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Home on the Horizon

America’s Search for Space, from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan

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Sally Bayley

In this study of space and place, Sally Bayley examines the meaning of ‘home’ in American literature and culture. Moving from the nineteenth-century homestead of Emily Dickinson to the present-day reality of Bob Dylan, Bayley investigates the relationship of the domestic frontier to the wide-open spaces of the American outdoors. In contemporary America, she argues, the experience of home is increasingly isolated, leading to unsettling moments of domestic fallout.
At the centre of the book is the exposed and often shifting domain of the domestic threshold: Emily Dickinson’s doorstep, Edward Hopper’s doors and windows, and Harper Lee’s front porch. Bayley tracks these historically fragile territories through contemporary literature and film, including Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford – works that explore local, domestic territories as emblems of nation. The culturally potent sites of the american home – the hearth, porch, backyard, front lawn, bathroom, and basement – are positioned in relation to the more conflicted sites of the American motel and hotel.

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Chapter 3: Hotels, Motels and Bathrooms 91

Extract

3Hotels, Motels and Bathrooms Behind the Bathroom Door Behind a hotel bathroom door, Willy Loman hurriedly bundles the source of his shame away from the intrusive enquiries of his son, his moral inquisitor. Shut up in a hotel room, he anticipates anonymity and privacy; a place in which he can experiment, in private, with his own failings. ‘But who is not vulnerable, easy to scare and jealous of his privacy?’ asked poet W. H. Auden in his 1962 poem ‘Thanksgiving for a Habitat’. As a British expatriate-turned-citizen living in Cold War America, Auden voices the religion of his adopted nation: the inviolable right of every citizen to a protected private space. ‘Territory’ and ‘status’, he concludes, are paramount concerns of the modern citizen, a ‘toft and a croft’ where the self may choose which people he will be ‘at home to’.1 And as Auden recognised, no one is more at home with himself than behind the bathroom door. For the long-term New Yorker, the bath- room was a place of privileged withdrawal, a ‘sacrosanct political right’; a version of Dickinson’s upstairs bedroom ‘chamber’ – not somewhere to spend a lifetime – but certainly a place where one could ‘withdraw from the tribe’, and in Dickinson’s case, write. His ode to the bathroom, ‘Encomium Balnei’ is a paean to the ‘unclassical wonder of being all by oneself ’ and a celebration of the one-way lock of the bathroom door. Behind this door, the exhausting roles of parent, spouse or guest can be...

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