Uncategorized | October 19, 2011


T. S. Eliot looks out across the city where he once lived. (He's looking at an eyeglass store.)

Listen to my KBIA radio feature on the Writers Corner project, which has installed busts of T. S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams at an intersection in St. Louis.

The Central West End is one of America’s great literary neighborhoods, like Greenwich Village in New York or The Mission in San Francisco. Today, as I enjoy the unique combination of pizza and a single-malt scotch outside Llewelyn’s Pub, I notice a friendlier, more convivial feeling among passersby than I’ve been used to in ages, even on a cold, rainy fall day, with fewer people on the street. By early afternoon, most people are still inside. But as the sun comes out, they start hitting the cafes, bars, restaurants and bookstores.

I’m here to speak with a few of them about Writers Corner, the project launched by a neighborhood group to draw awareness to the surprising wealth of literary greatness that gestated within walking distance of this spot, on the corner of Euclid and McPherson avenues.

The neighborhood grew up alongside Forest Park, which stretches to the west. Its citizens live in grand old “Places,” private streets with stately, looming, ivy-covered mansions, something like a long, dreamy cul-de-sac. To live in the neighborhood with an address ending in “Place” means something. These walkways are connected to the Park, Kingshighway Boulevard and the rest of St. Louis by veins with names like Euclid, Olive, Whittier, Hortense, Pershing.

The neighborhood bloomed in St. Louis’s annus mirabilis, 1904, the year of the World’s Fair, when the beautiful glass Music Box and the Botanical Gardens were built in the park. Thomas Stearns Eliot lived through that fair. Kate Chopin died at it. Eliot’s parents moved from the waterfront to 4400 Westminster Place during his teenage years. Tennessee Williams grew up just a few blocks and 30 years down the way at 4600 Westminster, and William S. Burroughs at 4600 Pershing Place.  Sara Teasdale was at Kingsbury Place – she wrote “There will come soft rains…” – and Vachel Lindsay, who wrote “The Congo,” courted her here, years before both committed suicide. The Central West End is dripping with the ghosts of great American writers.

As for St. Louis, and its life as a literary city? Most of them left. Maybe all of them left, at some point, and maybe only one great American writer came back to St. Louis – that would be Kate Chopin, to die. She mostly wrote about New Orleans, enough that, despite spending most of her life in Missouri, she is thought of as a New Orleans writer. She barely wrote about Missouri.

Eliot mentioned St. Louis a handful of times, but regarded the area fondly. A poet known for chronicling modern man’s disconnect from nature, he may have felt more connected to nature in the “wilds” of St. Louis – especially its raging, untameable river (contrast that with the relatively timid Thames.) (Listen to my interview with Eliot scholar Frances Dickey, which touches on Eliot’s St. Louis upbringing and his connection to the river.)

Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs may have found their social mores didn’t exactly align with the more conservative St. Louis of their time.  A handful of other authors – Teasdale and Lindsay, for example – passed through, or were born here and went away. Marianne Moore was one of those. It took her 17 years to get to Bryn Mawr, and after that, she barely left the East Coast if she could help it.

I have found only one documented example of a great writer expatriating to St. Louis. The poet Howard Nemerov, of New York City, came here to teach at Washington University. He came from elite stock – his sister, as I just learned, was Diane Arbus – and wrote some of my favorite formalist poems. Nemerov died in 1991, three years after Jonathan Franzen’s debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. The title refers to St. Louis’s slip in the national population rankings (twenty-seven would look good today.)

The beautiful busts of Eliot and Williams (and eventually Chopin and Burroughs) that have sprung up at the corner of Euclid and McPherson are a shout-out not only to the literary greatness that St. Louis produced, but an acknowledgement of the difficulty the state and its writers have had in noticing each other. They represent the hope that St. Louis can finally be proud of what it has produced. Hopefully this will come to fruition. Statues do not go away easily.