The Literary Hamptons

There was a time when the right cocktail party -- say, at the legendary Random House editor Joe Fox's place in Sagaponack -- would attract everyone and anyone who mattered in the publishing world. We all know that world isn't what it once was, but a visitor to the South Fork of Long Island could do worse than to take a drive or preferably a bike ride down Sagg Main Street in that bucolic village to see what brought so many writers out here in the first place.

No, you'll no longer catch sight of Kurt Vonnegut's bushy mop of gray hair in front of the Sagg General Store, or hear the echoed reports from George Plimpton's fireworks show on Bastille Day, and, heck, James Jones's old house has been bought and rendered unrecognizable, but it's encouraging to know that the novelist and nature writer Peter Matthiessen's Ocean Zendo still sits in a former horse barn tucked away behind masses of foliage.

Another Sagaponack resident and composer of beautiful sentences, Truman Capote, who died in 1984, left behind a plaque that offers not only a lovely quotation but also a chance for a little hike along the Long Pond Greenbelt in the wooded area north of Sagaponack and south of Sag Harbor. The plaque is on a rock on Crooked Pond off Widow Gavits Road, but what it says is for you, intrepid traveler, to discover. Read it and then channel your inner Thoreau as you contemplate man and nature in this placid setting.

Of course, the literary life and alcohol have always gone hand in hand, and Capote himself regularly -- more than regularly -- bent his elbow at Bobby Van's in Bridgehampton, where he was joined by the likes of Joseph Heller, Budd Schulberg, Willie Morris, and Irwin Shaw for bouts of conviviality beneath dark paneling. Have a steak and some gin and listen for the ghosts.

Due north, a stroll along Sag Harbor's Main Street with its striking red-brick buildings, followed by a jaunt through winding side streets dense with clapboard houses of centuries past, will call to mind the village's deep literary history -- back to James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote a couple of books there, to say nothing of Herman Melville's mention of it in "Moby-Dick," where he alludes to the debauchery of sailors on shore leave in the whaling port.

That stroll might also recall John Steinbeck's 1961 novel, "The Winter of Our Discontent," involving a morally compromised protagonist who runs a small grocery store in what is obviously Sag Harbor. (Grab a sandwich at Schiavoni's market on Main Street and hear the creak of history in the wooden floorboards underfoot.) Steinbeck lived in a cottage on Sag Harbor Cove from the mid-1950s until his death in 1968, but he looms larger than that in the lore of the village, which has a weekend in his honor. His love for it could be seen in his trademark fisherman's garb and his frequenting of the Black Buoy, once a roughneck bar on Main Street.

On another Main Street, East Hampton's, sits one of the more visible examples of history preserved and brought forward into the 21st century. Village Hall, which occupies a handsome structure built in 1740, was once the home of the Rev. Lyman Beecher, who lived from 1775 to 1863 and preached at the stark and imposing East Hampton Presbyterian Church, west on Main Street, for roughly a dozen years. A writer of powerful sermons and tracts on everything from temperance to Unitarianism to the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, he was also the father of Harriet Beecher Stove, the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." (One of his 13 children, she was born after the family moved to Connecticut.)

More recently, just one long home run across Main Street, at Herrick Park behind East Hampton Village, literary and journalistic heavyweights gather every summer for the Artists and Writers Softball Game, a charity frolic that dates to the middle of the last century. On a diamond off the Reutershan parking lot, writers like Jay McInerney, Ken Auletta, and Mike Lupica, Bridgehamptoners all, will take their enthusiastic cuts against visual artists and performers of all stripes. This year's game is on Aug. 17.