Q: The former homes of four prolific American poets are preserved in the National Park System. Can you name these four beloved writers?
A: Many writers have connections with national parks, from Walt Whitman who served as a Civil War nurse at what is now Frederick and Spotsylvania National Military Park to three Beat poets—Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen—who worked as fire lookouts at North Cascades National Park in the 1950s. Yet, of the multitude of American poets (and the multitudes within them), only four poets’ homes are now preserved in the National Park System.
1. Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). Born in 1872, Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first African-American writers to gain national attention for his work. In his short 33 years, he published 12 books of poetry, in addition to novels, short stories, essays, and song lyrics. A star student, Dunbar lacked the financial resources to go to college, and supported himself for a time as an elevator operator, selling copies of his first book of poems to people who rode in his elevator. Eventually, through determination and persistence with his craft, he won the attention of luminaries in the literary world, as well as influential leaders such as Frederick Douglass, though he was sometimes criticized for his use of dialectic speech and his portrayal of African-Americans as caricatures. The Dayton Aviation National Historic Site in Dayton, Ohio, preserves the home where he lived with his mother during the final years of his life. Read his poem, “Sympathy.”
2. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). In the mid-19th century, Longfellow was one of the most famous writers in the world. His broad success helped demonstrate the popular appeal of romantic poetry, which had previously been viewed as a luxury of the genteel class. His poems often referenced mythological themes and spoke with a moral goal in mind, extolling virtues such as hard work and courage. Though sometimes criticized for lacking imagination, he elevated the role of poetry in American society, opening new doors to authors wanting to make a living with their writing. The Longfellow House Washington Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge, Massachusetts, preserves the home where the poet lived for nearly 40 years and wrote some of his best-known works. Read his poem, “The Landlord’s Tale. Paul Revere’s Ride.”
3. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). This darkly romantic writer is perhaps best known for his haunting and imaginative short fiction, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Yet, Poe’s keen, descriptive voice was also influential in the world of poetry. A key proponent of the “art for art’s sake” movement, he believed a poem should convey style and expression rather than a moral message, and his verse explored themes of love and death with experimental zeal. (Poe was also well-known in his time as a literary critic; one of his favorite writers to criticize, interestingly, was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.) Though Poe was born in Boston and died in Baltimore, he considered his happiest and most productive period to be the six years he spent in Philadelphia. He lived in several homes during that time; the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site preserves the only one which survives. Read his poem, “The Bells.”
4. Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). The Pulitzer Prize-winning Sandburg built his career as a voice for the common man and a “poet of the people.” The son of Swedish immigrants, he spent his formative years hopping trains as a hobo, shining shoes, delivering newspapers and milk, painting houses, driving trucks, and working as a farm hand, soldier, and journalist—building, all the while, a deep love of American life. He is famous for writing in a plain, frank voice, and embracing free verse. The Carl Sandburg National Historic Site in North Carolina preserves the home where he and his wife Lillian Steichen Sandburg lived, worked, and raised goats for decades. Descendants of Mrs. Sandburg’s goats still roam the site’s 264 pastoral acres. Read Sandburg’s poem, “Chicago.”
Note that other poets’ homes are national historic landmarks, such as Emily Dickinson’s brick house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Though the designation recognizes the outstanding historical significance of these buildings, they are not official national park sites.
Learn more about National Poetry Month, celebrating its 20th year this year.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.