It’s common, in the age of pop-up email alerts and incessant phone-checking, to romanticize the pre-internet era as one in which writing came easier for lack of distraction. I know a number of writers who have taken active measures to restrict their exposure to incoming information, installing software on their computers to limit internet usage or routinely setting up shop outdoors with only notebook and pen. Many artists’ colonies, likewise, do not provide internet in work spaces. These and other variants of manufactured isolation all have a few key things common: they are temporary and site-specific, and a writer who finds them no longer useful can simply retreat back into the world of total connectedness.
This luxury of optional stillness has been at the forefront of my mind this week, while reading Diana Fuss’s The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms That Shaped Them. Fuss examines, through both historical and theoretical perspectives, how writers’ home spaces have influenced their art and scholarship. Most compelling is the chapter on Helen Keller, who moved residences frequently throughout her life and experienced a dramatically different sensory home life in each place. Fuss’s book attends primarily to Keller’s later years, during which she lived with her personal assistant in large house called Arcan Ridge.
Arcan Ridge was named after — and envisioned as a near-exact architectural copy of — Keller’s previous residence, which she had shared with her teacher, Annie Sullivan, during and after the end of Sullivan’s life. When the first Arcan Ridge was destroyed by fire, Keller was offered a new home, to be paid for and constructed by the American Foundation for the Blind. The new house offered Keller every convenience of her former residence: built-in bookshelves, a separate study, private quarters for her assistant. But the new Arcan Ridge also differed from the old in a significant way: the builders were instructed to install wall-to-wall carpeting throughout almost the entire house, with the goal of dampening floor vibrations, most notably in Keller’s study.
This was, presumably, an effort to eliminate distraction so that Keller could write in peace. She was famously very much attuned to floor vibrations, and had often communicated with Annie Sullivan by stepping on the floor in Morse Code to send a message, and then feeling Sullivan’s message return the same way. As Fuss puts it, “The floor operated, in effect, as a long distance telegraph.” She liked to sleep on a wooden mat rather than a bed, so that she could sense movement in the house. The introduction of carpeting, then, cut off the constant flow of information that came to Keller through the wooden floors.
Additionally, Keller’s ability to receive messages about her environment through smell was diminished by the construction of a new heating and ventilation system. This technology aggressively circulated air throughout the house, dissipating the smells that Keller had previously relied on for key information. (For example, Keller was able, when passing a church, to discern whether it was Catholic or Protestant solely by smell.) While innovations in the ventilation system were not expressly aimed at reducing distraction, they exacerbated the isolating effect of the carpeting, cutting her off even further from the world outside of herself.
Ultimately, Fuss gives us a grim picture of Keller’s mounting anxiety as her ability to receive information was taken away from her. The house, intended to foster writing by providing sanctuary from a busy world, in fact “imposed on an elderly Keller an unwelcome withdrawal, a return to the physical and social isolation her early training in the cognitive use of [touch and smell] had largely dispelled.”