The effect of this extravagant silence is unpredictable. One new resident, after three days of uninterrupted work time, was heard to yell from his studio, “They can’t do this to me!” But for the most part, the artists are eager to make use of the time. To the young Thornton Wilder, for example, the quiet was a turning point of sorts. “I came here (to MacDowell) when I had published nothing at all,” he wrote later. “Oh how I needed to hear myself think.” More recently, Cora Beth Abel, a Cambridge artist and interior designer who was seldom able to complete more than one painting a year on her own time, discovered that the solitude she found in her cottage at MacDowell was just what she needed: working 12 hours a day, she produced four paintings during her two-month stay.
Lucinda Franks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, came to MacDowell to write her long-avoided novel, and was pleased with the result. “For the first time in many years, I have absolutely nothing to write about except what’s inside my own head,” she wrote. “After a few days, you stop hearing the imaginary phones ringing, stop thinking about lunch with the publisher....One is suddenly faced with the only compelling thing left in the room — the blank sheet of paper in the typewriter. One writes, at last.”
* * *
If they were not so eager for undisturbed time and a free lunch, many of the residents at Yaddo and MacDowell would probably find the founding philosophies of the colonies uncomfortably anachronistic. The 1890s, when both were first proposed, was a genteel, sentimental period in American art. The idea of the artists’ colony grew out of this feeling; the founders doubtless imagined a decorous community of women in gauze dresses holding parasols, and poets in gleaming boots strolling about the gardens communing with the muse. If either founder had ever suspected that the likes of Alexander Portnoy or Studs Lonigan would be invented within the colony walls, the whole idea would probably have been unceremoniously scrapped.
Yaddo, for example, was originally the estate of banker Spencer Trask and his wife Katrina. (It was named by their four-year-old daughter, who liked the way it rhymed with shadow.) The Trasks fancied themselves connoisseurs, and their guest rooms were continually occupied by visiting poets and painters. Apparently, the idea of turning the entire estate into an artists’ colony came to Katrina in fine romantic fashion during an afternoon walk in 1899. In her diary she writes:
Suddenly! — an unseen hand seemed laid upon me, an unheard voice seemed calling to me! I stopped short — I felt as if Something, which I could not see, stood in my path: I believe my hands rose before me, outstretched, as if in appeal to that Something which was too vast for me to define.
“What is it, Katrina?” Spencer’s voice was anxious, “What is it?”
And then I spoke: it was as though some spirit other than my own were speaking through me: “At last, I know, at last I understand,” I said. “The thing men say they feel at Yaddo is not what is — it is what is to be! The vision of the future is clear to me. Yaddo is not to be an institution, a school, a charity. It is to be, always, a place of inspiration, a delightful, hospitable home where guests may come and find welcome. Here will be a perpetual series of houseparties — of literary men, literary women, and other artists....At Yaddo they will find the Sacred Fire, and light their torches at its flame. Look , Spencer! They are walking in the woods, wandering in the garden, sitting under the pine trees — men and women — creating, creating, creating!