Honoring Literary Ancestors

Honoring Literary Ancestors October 11, 2020

During this time of year, as we honor our family ancestors, consider honoring literary ancestors as well. Do you have a favorite author who has inspired you, either creatively, with their words, or their life story? Consider setting up an altar for them.

Two authors who have inspired, motivated, and literally helped me through some challenging tines were Sylvia Plath and Thomas Wolfe. I have admired Sylvia Plath since I was a teenager. I found her a kindred spirit, both in her family background (Austrian and German, like me) and her strong drive and determination. I have read all of her works, read countless biographies of her, and always found her to be inspiring. While many know mostly about the sad end of her life, I would instead focus on her amazing amount of literary and personal accomplishments. Many of the important dates in her life coincide with momentous dates in my own life, and I even ended up presenting a paper about our connections at a non-academic Sylvia Plath conference in Ireland.

My Ancestor Altar, Photo by Lisa Wagoner

Thomas Wolfe had always been known to me as a native of Asheville, North Carolina. So when I found myself moving to that very same place around six years ago, I found myself newly drawn to his story and presence. In searching for a new place to live, I found myself frustrated and geographically challenged. Having lived in the same place for decades, I was questioning my decisions, and a little bit scared. To clear my head, after some fruitless apartment hunting, I decided to take a walk in Riverside Cemetery near downtown Asheville. I found myself in front of Tom’s grave, and poured my heart out to him. I told him I wanted to be a writer, but never really consistently wrote. I wanted to move to Asheville, but had no idea to look. Could he help me? To this day, I have no idea why I did that, except that I was drawn to him. After all, O. Henry is buried in the same cemetery, but something about Tom also had felt like a kindred spirit. I talked to him like an old friend, and left feeling much better. Right after my chat with Tom, I found a place to live, and literally transformed my life, including becoming a published writer.

Honoring both had usually amounted to mostly having piles of their books about. Both Sylvia Plath and Thomas Wolfe were prolific writers despite their short lives. Sylvia died at the age of 30 and Tom Wolfe was 37. The last few years I have wanted to honor them with more than their written words, so I began to set up altars for both of them. I personally like the symmetry of having both feminine and masculine energy with these two favorites, but you can have from one to as many authors as you’d like to honor.

If you know an author pretty well, it is fairly easy to set up an altar for them. Set up a small space designated just for them, ideally on a bookshelf. You can begin with a photograph you can print out via an online source, or try an author-focused block at a shop I found on Etsy called Literature Lodge.

The rest is fairly easy if you know your authors well. What are their favorite beverages or snacks? Sylvia loved sherry and a good martini, along with coffee and tea. Tom Wolfe was known to enjoy a Scotch or two, and it was said that “Scotch!” was his last word spoken before he died. You can create whole correspondences for your author as well, noting their Holy Days (their dates of birth and death), favorite colors (often mentioned in their writing), and herbs (noted in their writing). There can be specific areas of focus you can call on them for, such as creativity, writer’s block, help with travel (Tom loved traveling) or cooking (Sylvia was a noted cook). For Tom, I have a few nuts, herbs and stones gathered from a nearby cabin where he wrote the last summer of his life. For Sylvia, I have a blue lace agate stone, which is known as a stone of articulation, and some rose petals to send love her way. The altars can of course change up during the year, but during Samhain, I keep a memorial candle burning in their honor for at least a few hours a day.

Honoring both these authors during Samhain deepens my connection and admiration for them. What is remembered lives, after all. For me, both authors are a part of my life, no matter how distant a timeline we are on together. I’d like to think that they are pleased to be honored and remembered this way.



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