by tourists (Waterton and Watson 110).

Data Collection—eWOM

To deconstruct the experiences of visitors to the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, visitor-generated feedback posted to the travel review website TripAdvisor was collected. Given that the home has been under construction since 2016 and was therefore not accessible to tourists, data was collected reflecting visitors’ experiences prior to the start of the recent restoration project (i.e., prior to June 2016). Reviews were available as far back as October 7, 2007, and all reviews were collected for examination. In total, 257 reviews were in the data set.

Electronic word of mouth or eWOM is user-created data, usually written by a contributor (with little to no reward for posting feedback) and has become a popular way for tourists to investigate aspects of a destination before and during their visit, and to report back about their experience (see Catallops and Salvi 43; Livtin et al. 460). Scholars, noting the availability of eWOM reviews and its ability to reflect visitors’ thoughts in (close to) real time, have looked to various eWOM resources to examine how visitors conceptualize destinations (see, for example, Leung et al. 127), to explore the connection between attitudes toward destination and travel intention (see Jalilvand et al. 485) and to consider how tourism organizations might take advantage of user-generated content (see Akehurst 51).

Though insightful, scholars are careful to recognize visitors often only post about unusually good or unusually bad experiences. Many tourists never post about travel experiences at all, and of those who do, few offer more than a handful of details about their engagement with the subject. Further, there is often no way to verify a reviewer actually experienced the place or service posted about, no way to ensure the accuracy of the review, and no means of determining when a reviewer’s experience actually took place. Nonetheless, eWOM reviews offer researchers insight into the minds of tourists and a means of gathering a large amount of presumably unbiased data that can be used to examine a number of phenomena. And, like literature, content encountered on-line contributes to perceptions of related places and impressions of the types of activities and behaviors that can and should be enacted there (Cantallops and Salvi 43; Livtin et al. 466).

Data Analysis

The 257 reviews were first examined using an open-coding approach where the data were explored with no initial expectations about what might be found. During the initial coding phase, reviews were examined for any mention of features that contributed to a visit in one way or another (good, bad, or indifferent). Creswell explains open coding consists of “coding the data for its major categories of information … from this coding, axial coding emerges in which the researcher identifies one open coding category to focus on … then goes back to the data and creates categories around this phenomenon” (64). With this approach in mind, the data were first explored with an open mind allowing patterns to emerge, then, after patterns had been identified, each was examined in depth and from various angles. Many reviewers, for example, mentioned stopping in the gift shop as a part of their visit to the Carl Sandburg Home. In the initial phase of data analysis, mentions of the gift shop would have simply been coded gift shop. Upon closer inspection, a reviewer’s mention of the gift shop would be examined for its relationship to other themes developed. Visitors who mentioned a primary interest in Mrs. Sandburg’s goats, for example, then mentioned purchasing fudge made from the site’s goat milk at the gift shop would then be cross-coded as having been influenced by both the goats, and in turn, the gift shop. Codes were also considered in terms of their contribution to a reviewer’s visit. For instance, the steep trail from the parking lot was a positive aspect of their visit for some reviewers as the climb afforded them incredible views. However, the same trails were noted as challenging for other parties and therefore detracted from their overall experience. Themes were analyzed in aggregate and several overall conclusions were drawn.

With reliability and validity in mind, initial findings were scrutinized, and alternate explanations explored. Additionally, the researcher engaged in reflexivity by keeping in mind that literature is not often as important to tourists as it is to researchers. Sandburg’s relative obscurity was helpful in this regard as, despite having an extensive background in American literature, the researcher had no prior knowledge of either the author or his literary works. Finally, the researcher also engaged in memoing, where developing themes, findings, and conclusions were noted as data analysis progressed. Babbie (413) points out that both reflexivity and memoing are important aspects to ensure validity and reliability.

Findings

Given that literary places, like all places, are many things to many people, reviewers expectedly reported a broad array of preconceived notions, personal situations, travel companion considerations, and positive and negative site attributes that contributed to their experiences at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. Despite the range of feedback, seven general themes emerged. The themes are not mutually exclusive, and some aspects of several themes overlapped the aspects of others. Above all, two themes emerged far more frequently than the others: the natural aspects of the property and experiences related to the site’s goats.

Natural/Pastoral Environment

The site’s extensive trail system was central to the experiences of an array of visitors. Tourists marveled at the natural beauty including trees, small animals, birds, and other plants encountered along the trails, and the views of neighboring mountain ridges, and deep, thickly treed valleys below. Comments like “listening to the birds sing and smelling the fresh mountain air was invigorating” illustrate what countless other reviews also noted. Those that alluded to being local residents reported regular use of the trails for recreational endeavors such as exercise, dog walking, and as an area where they could entertain both children and guests. One visitor noted “I have been many times for a pleasant walk and with guests with children,” while another pointed out that “dogs on leashes are welcome in the park, and there were lots of folks out taking advantage of that.”

Both groups indicated an appreciation for the “quiet” or “peaceful” experience the property’s trails provided them. In the same sense, many respondents acknowledged that “being out in nature” along the trails allowed them to “unplug” or “get away” from the modern world. Appreciation for the area’s natural beauty and vistas the trails afforded visitors were also widely appreciated: “A gorgeous property with stunning views and several hiking trails”; “rustic trails … are beautifully maintained … and unspoiled by excessive unnatural aids”; “very serene … I enjoy going by myself or with the family … we go every chance we get.”

Under the same general theme, the overall aesthetic of the pastoral landscape at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site was impactful for visitors. Reviews noted the picturesque way the large white antebellum home was set in a clearing above a large mossy pond. Illustrating this notion, one visitor marveled at the home, describing it as a “big old Greek Revival-style mansion completed in 1839 (with outbuildings added in the years following).” While another noted that “the setting is lovely” given the way “the house, a white one-and-a-half story on a raised basement, with Greek Revival columns on the front porch, built around 1839 as a summer cottage by a South Carolina railroad owner, sits on a knoll above a lake.” Others found the old barn and other rusty red outbuildings aesthetically pleasing aspects of the farm’s rural landscape. “Many out buildings are left as their original purpose, including slave quarters and the milking barn,” explained one post. Indicative of the property’s aesthetic appeal, one visitor posted “the property is quite large, and the rural mountain views are both peaceful and spectacular.”

Western North Carolina is known for its natural beauty, so visitors’ appreciation of the natural and aesthetic beauty is no surprise. However, visitors overwhelmingly viewed the property as a place to engage with nature, be outdoors, and find peace. Ultimately, a recent visitor summed up what many had expressed in their reviews:

For me, the property is all about nature. The trails wind through well maintained forests, with a variety of flora and birds. It’s worth the challenging hike to the top of Big Glassy Mountain to see the impressive views. The goats and their barns and the dairy where Mrs. Sandburg bottled milk is worth a look. It’s a relaxing and inspirational place.

The Goats

Equally as pervasive among the reviews were experiences related to the site’s herd of goats. The goats’ barn and pasture are open to the public, and, used to the attention, the goats are quite friendly. Visitors enjoyed petting the goats, feeding the goats, and taking photos with the goats. One post captured the feelings many shared “we loved (sic) the goats and could have stayed much longer.” Others noted that they had been excited to see the goats in order to “pet them and take great pictures of them up-close.” Given the novelty and immersive experience the goats offer visitors, it is no surprise that they were widely noted as factors contributing to people’s experiences. However, the popularity of the goats reinforces the notion that the pastoral elements of the property were most impactful for visitors.

In addition to interacting with the goats directly, visitors enjoyed purchasing goat-milk related products in the gift shop and learning about Lillian Sandburg’s connection to the goats as the animals are direct descendants of her original herd. The gifts shop sells various items, mostly National Park Service branded souvenirs, a number of books about the local area, several books written by Sandburg, and an array of goat-milk based items including fudge, caramels, cheeses, and half gallons of the milk itself. One woman was, similar to many visitors, impressed with the “small gift shop in the basement of the house where you can buy goat cheese and other items.” In fact, many reviewers who mentioned the gift shop reported being most intrigued by the goat milk products. “There is goat cheese for sale in the gift shop—not sure that the goats are milked commercially any more there or not though,” pondered a reviewer from Charleston, S.C. Fewer reviewers were affected by the goat herd’s link to Lillian, but those who mentioned the connection were clearly intrigued by the National Park Service’s willingness to sustain the living heritage of the property. “Be sure to visit Mrs. Sandburg’s goat barn, they still raise the four varieties of goats Mrs. Sandburg (and others) prized” noted one reviewer echoing what others had also said. For many, however, the experiential aspect of interacting with the goats and of consuming goat-related products helped to link many visitors to the past. “I liked showing my kids and grandchildren a home furnished in the 50’s when I grew up … and they played with pretty 4-day old baby goats and learned how to make goat cheese,” wrote a visitor who lives nearby.

Seasonal Aspects and Special Events

Various infrequent natural occurrences and planned special events also contributed to a number of visitors’ experiences. In addition to the mild weather, autumn was recommended as an excellent time to visit. Many reviewers noted an enthusiastic appreciation for the beauty of the fall leaves. Capturing this notion, a tourist from Georgia wrote, “the setting is lovely, especially in the fall when the leaves have color and are reflected in the pond/lake in the front of the property.” Others echoing the same opinion posted reviews noting that the property was “especially beautiful during leaf season” and “always peaceful and serene and very lovely in the fall.” Winter was reported as a quieter time to visit but was still notable for a number of visitors. “Even in December,” explained a tourist from Nebraska, “along the trail, we found vegetation, waterfalls, and a couple of small animals.” “At Christmas, the house is decorated beautifully,” another visitor pointed out noting how it had been an enjoyable experience for her and her family. Springtime offered visitors a unique experience. “I’ve visited this site several times in the past” wrote one visitor, “but the last visit was special … it was raining, which lent a particular ambience to everything … the grounds were peaceful, the gardens beautiful in bloom and a bonus was visiting with the goats and their newborns.” While this was widely regarded as a positive aspect of the site, several reviewers mentioned the negative impact that the natural elements of the property had on their allergies. The property’s goatherd also regularly expands in the spring, and visiting the baby goats was a popular seasonal activity. “One of the most popular times of the year to visit the park is in the spring when the baby goats are born … all the goats run around the farm and you can pet them, making this a great place for kids” pointed out one local visitor.

Few visitors mentioned the summer specifically except to note the increased heat, humidity, and number of bugs affecting their time on the property. The “trails are (sic) wooded and best done when the weather is cool,” explained a reviewer, “otherwise it will be humid and there will be a lot of bugs.” Others described their summer visit as “bordering on torture” and advised people to visit the property instead “in early spring or fall, but not summer.” Regardless, a number of regular site visitors proclaimed it “beautiful in all seasons!” noting “this is a wonderful place to visit over and over when the weather is nice” and thus implying that tourists should make a point to return to the location to experience it again during another time of year.

The House

The house itself garnered attention from a number of guests. Visitors remarked on both the exterior aesthetics of the home—marveling at the beauty of the antebellum architecture and the position of the residence in a natural clearing at the top of a wooded ridge. “The home itself is charming with a beautiful view of the distant mountains,” said one visitor capturing the appreciation many other reviewers also had for the house and its surroundings.

Touring the house was a popular site experience and both positive and negative reviews of the guides leading the tours played a role in people’s visits. Those who enjoyed their guide noted the docent told stories about Sandburg and his family with enthusiasm and candor. “Our tour guide was excellent and really made the visit for me” one reviewer noted capturing this theme. Quirky vignettes that illustrated the late author’s personality and his relationship with his wife and daughters were well received. “We had a really informative tour with the docent who brought the Sandburg family to life and we could just imagine them writing” said one woman. On the other hand, tour guides who either moved too quickly through the home or focused mostly on factual information and the professional achievements of Sandburg and his family were often perceived as dry and uninteresting. One reviewer from New York, like others, wanted more time to explore the home’s many nooks and crannies, but thought he was moved along too quickly. “The tour guide did not give us the time we so desired to look at all of Carl’s books to get a glimpse into his mind,” he said, illustrating the frustration also reported by other visitors. Regardless of their take on the guide leading their tour, numerous reviewers were impressed with Sandburg’s extensive collection of books. The packed shelves lining nearly every wall upstairs and half the main level made an impression on many guests who toured the home. “When you enter the house one thing you will see is books, books, books and more books! And of course, with books you need bookshelves—lots of them. There were bookshelves in every room except maybe the kitchen!” exclaimed one reviewer. There must be “more than 70,000 books [that] line floor to ceiling bookshelves in nearly every room!” wrote another man. Thus, as one tourist put it, “One cannot help but be impressed with his collection of books.”

The condition and setup of the home itself were also notable aspects of their visit for many who took the home tour (ironic because the house was recently renovated due to severe moisture damage and deterioration that had affected the building in recent years). “On the guided tour, you’ll see the Sandburg house much as it was in the 1960s, as if the family had stepped out for a walk,” noted one respondent. Tables scattered with papers, books left open and resting on chairs situated in quiet sunny nooks throughout the house, and original dishes, linens, and furnishings gave the impression that the home was not a museum to be admired from a far, but rather an inviting and warm home where visitors “could just imagine them (the Sandburgs) writing, entertaining guests, and taking Mrs. Sandburg’s prize-winning goats to a show,” as one reviewer put it. This gave visitors the sense of stepping back in time and was, in turn, viewed as largely authentic; an accurate representation of an average home in the 1950s/60s. “It’s a real step back in time if you grew up or lived in the 1950s or 1960s as there are many objects in the home you will recognize” pointed out a male reviewer from New Jersey. Others noted that the home reflected “how real people lived” pointing out that the home was “humble” and “warm” exemplifying what they believed to be Sandburg’s values. Articulating this point one woman posted “his (Sandburg’s) very simple lifestyle is appropriately preserved in this modest home.” In this sense, the house was seen as “normal” particularly in contrast to the nearby Biltmore. “The house is low key and charming, a HUGE contrast with the excess and opulence of the Biltmore, which isn’t too far away,” wrote one reviewer. Thus, visitors appeared to be engaging in their own deconstruction of the area’s attractions. In other words, the meaning of the site (the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site) was derived, in part, from the meaning of a neighboring site (the Biltmore Estate). For many, this was enjoyable; “a nice change from the Biltmore” as one woman from Maryland put it.

Also located in the home, the gift shop in the basement emerged as an important factor contributing to the experiences of a number of visitors. Some reported that they had enjoyed exploring the items in the gift shop (consisting of postcards, several of Sandburg’s texts, books about the history of the local and surrounding areas, t-shirts featuring various natural motifs, trinkets made by local artisans, and of course, goat-related items such as goat milk cheeses, goat milk fudge, goat milk, and a stuffed-goat toy). Exemplifying this interest in the gift shop was one woman’s review that read “I was also referred to several important books in the Gift Shop and I was happy to discover that any book purchase receives the National Park Carl Sandburg embossed book stamp inside it. I will treasure my purchases for a long time.”

Sandburg

Only a handful of visitors indicated having any sort of existing knowledge of either Sandburg or his texts. “My guess is that 9 out of 10 people won’t know who Carl Sandburg was (and 99 out of 100 have never read anything he wrote),” estimated one astute visitor. Yet, many reviewers reported having learned something about Sandburg, his literature, and/or the values he publicly advocated for. “I learned so much about someone I could have only told you one fact about,” a woman from New Jersey wrote reflecting this notion. A number of visitors were surprised at Sandburg’s many talents, “I did not know he was a folk singer!” another woman said. Several saw the site first and foremost as a place to learn about Sandburg “after finding that our grandchildren did not know who Carl Sandburg was or what he did, we decided to take them to Connemara (the name of Sandburg’s estate)” explained a visitor from Tennessee. Others had not necessarily sought out the site because of Sandburg, but expressed their visit had sparked an interest in reading Sandburg’s works nonetheless. “I came away encouraged to read more of CS works,” posted one woman. Echoing this same notion, another reviewer noted the influence of a visit on literary interests, “I never appreciated poetry before, but once I visited Carl Sandburg’s house and learned something about this ‘Man of All Seasons,’ I was hooked on anything he wrote!” Regardless of whether guests had been familiar with the author or his works prior to visiting, a number of reviewers noted the literary contributions Sandburg made and, in turn, viewed him as an important American, and his home as a place to pay tribute to his literary and political efforts and the values he wrote about. “Carl Sandburg is a national treasure,” wrote one man indicative of the notion. Another post claimed, “if you are a Carl Sandburg fan this is the best memorial in the country to the famous 1950s author and philosopher.” For a fair number of visitors, the site’s connections to Sandburg the man, who they considered admirable for his literary feats, was central to the way many visitors conceptualized the site and the experiences they cultivated there. “You will see the life and story of a notable American family fastidiously conserved in the form of their physical environment,” reflected one user highlighting the way some tourists conceptualized Sandburg in relationship to their visit.

Site Appeal Characteristics

Reviews also indicated that a number of visitors happened upon the site without any previous knowledge of either the site or the author. “This was quite unexpected for us to find this nice little gem on a recent road trip we were on” explained a traveler from Maryland. Another woman depicted a similar scenario, “We had no idea we would stumble across this wonderful place. I’m glad we did (if we had been on a different road we would have missed it).” Thus, for a number of reviewers, a visit was more than anything, convenient. Others sought out the property because they believed that it offered “something for the whole family; culture, baby goats to pet, flower and vegetable gardens, and hiking with pristine vistas” as one reviewer put it. Citing the need to entertain visiting family members of varying ages and interests one man explained, “my wife and I live less than 5 minutes from the home and always make sure we take our guests to enjoy this great attraction.” Another local resident pointed out that she “had been many times for a pleasant walk and with guests with children.” In this sense the site was conceptualized as a place where kids could run around outside and play with goats, older family members could relax and take in the views, and readers and history buffs could tour the home and explore the grounds.

The site’s low/free cost (the property itself is free to the public, a tour of the home is $5.00 and is discounted for children, seniors, and military) was central to many visitors’ experiences. “$5 admission is really a bargain for an historic home tour” pointed out one visitor. “Not least of our delight in this place is the price” said another woman. Others made the trip strictly because of the affordability, “We visited the CS home when in the area for a wedding basically because it was free (except house tour) and advertised walking trails.”

Visitors with Children

The site was also conceptualized as a place to occupy children. Parents reported bringing their children to the site not just to wear them out but also to let them learn about nature, see the baby goats, and/or attend the Rootabaga Plays (an annual outdoor play series featuring storylines based on Sandburg’s collection of stories of the same name). One local parent highlighted how “Kids can pet and feed the goats too” while another pointed out that “experienced staff and new and growing animals every year make this a perfect place [for the kids] to learn about the animals.” Others reported making special memories with their young family members during special events hosted at the National Historic Site. “My grandson was taken to Connemara when he was about 3 to enjoy the Rootabaga stories performed by the apprentices at the Flat Rock Playhouse and to enjoy the goats. He fell in love and begged to return to “Carla Sandburger’s.” Overall, the property was widely viewed as a great place to bring kids of all ages, with the exception of the house tour which several reviewers pointed out that, while interesting, might “bore the kids.”

National Historic Site/National Park Service Site

Finally, a handful of visitors viewed the property (at least in part) as significant because of its status as a U.S. National Park. Reflecting this view of the site was a woman from Oregon who reported that she visited the site because “I was visiting the Asheville, NC area and always love to visit National Park Service sites.” Similarly, a man from nearby Greenville, South Carolina made the trip simply “to get our senior passes for the national parks.” Those motivated to visit because of the site’s importance as a National Park reported being primarily engaged with the natural features of the site instead of with the history of Sandburg or his literary works.

Conclusions and Discussion

What Is the Role of Literature in Literary Tourism?

While the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site was, as expected, many things to many people, the findings suggest specific literary works were of little importance to visitors’ overall experiences. Instead, findings indicate the connections to Sandburg, and in turn, his literature, were an added bonus but not central to the site’s meaning or the experiences visitors cultivated there. Few visitors alluded to any of Sandburg’s works, thus implying that his literary contributions had little effect on either their choice to visit the site or their experiences at the site. Rather, visitors overwhelmingly depicted the site as a place to recreate and to engage with nature in a rural pastoral setting. In contrast to many prevailing theories about literary tourism, at this particular site, there was little indication that visitors knew anything about either Sandburg or his Pulitzer Prize-winning literature. Further, findings here challenge the widely held notion that literature is the main reason tourists are drawn to literary sites as many scholars have theorized (Buell 177; Johnson, 105; Lowe, 40; Santesso 379; Watson 11; Westover 12).

While Herbert also found little evidence in his examination of literary sites in Europe to support the notion that literature was central to visitor experiences, many respondents to his surveys had (as other scholars have also predicted) a “good general knowledge” (80) of the related author and/or their literary works (Herbert 81). However, that was not the case with the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. Out of 257 reviews examined, only a handful of posts even hinted that the reviewer had any thorough familiarity with any of Sandburg texts and not a single one indicated that a specific literary work had influenced their visit to the site. Given the stark difference in findings between this study and Herbert’s, further research is suggested. Perhaps writing style, use of specific geographic features in a text, the number of times the story has been recreated in popular culture, or other aspects of a literary work or an author who penned it play a role in the number and type of tourists a literary site attracts, and the level of visitors’ knowledge. Some scholars have even questioned whether literary genre plays any role in the sites’ popularity (Herbert; Lowe). Perhaps there is something about the author himself that influences visitors. What is it about Sandburg that has allowed him to be forgotten by popular culture when images of Hemingway, Twain, Fitzgerald, and even Sandburg’s contemporaries like Capote, Welty, London, and Sinclair persist? This is important for sites and destinations looking to capitalize on their links to famous authors or specific literary works. To attract tourists, provide the type of experiences they expect, and to profit from themed events, festivals, and souvenirs, literary places must know what visitors are looking for during their visit. A more thorough understanding of the economic impacts of literary tourism would also be helpful to both scholars and destinations with literary links.

To visitors, the site itself seems to both reinforce and conflict with their image of Sandburg and his values. Of the few reviewers who indicated a familiarity with Sandburg’s works, several believed the home and site was a proper memorial; reflective of the author’s mostly socialist values—primarily seen as humble in contrast to the opulence of the nearby Biltmore. Conversely, for some, the site was seen as undermining the values Sandburg stood for. As one astute visitor pointed out, the home (and property) “although not an opulent mansion, is still awfully fancy for someone who embraced socialism like Sandburg. The amount of books were surprising … but even more surprising were the 1950’s TVs in abundance in the house.” Though the sprawling farmstead was deeded to the National Park Service for the enjoyment and enrichment of all people (NPS), the property itself was no small investment.

Further, while Sandburg would likely have enjoyed the idea that people were coming to his home to enjoy the same natural elements he admired so much in viewing the site primarily as a natural recreation area it is largely excluding references to the urban life that was central to much of what Sandburg so passionately worked to draw attention to in his writings. Given that, as one visitor noted, Sandburg “won 3 Pulitzer Prizes (2 for poetry and one for a bio of Lincoln), but is most famous for his writing in and about Chicago and his political beliefs,” it is notable that the memorial property does not fully reflect the values of the author. Beyond the home itself, not a single review mentioned how the site related to Sandburg’s commentary on industrialization, economic inequality, and the struggles of immigrants and the working class. These findings may be of interest to the National Park Service who may consider tweaking the memorial to better cater to visitors’ perceptions of the site and/or to better communicate the importance of Sandburg and his literary works to American history. Scholars may also find these disparities between an author’s literature and the memorials dedicated to them worthy of investigation, as memorialization often reflects more about the society that creates them than the thing that is commemorated (Lowenthal, 18).

Finally, electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) has inherent limitations as a data source (as on-line reviews are well known to be skewed—written by either highly satisfied or extremely disappointed customers). However, star ratings aside, because reviews are usually unsolicited, they can offer researchers insight into visitor’s experiences in a particular destination without any influence from the researcher (Xiang and Gretzel 180). Additionally, to gather this type of data in person, spanning such a range of dates, times, and visitor types, would be both prohibitively time-consuming and quite expensive. Thus, eWOM reviews provide researchers with an easily accessible place to start examining how visitors conceptualize a specific tourist attraction (Owens 40). Nonetheless, more research, using other methodologies, is needed to confirm the findings of this study and to explore how the role of literature may differ from literary site to literary site. Additionally, both in this study and previous studies, visitors expressed a desire to seek out related texts after having visited the literary site (Seaman 190), yet little is known about this phenomenon. The potential for tourism to spark an interest in and understanding of literature could be of use to educators worldwide and is therefore worthy of scholarly attention. Finally, if literature is not central to the literary tourism experience, what drives this enduringly popular niche form of tourism?

 

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