August is a major vacation-travel month for many of us in the profession.
Thoreau reverenced the title of traveller. “His profession is the best symbol of our life. Going from ______ to ______; it is the history of every one of us.”
But when it came to less abstract, more concrete journeys, he rarely stirred from Concord and its environs; indeed, he scorned foreign travel. “It is not worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.”
I find travel to be one of the joys of life. I especially enjoy visiting places associated with literary, musical and artistic figures with whom I feel close.
Among the places I have visited over the years are Tolstoy’s country estate at Yasnaya Polyana; Chekhov’s house in Yalta where he wrote “Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard,” and the dueling ground in St. Petersburg where Pushkin was mortally wounded.
Also, Verdi’s house in Busseto in Northern Italy where he composed many of his operas. The Amsterdam house where Rembrandt lived, and No. 17 Gough Square, off Fleet Street in London, where Samuel Johnson worked in a garret with six copyists compiling his Dictionary.
In Ireland I have travelled to the island of Inishmaan where John Millington Synge came, having been advised by Yeats to “Give up Paris, you will never create anything by reading Racine…. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.”
This was the best advice Synge ever received.
The Aran Islands lie off the western edge of Europe. The next parish to the west is America. From 1898 to 1902, Synge spent a part of each year on Inishmaan, staying in the whitewashed stone house, with its thatched roof, of the McDonagh family. While there, he heard the stories which formed the basis for his plays, “The Playboy of the Western World” and “Riders to the Sea.”
Irish, not English, is the language spoken on Inishmaan.
In this place of unfailing courtesy, you do not pass a stranger on a country road without offering a greeting.
To “Dia dhuit,” “God be with you,” I respond, “God and Mary be with you.”
My attempt to see Tchaikovsky’s house at Kiln seemed doomed to failure on a visit to Russia where I was a member of a delegation of American lawyers, our host being the Institute of State and Law of the Academy of Sciences. On arriving in Moscow, I suggested we visit Klin, but our host had a plan to follow and Klin was not part of the plan. As we prepared to pass by the town, my Russian genes, from mother’s side of the family, inspired me. I began loudly humming music from “Swan Lake.” No Russian can resist the music of leaping swans. The leader of the Russian delegation directed the driver to proceed forthwith to Tchaikovsky’s house where delighted Russians and Americans joyfully exited from the van.
In the house I see a gift to Tchaikovsky from students at the law school he attended. His copy of Pushkin’s, “Eugene Onegin,” bears marginal notes in his hand. He composed a brilliant opera based on the work.
My explorations are not always successful. I try to find the small yellow house Van Gogh rented in Arles, on which he devoted such loving care, hoping that other artists would join him there to create “a studio of the future.” Gauguin did come for a brief and tumultuous visit—as well as to lessen his deep loneliness. The house was destroyed in a 1944 bombing raid.
My visits extend to the world of Greek mythology. Once I sat on a rock on the island of Naxos, Walkman in hand, listening to Richard Strauss’ opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos”—the musical segment I had selected announcing the dramatic sea-borne arrival of Bacchus.
On the island of Delos, birthplace of Apollo, god of poetry and music, I feel as Flaubert: “Let us sing to Apollo as in ancient days and breathe deeply of the fresh cold air of Parnassus; let us strum our guitars and clash our cymbals and whirl like dervishes in the eternal hubbub of Forms and ideas.”
To come full circle, this past spring I travel to Concord to pay homage to Thoreau. His cabin on Walden Pond measured 10 by 15 feet, the size of my bedroom. On the day I moved into my New York City apartment 48 years ago, soon after graduating from law school, I had only one wooden chair. Thoreau had three for his cabin: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
At the cemetery in Concord, I visit Thoreau’s grave. The small headstone reads simply, “Henry.”
As moving to me as Tolstoy’s grave in a birch wood at Yasnaya Polyana.
William J. Dean is a lawyer in New York City and the former executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.