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14 Literary Settings Inspired by Real Places

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At the end of a good book, do you ever close the back cover, sigh, and think, “I wish I could be there”? Good news: in some cases, you can. While you’re probably never going to make it to Narnia or Hogwarts (I know - I’m disappointed, too), here are a handful of “fictional” places you can actually visit.

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1. Growing up in the midwest means a field trip to Hannibal, Missouri, to see Mark Twain’s old haunting grounds—it was the highlight of my sixth-grade year. Twain has said there was no better place for a boy to grow up than Hannibal and was thus inspired to use many of the area’s landmarks in his writing, especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. What was called McDougal Cave in the book is called Mark Twain Cave today - a trip inside will reveal many of the details you might remember from Tom Sawyer.

2. If you want to visit the fictional West Egg from The Great Gatsby, you need only to get yourself to Great Neck, New York, where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived with his wife Zelda for almost two years. It’s thought that he modeled Nick’s “modest” house on his own. In fact, their house is still there today, though I have to say - modest? Really? Maybe in comparison to Jay Gatsby’s...

3. Calling all Little House fans: DeSmet, South Dakota, may just be your next vacation location. Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up in the little pioneer town and took many of her series’ buildings, settings and locations straight from the roads of DeSmet. The Surveyors’ House from By the Shores of Silver Lake is still standing, and you can visit a reconstructed version of Laura’s own Little House. If you don’t think you’ll make it to S.D. anytime soon, never fear - there’s a virtual tour as well.

4. The New York Times wants to help you follow in Holden Caulfield’s footsteps - they’ve painstakingly recreated his route around the city, even though J.D. Salinger was often careful to create pseudonyms for places featured in Catcher in the Rye, especially hotels.

5. If I ever get to Portland, you can bet I’ll take a trip down Klickitat Street. That’s where Ramona Quimby grew up - and it’s not far from where her creator, Beverly Cleary, grew up.

6. Winnie-the-Pooh may not be real, but his home is. Charming Hundred-Acre Wood is based on a place in East Sussex, England, called Ashdown Forest. Many of the landmarks found in the A.A. Milne classics still exist there, including Poohsticks Bridge, Galleon’s Lap (called Gill’s Lap in real life), Roo’s Sandpit and Heffalump Trap. They even hold annual Poohsticks competitions there.

7. The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Mass. - the oldest surviving mansion house in North America - inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel of the same name that was published in 1851. You can tour it and Hawthorne’s birthplace all for the same fee if you’re ever in Salem, though Hawthorne’s house was actually moved several blocks from the spot where it originally stood.

8. It’s thought that Seven Gables was a huge inspiration to H.P. Lovecraft, who in turn wrote his own tale of a spooky house based on one that really existed. Actually, Lovecraft’s The Shunned House was likely based on two abodes - a Providence, R.I., house Lovecraft’s aunt resided in, and a downright terrifying home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Lovecraft once called it “a hellish place where night-black deeds must have been done in the early seventeen-hundreds — with a blackish unpainted surface, unnaturally steep roof, and an outside flight of stairs leading to the second story, suffocatingly embowered in a tangle of ivy so dense that one cannot but imagine it accursed or corpse-fed.” That house no longer stands today, but you can still check out the one in Providence, especially if you’re in the market - it’s for sale.

9. James Joyce once said that if Dublin somehow got wiped off the face of the map, you could rebuild it just by reading Ulysses and recreating all of the locations he mentions within its pages. Should you ever want to walk in Bloom’s footsteps, I’d make sure to do it on June 16 - that’s Bloomsday, when thousands of other Joyce fans gather in Dublin to retrace Leopold Bloom’s route.

10. Obviously Walden Pond, made famous by Henry David Thoreau, was never actually represented as a place of fiction, so maybe it doesn’t quite fit this list. But it’s still a location in a classic book that you can actually visit - never fear, it hasn’t been replaced by a parking lot or an apartment complex. Thoreau’s original cabin no longer stands, but you can step into a replica of it and you can see where the real thing once stood.

11. Back in Washington Irving’s time, Sleepy Hollow was known as North Tarrytown, New York. It’s a quaint little town, but I bet you still get the chills when you see the bridge that Irving imagined his Headless Horseman thundering across.

12. Hotels are great settings for mysteries and thrillers - just ask Stephen King. If you ever want to feel like you’re living in pages written by Agatha Christie, just book a room at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, England. Christie stayed there often and just barely bothered to disguise it as “The Majestic Hotel” in at least three books: Peril at End House, The Body in the Library and Sleeping Murder.

13. I doubt any other little pub has ever inspired as many authors as The Spaniards Inn in London has. The Inn claims that Keats was listening to the birds in the inn’s attached garden when he decided to write “Ode to a Nightingale.” Bram Stroker name-drops the Inn in Dracula, and finally, Charles Dickens set an entire scene of The Pickwick Papers in the inn.

14. It’s hard to say which exact island inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to pick up a pen and write about Jim Hawkins and Treasure Island, but there’s no shortage of theories. Some day Stevenson’s uncle was a seaman who told him detailed stories of Norman Island in the Virgin Islands. It’s also been noted that he visited Brielle, New Jersey, in 1888 and was so taken with a small island on the river that he carved his initials there. Today, it’s called Nienstedt Island. Lastly, Stevenson’s map looks a bit like Scotland’s isle of Unst. Unst makes the official claim to fame, saying that Stevenson wrote Treasure Island after visiting the lighthouse his uncles, David and Thomas Stevenson, built there.

Honorable Mention: Though you can’t actually visit this place these days, at one time, the White City of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago really did exist. And it really did inspire L. Frank Baum to write about a similar venue, though it was a slightly different color: Emerald.

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20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers’ Movies
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Gramercy Pictures

Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers’s movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’ 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS'S WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that featured a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination). 

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. "The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, "Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that."

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen Brothers are plenty fond of The Dude: after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen Brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

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Art
‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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