I want to thank David Lehman and Stacey Harwood for inviting me to blog about John Ashbery’s Hudson, New York home, and I want to particularly thank John Ashbery and David Kermani for letting me share a piece of the Hudson house with readers.
I am in the midst of a study on John Ashbery as a poet and collector, a project that considers his house (and the collections of objects in it, of which the house itself might be considered the first major piece of the collection) as a space just as important to understanding his poetry. The house is autobiographical (whose house isn’t?), but since Ashbery is a writer who has repeatedly deflected autobiographical inquiries in interviews, the house, as one might expect, rarely, if ever, offers up evidence of direct autobiography. Robert Harbison’s classic Eccentric Spaces (1977), a book Ashbery very much liked when he read it in the late 1970s, provides a nice articulation of this idea of architecture as modern narrator of a life: ““If one takes architecture as the expression of an individual life, one starts at the center rather than at the face, asking what space is created rather than what plot is filled” (22).
Over the next few blog entries, I will introduce readers to a modest and hopefully intriguing sample of things from Ashbery’s house, which was built in 1894 and which he purchased in October 1978 (the house was featured once in the 1987 book American Victorian). The items I have chosen to highlight are what I might call a selection of amuse bouches and are meant to, in Harbison’s metaphor, highlight the center(s) of the house rather than reveal its face.
If you are curious about the house and would like to learn more, please let me direct you also to two sites: the Ashbery Resource Center, a project of the Flow Chart Foundation and Micaela Morisette’s wonderful 2008 Rain Taxi special online edition of essays on John Ashbery’s Created Spaces.
For this first entry today, I thought I would start in the attic and pull out one piece that is both quirky and representative in some ways. My choice is Ashbery’s first French textbook, le Francais et la France, which I found lying on a shelf there last summer.
He used the book while taking French class during his sophomore and junior years at Sodus High School (a small town about thirty miles from Rochester). Having skipped a grade, he began high school in the fall of 1940 at the age of thirteen.
In short, this book is a microcosm of not only some of his interests as a fourteen and fifteen-year-old boy—drawing, music, poetry, French—but of what he is already doing with what he knows: combining it in unexpected ways, making fun of it, enjoying.