Where They Wrote: Heather O’Neill’s Literary Tour of New England


The Canadian novelist visits the hallowed homes of great American authors.

With the first draft of my novel in the hands of my editor, I had every intention of spending a week reading. I had just settled in with a stack of books when my partner declared that he would like to go on a vacation. I told him there was nowhere in the world I wanted to be but here.

“Isn’t there an author’s house you want to visit somewhere within driving distance?”

He knew the only thing that would tear me away from the words of writers was their houses.

March 20, 2024
Heather O’Neill hugging her partner in front of one of the houses on her literary tour in New England
Photo: Heather O’Neill
Heather O'Neill inside one of the houses on her literary tour with victorian furniture
Photo: Heather O’Neill

“Well, I have always wanted to see Herman Melville’s house in Massachusetts.”


“While we are in New England, I want to see Edward Gorey, Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton’s houses.”

The next morning, he was outside with a rented Jeep and an itinerary. I was quite surprised to see how close the houses were to each other, so I packed a bag and we were off.

Day 1

An illustration of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables

Salem, Massachusetts

I like any story about a single mother, since I was one. And I acutely felt the shame that comes with it. So naturally, I was fascinated by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter.

I was in a witchy mood when we walked over to The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne was related to one of the judges who presided over the Salem witch trials, and we had just watched a re–enactment in an old church.

The seven–gabled house is made up of strange little staircases, surprising rooms and hallways that turn in unexpected directions. A visitor in search of the bathroom in the night could easily get lost in this maze. It’s no wonder Hawthorne used it as the basis for a haunted house novel. Hidden doors lead to secret staircases for the ghosts of children to continue to play elaborate games of hide–and–seek into the 21st century.

A large portrait of Hawthorne hangs on the wall of a tiny hidden study. Given his history of maladies that often left him bedridden, I was surprised to find a handsome young man staring back at me. I believe it was very much in vogue for writers to be recluses back then, and he fancied himself one. But he was always getting lonely and sneaking off to meet someone for cards.

Day 2

An illustration of the Edward Gorey House

The Edward Gorey House

Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts

After the death of George Balanchine, artistic director of the New York City Ballet, Edward Gorey, who rarely missed a performance, decided it was time for him to leave Manhattan. So, broken–hearted, he moved to a house on Cape Cod known as the Elephant House.

In old photos of the house, the walls are covered in paintings, postcards and shelves crammed with old books and assorted aging teddy bears. There are large stacks of art books and piles of newspapers in the living room. Preposterously fat and fluffy cats can be found perched in the most awkward, hazardous spots, settled in as comfortably as gargoyles.

When we arrived, the cats were long gone. Now, a tidy museum commemorates Gorey’s work as an illustrator, writer, animator and set designer. A rotating display of his collections is on exhibit. He had a frog statue collection, a pill bottle collection, a ring collection, a salt and pepper shakers collection. If I lived nearby, I would surely visit monthly to discover another collection, perhaps one of his delightful drawings of ill–fated children. Gorey’s subversive take on childhood as a fraught, gloomy period, filled with accidents, has always resonated with me.

Day 3

An illustration of the Emily Dickinson Museum

Emily Dickinson Museum

Amherst, Massachusetts

Emily Dickinson lived in a beautiful, large, yellow brick house most of her life. Inside, the carpets have bursting colourful flowers all over them. In her bedroom, which she hardly left, the wallpaper is white with bright pink roses. There is a miniature desk by the window where she wrote her poems. You probably could not write a novel on it. Novels, by their nature, create mountains of drafts. But she was a poet of extraordinary precision. Each word resounds, like a sentence read aloud by a judge.

Unlike Hawthorne, Dickinson was a true recluse. When our tour guide told us we would walk to her brother’s house, I was stunned. Dickinson had a large correspondence with her beloved sister–in–law. They would speak of missing each other and the long months since they had last seen each other. But the house is literally next door. Dickinson had the children in the family deliver the letters to her sister–in–law.

Women wore such confining clothes that perhaps it was very difficult to walk from one place to another. A trip to the grocery store would have been an arduous journey. You might find a crinoline hooked to a branch. Or you might get picked up by a gust of wind and blown back a mile. Or heaven forbid, upside down in a tree.

An illustration of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Concord, Massachusetts

Louisa May Alcott and her sisters did not have this problem. They were famous for running about without crinolines and doing cartwheels outside their house. The Orchard House looks mauve and plain from the outside. It reminds me of one of those large barns on the side of the road that has been converted to sell antiques or fireworks. Although, who am I to judge? It has starred in multiple Hollywood adaptations of Little Women.

As a child, I was envious of the March sisters in Little Women. They were all so supportive of one another. To receive a compliment from anyone in my family was rare if nigh impossible. Thankfully, writers have created all sorts of different childhoods for readers to inhabit. And so, the March sisters were my siblings, too.

There is a joyful, cozy feeling to the house. Everything is slightly humble and run down, and you have to stoop to get through some doorways. You can feel Alcott and her sisters dressed in makeshift costumes, reciting lines and whooping wildly. This is where she and her sisters put on plays. This house is haunted by happiness.

An illustration of Henry David Thoreau’s Cabin

Henry David Thoreau’s Cabin and Walden Pond

Concord, Massachusetts

There was a map beside the parking lot. On it was a drawing of where we were standing, and very close by I noticed Walden Pond, the famous pond in Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

My partner was already scrambling into his swim trunks. Considering Thoreau’s book is a treatise on living as a recluse in the wild, I had imagined the pond deeper in the woods, much farther away from civilization. (I later read that Thoreau’s mother would bring him sandwiches and do his laundry.)

The pond sits as still as a mirror in a ring of lush green trees that turns the water gold and dark green. The scene was so endearing and sweet, I began to understand why Thoreau imagined himself a million miles away from where anyone could hear him.

I sank under the water and came up, put my hands in the air and yelled, “I’m in Walden Pond!” I felt as though I had been baptized in the holy water of writers. After all, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s dear friend, spent time in this pond, too.

Herman Melville’s Arrowhead House

Pittsfield, Massachusetts

At the car, my partner told me we were out of time to see Herman Melville’s house today. “What do you mean?” I yelled. “I love Herman Melville most of all. I wanted to grow up to be Captain Ahab.” I insisted we drive up to the house and peer through the windows. My partner yelled from the car window that we had an hour before Edith Wharton’s house closed.

An illustration of The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home

The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home

Lenox, Massachusetts

Under the cover of green branches. The trees have grown in the wildest contortions and tell Gothic tales of war and violence and witchcraft and genocide and birth and belief. Somehow, they move in perfect unison as the road twists and turns in delightful curves and inclines.

Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones. The expression “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to have been about her family. Her house was built during the Gilded Age, when American industrialists began to amass great fortunes. Her father was a real estate tycoon. She loved houses, too, and had a huge influence on the design of The Mount.

I knew it be grand, but I was still struck by the enormity of the white rectangular mansion. With the courtly feel of an Italian palazzo, it seemed decisively un–American. At the front entrance, an employee told us they were no longer admitting guests for the day. While my partner begged him, saying something about my dying wish to see this house, I slinked away. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched me hop over a red velvet rope and disappear up a staircase. Soon he was behind me, talking in whispers.

The drawing room was opulent, her bedroom – where she wrote – was huge and sunny, and the bathrooms were divine. There was even a guest room where Henry James would stay when he came to visit. But this house is haunted with sadness. At one point, it was a girls’ boarding school, and the girls who lived here were always reporting strange noises and voices. Afterward, a theatre company moved in, and the performers reported hearing the same types of sounds. It’s true that actors and children may be the most superstitious among us, but still!

For a time, Wharton lived here with a husband whose depression filled the house with a gloom no chandelier could illuminate. The social manners of the time could make women’s lives a series of contraventions. Wharton was harshly critiqued for her writing and discouraged from the enterprise altogether.

I turned to my partner and said, “I cannot marry you. I love you, darling, but I am already promised to a dullard.”

At that moment, a guard walked in. He escorted us out into a garden of manicured trees and geometric paths.

What a lovely, transcendent thing it is to be human, I thought, with the sense that we had just pulled back the curtain on The Wizard of Oz. Instead of being shocked by the fact that writers are mortal, I was infinitely amazed. That any home can be the place where great writing is created. That pens are magic wands that wiggle around and conjure worlds out of air. Worlds that turn every book cover into a door you can walk through to stay for a while.

On Heather’s Itinerary

The castle-like exterior of the Salem Witch Museum
Photo: Robert K. Chin/Alamy


  • Salem Witch Museum, Salem, MA

     — Put a dash of hokey into hocus pocus at a staged re–enactment of the Salem witch trials in 1692 inside a Gothic Revival church. For the bewitched among you, gift shop souvenirs include fortune–telling teacups, mini brooms and herb chart cutting boards.

A dish from Helltown Kitchen


  • Helltown Kitchen, Provincetown, MA

     — Come high season in Provincetown (May through October), Helltown Kitchen heats up harbourside nights with multicultural takes on seafood staples, from a coconut curry Caribbean stew mixed with cod and mussels to spicy shrimp vindaloo.

The cozy Montague Bookmill


  • The Montague Bookmill, Montague, MA

     — Inside a former grist mill overlooking Sawmill River, this historic used bookstore counts “40,000 books and one waterfall” in its inventory. Also on the premises are Sawmill River Arts Gallery, Turn It Up! – a music and movie emporium – and a café and restaurant.