Literary Escape in Saratoga Springs
“Whenever you read a good book,
LITERARY SARATOGA SPRINGS
PHOTOS & MONTAGE © JON H. DAVIS & IRIS
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somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.”
Is the tactile sensation of reading a book by the fireside going the way of the dodo bird? While independent bookstores have diminished throughout the U.S., they are far from extinct. Growing numbers of people embrace audio books, e-books, and texting in an evolving short form language filled with abbreviations (LOL, OMG, BTW). But during winter in New York, I yearn to connect with books in an old-fashioned way. I browse through rooms of independent brick and mortar bookstores, visit literary landmarks, and settle into a comfy armchair at a historic inn to read a good story accompanied by an aromatic cup of tea. I agree with Cicero, who wrote: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
LITERARY SARATOGA SPRINGS
Saratoga Springs New York, nestled in the foothills of the Adirondack mountains, is a resort destination best known for its healing waters, horse racing, and historic homes, many of which date from the Victorian era. Saratoga attracted the social elite to a country retreat since the beginning of the 20th century and still draws urbanites for a respite from city life. While some Saratoga visitors are interested in the history of this Iroquois land–which involved power struggles with the French, Dutch, and English before the American Revolution–or are attracted to this town, famous for giving birth to the first potato chip, my interest lies elsewhere. This charming village with two impressive, independent bookshops, quaint inns, a significant artist colony, and fine dining, lures me to a long-awaited literary escape. And as I experience a variety of excellent culinary creations, I begin to pair them not with wine, but with appropriate reading.
The Saratoga Arms (497 Broadway), a landmark hotel built in 1877 with the elegance of yesteryear, is a well-situated, family-owned establishment with many fireplaces adorned with shields to represent protection. I feel well fortified for the day after a delicious, filling, and free breakfast (scrambled eggs with feta and spinach, homemade buckwheat waffles with real maple syrup and more) in this lovingly restored, welcoming hotel, which through the years has played host to and inspired writers. Many of the rooms have quirky quotes and facts written on a tile in the shower. “Saratoga is the wickedest spot in the United States,” writes Nellie Bly in 1893. A century later, David Hyde Pierce exclaims: “Saratoga sings, Saratoga nurtures, Saratoga dances, Saratoga springs!” The tile in my room informs me Meyer Lansky (an organized crime figure known as the “Mob’s Accountant”) only served jail time in Saratoga.
I also learn about an American hero at the hotel. It has a Grant Room, filled with Ulysses S. Grant memorabilia, which is less surprising when I discover the owner is related to him and the Grant Cottage is nearby. A stay at the Saratoga Arms is more than a look back at history. With some chapters set at the hotel, it served as inspiration for best-selling novelist Kate White with her new, psychological thriller/mystery titled, The Secrets You Keep. Although this hotel is a great place to read, don’t expect to find piles of books at the inn. Plan to BYOB, books, that is, or purchase some from a large selection at the outstanding, nearby bookshops.
Related Reading: Interested in a succinct, historical perspective of Saratoga Springs? The book, Saratoga Springs: A Historical Portrait by Timothy A. Holmes offers a pictorial history of a town once known for the Medicine Springs of the Great Spirit or its Fountain of Youth. For those wanting to delve into more details about the flamboyance of Saratoga through the ages, read the weighty tome, Saratoga: Saga of An Impious Era by George Waller.
THE GRANT COTTAGE
“I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly.”
-Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant is best known as the Civil War Commanding General and the 18th U.S. President. He also worked on Wall Street before becoming a writer, and spent his final weeks in a cottage high above Saratoga Springs, where he could write and enjoy the mountain air during the days of his declining health. A visit to the Grant Cottage is about more than seeing the house with its original furnishings still in place, including the porcelain-faced mantel clock, stopped at the precise time of Grant’s death. It is where Grant finished writing his substantial memoirs in the final summer of his life.
The informative tour brings alive the man, illuminating both his successes (as a Civil War general to whom Robert E. Lee surrendered, followed by a two-term U.S. Presidency) and his tragedies. Grant was a victim of a major financial swindle, leaving him in poverty at the end of his life, which in turn was the catalyst for his writing both a handful of articles (published in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine) and his extensive memoirs from the Civil War era. His work, “The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant,” (1200-pages in two volumes) has been praised by diverse authors including Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, and Gore Vidal. Becoming an author as a way to make money may seem counter-intuitive today, but this new profession for Grant was most successful in providing for his family. It was in part due to the assistance of Mark Twain, a relative who negotiated a good publishing deal and marketing scheme to pre-sell copies of Grant’s book door-to-door with the aid of veterans.
The guided tour of the Grant Cottage is filled with facts and anecdotes. Wanting to stay clear-headed to write in his final days, yet dealing with the pain from throat cancer, Grant sometimes declined morphine and instead was given intravenous shots of brandy. Most of the furnishings in the cottage are easily recognizable, but there are also some surprises. Metal military objects were artfully repurposed when artillery shells were converted into decorative plates with curled edges, in which to place calling cards, a popular item of the day. A visit to the Grant Cottage State Historic Site–designated a Literary Landmark in 2017 by United for Libraries, a division of the American Library Association–is a recommended way to bring history alive beyond the printed page.
Related Reading: The new book, Grant, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Chernow, has garnered much praise and become a New York Times #1 bestseller. Janet Maslin calls the dramatic biography, “vast and panoramic in ways that history buffs will love.”
YADDO ARTS COLONY
“Yaddo was the first time I felt I had come in from the cold.
It’s not that I write so much more at Yaddo;
it’s that I write so much better.”
Yaddo is a vibrant cultural institution founded in 1900 by Spencer and Katrina Trask to nurture artists from many disciplines, including a stunning array of writers. Sylvia Plath, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Langston Hughes, Eudora Welty, Edgar Allen Poe, Patricia Highsmith, James Baldwin, John Cheever, and Katherine Anne Porter are among the writers who spent time at the Yaddo Arts Colony, a retreat and working artist community known to encourage and cultivate creativity on a 400-acre estate. Since 1926, thousands of guests have taken part in the inspirational Yaddo experience where they are provided with time and space to create new works. The results are impressive with approximately 71 Pulitzer Prizes, 68 National Book Awards, and 29 MacArthur Fellowships, among the honors bestowed on some of the artists at Yaddo, who spend from two weeks to two months in residency.
While the reconstructed, 19th-century mansion and artist residences on the estate are not open to the public, the gardens and grounds are. Those interested in researching American social, cultural, and literary history of the 20th century may view over 500 boxes of letters, journals, and photographs from artists who spent time at Yaddo. This archival collection–now housed at the New York Public Library in New York City–is open to the general public.
Related Reading: More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers by Jonathan Lethem (a Yaddo alum) has been dubbed, “a bracing voyage of literary discovery.”
The village of Saratoga Springs has two excellent, independent bookstores. The Lyrical Ballad (7 Phila Street) is an antiquarian bookshop, which has been in business for over 40 years. It is home to over 100,000 books shelved in a labyrinth of eight rooms. Owners Janice and John DeMarco estimate about half are rare or first editions. Most items can be handled by customers who come to browse the impressive collection with the most valuable volumes, (heavily decorated leather bound tomes, some with gold leaf edges) literally locked in a vault from the building’s former life as a bank. While the owner is particularly proud of his botany book collection, he surprisingly shares that philosophy titles are extremely popular. An ever-growing inventory encourages repeat customers to come back in search of new discoveries from local Saratoga history to obscure titles in foreign languages.
Northshire Books (424 Broadway) is an airy, well-lit establishment filled with newly published works and a well-informed staff. This family-owned, independent bookstore has two locations (the other is in Manchester, Vermont) with a particular interest in enriching the community by offering author presentations, story time, and staff picks. These personal recommendations are found throughout the store on hand-written cards. For example, in his staff pick, Stan writes about The Atlas of Beauty: Women of the World in 500 Portraits by Michela Noroc. “Traveling the world with a backpack and a camera, Noroc transverses 50 countries. These simple and beautiful images of everyday women may help restore your faith in at least 49% of humankind.” Chris suggests Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan. “Bob Dylan is music’s greatest unreliable narrator. While it can sometimes be hard to separate man from myth, this is the closest we’ll ever get.”
Most of the recommendations are personal favorites, but sometimes they coincide with national recognition, as is the case with Jessica Bruder’s, Nomadland (Library Journal lists it as among the top ten books of 2017). It’s about transient older Americans from a former professor and minister to a motorcycle cop and cocktail waitress, who have lost their homes and jobs and take to the road. The in-store blurb by Mike reads: “The houseless nomads Bruder encounters travel, and live, on wheels. They’re not unlike 19th century settlers in covered wagons, or depression-era migrants heading west, with one major distinction: for many new nomads, their ultimate destination is the never-ending road.” Sometimes a staff pick brings my focus to a book I might not have noticed, as is the case with A History of Pictures by David Hockney. The in-store recommendation gets my attention. “An immense conversation between an artist and an art critic about how we see the world around us and how artists compress that thru a dimensional moving world onto a flat surface.”
RECOMMENDED SARATOGA RESTAURANTS
“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”
Without hopping on an international flight or being jostled on a local rickshaw ride, a dining experience at Karavalli Regional Cuisine (47 Caroline St.) transports me back to architectural elegance of the Taj Mahal, the ancient stone carvings on the Khajuraho temple complex in central India, and the evocative poetry of Tagore. The Karavalli restaurant features cuisine from diverse regions of India such as the Tamil Nadu specialty of Chettinadu vegetables in a spicy black pepper and succulent roasted coconut sauce, dishes from Kerala like an okra kappas with coriander mustard and curry leaves, or a hot vindaloo dish with a spicy Goan sauce.
Related Reading: Consider reading Indian literature by both contemporary writers and authors who have been revered for over a century. The 20th-century novel, God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize in 1997, reminds us of the importance of small things and their large impact in people’s lives. The Essential Tagore is a recommended collection of poetry, prose, songs, short stories, letters, literature, and more by the versatile Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first Asian Nobel Prize-winner in 1913.
“Proverbs are short sentences drawn from long experience.”
Like a dynamic flamenco dance for the taste buds, Boca Bistro (384 Broadway), offers small plates as well as satisfying, mouth-watering, authentic Spanish paella (in a traditional or vegetarian version with calasparra rice). Whether you opt for a goat cheese salad with roasted shallots and black mission figs tossed with quince vinaigrette, blistered shishito peppers sprinkled with coarse sea salt, or roasted delicata squash nestled on a delicious, butterbean puree and topped with a sumac yogurt, the delectable flavors will dazzle amidst vintage décor. Bravo!
Related Reading: The classic and universal Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes from the 1600s relates brief episodes from Quixote’s adventures, making it a good pairing with tapas, small bites of tasty food. Or pick up a copy of Poet in Spain: Frederico Garcia Lorca with new, lyrical translations by Sarah Arvio presented in a bilingual edition published in 2017.
“The strength of our future, lies in the protecting of our past.”
The Mouzon House (1 York St.) is a friendly, farm-to-table restaurant featuring fresh, local ingredients, amidst a warm ambiance. It is located in an old house originally belonging to a Cherokee woman, Ardel Mouzon, who fought to preserve her historic home as other buildings around it were destroyed to make room for urban development. The Mouzon name belonged to her former Cajun husband, and the food still retains some Cajun fare and flair (think strains of Django Reinhardt with live, toe-tapping, gypsy jazz) with a new twist. Today a series of intimate rooms are filled with murals painted by the daughters of the current owners, the Pedinotti family, creating a convivial atmosphere in this former, two-floor home dating from 1883. While the interesting menu offers gumbo, grits, and crawfish beignets, I am sated with a creative mushroom bruschetta, melt-in-your-mouth pumpkin ravioli sprinkled with sage, and then finish up with locally, hand-crafted cinnamon ice cream specially made for the restaurant.
Related Reading: Works by American author Barbara Kingsolver such as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, where she writes of her year only eating food grown herself or raised in her own neighborhood or Kingsolver’s best-selling collection of essays, Small Wonder, drawing on material both around the world and in her own backyard, make for a good literary pairing with this farm-to-fork eatery.
U.S. GRANT IN SARATOGA, NY
PHOTOS & MONTAGE © JON H. DAVIS & IRIS
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THE SAGE OF SARATOGA
“When Saratoga gets too quiet I go to New York
and when New York gets too noisy I come back to Saratoga.
In this state of contented oscillation I hope to end my days.”
Although many literary figures have passed through Saratoga, it was Frank Sullivan who was dubbed the “Sage of Saratoga.” Sullivan–a native son of Saratoga–was a writer, humorist, and cartoonist who frequently contributed to popular publications such as Good Housekeeping, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Saturday Evening Post as well as becoming a staff writer for the New Yorker, where he contributed forty-two Christmas poems. He also stretched out beyond his witty works, working as a newspaper reporter, conducting an interview with Eleanor Roosevelt, corresponding with Groucho Marx, and creating a children’s book, A Moose in the Hoose.
The American Library Association declared his Saratoga house on Lincoln Street a National Literary Landmark and a plaque can be found there, although it is now a private residence, not open to the public. While Sullivan created a substantial body of work including twelve books, his humor remains priceless. When one of his characters was asked what he did for exercise, he responded: “I keep the wolf from the door, let the cat out of the bag, take the bull by the horns, count my chickens before they are hatched, and see that the horse isn’t put behind the cart or stolen before I lock the barn door.”
“Reading is to the mind, what exercise is to the body.”
Karavalli Regional Cuisine
The Mouzon House
Lyrical Ballad Bookstore
Yaddo Arts Colony
Visit Saratoga Travel Guide
Iris Brooks is a widely-published cultural writer who has traveled the world
reveling in off-the-beaten-path experiences: playing the pennywhistle for
penguins in Antarctica, harvesting herbs in Italy according to the cycles of the
moon, and documenting an ancient festival in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan,
where she acquired an unbound, horizontal, hand-painted book with an ornately
carved wooden cover. Learn more about her and collaborative photographer Jon
Davis on the Northern Lights Studio website