I’ve been reading Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and her start as an artist in New York City in the late 1960s and early 70s. It’s a fantastic memoir, I highly recommend it for its mesmerizing story of how Patti Smith went from being a homeless, teenage arts wannabe to a highly accomplished songwriter, performer, and author.
|Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith|
One thing that stands out to me about Patti Smith’s recollections of her early days as an artist is how important it was for her to stand in the places other artists had stood:
“My friend Janet Hamill had been hired at Scribner’s Bookstore, and she found a way of giving me a helping hand by sharing her good fortune. She spoke to her superiors, and they offered me a position. It seemed like a dream job, working in the retail store of the prestigious publisher, home to writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their editor, the great Maxwell Perkins. Where the Rothschilds bought their books, where paintings by Maxfield Parrish hung in the stairwell.”
I share Patti Smith’s love of locales that artists, and writers in particular, have lived in or visited. I’ve made a pilgrimage to Walt Whitman’s house in Camden,New Jersey, where you can still view his signature floppy, gray felt hat. I’ve hiked to Dove Cottage in the Lake District of the United Kingdom to see where Wordsworth and Coleridge had their literary commune. I’ve walked across the bridge in Trieste, Italy, that James Joyce crossed each day on his way to work.
|The author with the statue of James Joyce in Trieste, Italy|
I’m as much of a literary groupie as anyone. There is something thrilling for me about visiting these places and seeing objects that my writer heroes touched. In the presence of those places I become like a true believer who hopes to experience the healing power of a saint’s metatarsal bone displayed in a gold monstrance. Maybe I’m subconsciously hoping that gazing up at the plaque on the house whereElizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning lived in Florence will somehow help me to harness the power of their art to energize my own. If only it was that simple!
Part of me remains deeply suspicious of artistic hero worship. After all, almost no one knew who James Joyce was when he crossed the Ponte Rosso in Trieste every day in 1905. He wouldn’t publish his first book of fiction, Dubliners, till nine years later. That bridge became famous because James Joyce did the unbelievably hard and inspired work of writing the great stories that make up Dubliners. The way to make your reputation as a writer is not to imitate James Joyce or to drink a Hugo aperitif near his statue in Trieste, as lovely as that is.
Yes, living la vie bohème and being near artists and their haunts may seem glamorous. But art is like sports: watching other people do it is not the same as taking part. There’s no substitute for the hard work of the artist.
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