As most of the REH community girds their respective loins for the annual gathering in Cross Plains, I have an occasion to look back on a writer’s retreat that I made in early May. My fellow retreaters were none other than the original members of Clockwork Storybook (more on them later) and a mutual friend who was quickly inducted into our ranks. The retreat was held in Brattlesboro, Vermont, or rather, just outside those city limits. A sleepy little town of twelve thousand folks, each content to go about their own business in that taciturn way made famous by countless Lovecraft and Lovecraftian stories. But it wasn’t the town that drew us to Brat; it was Nahlauka.
The name means “Priceless Jewel,” or something close to it, in Hindi. It’s the house, of course, and it was designed and built by none other than Rudyard Kipling. Yes, THAT Kipling. In fact, it’s the house that he wrote The Jungle Book in. He lived in Vermont for four years, during which time he played host to other literary figures of the day, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, the golf clubs that Doyle gave Kipling are still in the house.
The entire place has been bought by the Landmark Trust, and meticulously restored to its former glory. The even got Kipling’s toilet, a wooden, baroque, steampunk-looking thing, to work again. You can, in fact, use it.
I stayed in the house for a week, during which time I sat at Mrs. Kipling’s desk and wrote my brains out. I also pawed through Kipling’s library in his study, walked the grounds that he walked, and in general soaked up as much of his shade as I possibly could. If you’ve ever been to the Howard House in Cross Plains, you know what a thrill it is being in the same physical space as one of your literary heroes. There’s a snap, crackle, and pop to the environment, particularly in his writing space.
Not surprisingly, we were all awed and humbled by the experience. And when I ventured into Brattlesboro later that week to score some souvenirs for my wife, I stuck my head into a number of the touristy shops that lined the downtown streets, and inquired as to something with the Kipling house on it. Universally, the shopkeepers all said “NO” so fast, I thought I had committed a venial sin. They each then went on to conditionalize their answer. One of them said, “No one has ever asked me that in twenty years,” which I found very hard to believe. Another one said, “It’s just so specific a request, I doubt I could sell anything like that.” Not even the bookstore had a T-shirt with Rudyard Kipling’s face on it. It was strange, to me, that aside from one of the bars and one of the two movie theaters, nothing else in town bore Kipling’s name, either. But after explaining to me why my request was so ludicrous, they all asked me the same question: “Don’t they have anything at the house?”
Well, not really. There was one free postcard that you could have, but it was a blurry picture of Kipling in the snow–in other words, I could have told people that it was Tolstoy and they would have believed me. No pictures, no drawings, no nothing of this big, magnificent house. No portraits of Kipling in ink or watercolor by local artists. No stationary. No nothing. And this is KIPLING, for crying out loud. The author of the Jungle Books.
But, on the other hand, I thought back on how Cross Plains was, some twenty years ago. And to an extent, even now, there’s a sizeable chunk of the population that we never see during Howard Days because they want nothing to do with us. As a destination spot, Project Pride has done an outstanding job of both preserving the house and making sure that people who visit have mementos to take away from the experience. But there are folks in Cross Plains who have never set foot inside the Howard House and are likely never to do so. Kipling’s home, a mansion of incredible breadth and scope, opens its doors twice a year and people from all over the globe come to see it. Reinactors play Kipling and read to folks from his study. It’s one of those kinds of places. Yet, most people in Brattlesboro have never even visited the house. It’s much easier to sell generic Vermont-based crap to the touristas (maple leaves, moose heads, and so forth) than it would be to make a Rudyard Kipling T-shirt. Why take that chance, when you can sell bottles of Maple Syrup in a booze flask, with a label that reads “NORTHERN COMFORT” (get it?) instead?
Mind you, I’m not campaigning for the Kipling House. That management company has its own agenda, and a postcard with an actual picture of the house is outside of their plans. But it makes me even more grateful that Project Pride is keeping the REH House maintained and the gift shop stocked.