New Haven Website Walks In Fictional Footsteps

Want to take a cross-country trip going to all the bars and flop joints in San Francisco, Bakersfield, and Denver mentioned in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road?

Or, more locally, want to go to the little moat on the campus of Yale University where a key scene takes place in Tom Perrota’s coming-of-age novel Joe College?

Maybe digitally visiting the places Holden Caufield hung out in Catcher in the Rye will deepen your understanding of the scene or make you want to go back to re-read the novel.

Or, how about finding the the old Bigelow factory down on River Street in Fair Haven that is likely the model for the Zip’s Candies factory in Katharine Weber’s novel True Confections?

A geographical database linking scenes in literature to the specific locales they’re based on is now available not only for New Haven-based fiction, but for stories old and new from around the world.

That’s thanks to Placing Literature: Where Your Book Meets the Map, a crowd-sourced website mapping service created two years ago by New Haven writer Andrew Bardin Williams (pictured above).

Tuesday night down in the Ives Think Tank, a half dozen people gathered before a large monitor in the spiffy room, a newly renovated space in the basement of New Haven’s main library on Elm Street.

There Williams and library staffer Ashley Sklar helped launch a three-session “book club,” using the site to show how the linking of literature and geography might deepen both.

The book selected to be the centerpiece of the experiment was Alice Mattison‘s 1999 coming-to-New Haven novel The Wedding of the Two-Headed Woman.

The first of the sessions, which drew a handful of book and New Haven lovers like retired librarian Dee Dee Rogers, avid East Rocker Page Williams, and activist-about-town Aaron Goode, was called “Get Lit In New Haven.”

“I’m a devotee of place-oriented programs,” said Goode.

On July 29, at 6 p.m. the second session will use the digital resource to locate sites of literary murders in New Haven. The third session, on August 12 at 6 p.m., will feature author Mattison. She’ll be in the hot seat answering readers’ questions, like: did that important meal between your protagonist Daisy Andalusia and that man actually take place in Thai Taste on Chapel Street, which you called Thai Basement in the novel? And why did you change the name?

Williams said his website is modeled on crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia, so any reader who has a gmail handle can enter, zoom across the Google maps to find the city in question, then click on the precise location where you want to add information — the name and author of the book, the characters involved, and the scene described. Williams said he became a believer in the idea when he self-published his novel, Learning to Haight, in 2012. To market the book, Williams decided to Google-map its location.

“Within 48 hours, it had a thousand views,” he recalled.

Over the two years the site has been up, 3,000 locations have been in put by people around the globe and in a dozen languages. Thus far inputters tend to be authors themselves and ardent readers, Williams said.

In New Haven alone 80 locations have been entered into the database, including 11 from Joe College and 17 from The Wedding of the Two-Headed Woman, the latter all by Williams to get ready for the three-week book club.

“You can map as much or as little as you want,” he said.

With Mattison’s heroine coming to New Haven from Brooklyn, marrying a townie but having an affair with a Yale gownie, her novel is rich in city locales. That’s why Mattison’s book was the first Williams mapped on the site, he said.

Much of Tuesday’s discussion turned on how a sense of place can deepen the literature or vice versa. For example, one of the mapped locations is the bench in College Woods Park where Daisy, Mattison’s heroine, sits contemplating a major life decision. Williams said the novel is rich in symbolism and that bench sits at a bend in the Mill River, a riverine crossroads reflecting Daisy’s moment of having to choose between two directions.

“You wouldn’t know it unless you sat there,” Williams surmised.

While lots of cities map specific authors, especially native sons and daughters, PlacingLiterature.com “wants to be the clearing house for all geo-based literary information,” Williams said.

That means the site partners with other organizations, such as the Mark Twain House in Hartford, which has a digital map for its famous author’s footsteps around town.

Williams launched the site as pilot two years ago as a feature at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas that sought to bring together the literary and scientific in a single project. Williams was the literary side; he teamed up with his sister-in-law Kathleen Colin Williams, who is a geographer.

They hope the pilot at the library will lead to more people mapping readers’ favorite books’ locales. A redesign of the site will be rolled out in the months ahead; an app for mobile devices is also on the way.

Williams said he hasn’t heard yet that any of the locations mapped so far have led to, for example, a protest of a tear down of a building where some novel’s character lived or had an egg cream or a revelation. And there have been no meet-ups or pilgrimages either, to the best of Williams’s knowledge.

Still, you never know. Williams is a firm believer that using place leads to a greater understanding of literature and literature can also lead to a greater appreciation of neighborhoods.

And those are both consummations devoutly to be wished. Now where does that paraphrase come from? Shakespeare? London? Hamlet? Elsinore? Town in Denmark?

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posted by: Bill Saunders on July 16, 2015  12:07pm

Turn of the Century New Haven figures quite prominently in Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘Against the Day’, which mentions Louis Lassens burgers, Mory’s, the Fairhaven Oyster beds, East Rock, New Haven Harbor, and an evil villain at Yale that wants to control the world…..

Oh wait, are we living in the past or the future…..???


Yale also come up quite frequently in Faulkner’s canon of work, as the University that Southerners DO NOT send their kids to up North.  Harvard is the preference.

posted by: PlacingLit on July 16, 2015  5:17pm

Thanks Bill. Yes, New Haven has a rich literary history as you mention. Several New Haven locales in Against the Day have been mapped on PlacingLiterature.com but no Faulkner. Yet. Feel free to map it for us.

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 16, 2015  8:03pm

Placing Lit—the guy that mapped those points was me.

I was exploring the site when you first came on-line, found it interesting, but ultimately useless to me.  I read for the sake of reading, and I recommend books based on their merit, not their place-making ability.

Answer me an honest question—Do you spend more time reading literature, or managing your website?

posted by: PlacingLit on July 17, 2015  1:56pm

Bill, thanks for mapping those places. I especially appreciate that you put Louis Lunch in its original location—which is where it would have been in Against the Day. However, I wouldn’t call sharing New Haven’s literary heritage with the rest of the world “useless”. You provided a great service for Pynchon fans and for people who want to read books set in New Haven. I hope we can change your mind as you interact with the site a bit more.

Your question: Managing PlacingLiterature.com is my full-time job, so yes, I spend less time reading literature than managing the site. We all wish we could read more!

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 19, 2015  4:03pm

Placing Lit—

Thanks for reminding me about using Louis former locale as a plot point.  I seem to remember doing the same thing with Mory’s, my point being unless we are very careful,  current place and and past history do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Now if learning about all of the places in turn of the Century Dublin, could get me through Ulysses, then I might be getting somewhere! (after four diligent tries—no I wasn’t the long-haired unwashed of the Morand read poem from a different thread.!)

posted by: Josiah Brown on July 21, 2015  7:53am

This sounds like an interesting project.

A couple of other examples of recent works of fiction that include New Haven sites:

  *Jeff Hobbs, “The Tourists” (see also his nonfiction work, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace”)

  *Chandra Prasad, “On Borrowed Wings”