"The first time I ever saw St. Louis, I would have bought it for six million dollars, and it was the mistake of my life that I did not do it."
– Mark Twain, 1883.
Imagine what the world would be like if the seventeen-year-old then known as Sam Clemens, freshly arrived on the steamboat from Hannibal, actually had $6 million to his name in 1853. He might have stayed here.
Clemens spent most of his time in St. Louis working happily as a riverboat pilot, his boyhood dream, traveling up and down the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans. But the Civil War put an end to most boat traffic on the big river, and Clemens was nearly out of a job. Coincidentally, in 1861, President Lincoln appointed Clemens' brother Orion territorial secretary (and sometimes acting governor) of Nevada. Unfortunately, Orion lacked the funds to get to Carson City. Sam lent him stagecoach fare and decided to go along.
When he returned to St. Louis in 1867, Sam Clemens was only Sam Clemens to his mother and sister, who still lived at 1212 Chestnut Street. To everyone else he had become Mark Twain, the famous author of the story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and a humorous lecturer on life in the West, which was still somewhat wild. Mark Twain didn't stay here long. He had a newspaper assignment to report on a tour of Europe, the "Holy Land" and North Africa. His columns were collected in his first book, The Innocents Abroad, which became a bestseller. Also on that trip, a fellow passenger from Elmira, New York, showed Clemens a picture of his sister, the girl he eventually married in 1870.
"Once he was getting married, his letters were about how much he hated St. Louis and wanted to get away from the past," says Robert Hirst, general editor of the Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, which comes out later this fall.
And yet...Mark Twain's greatest work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is set in the Missouri of Sam Clemens' boyhood when, to a boy from Hannibal, "St. Louie" was the most wonderful city in the world. "The fifth night we passed St. Louis," says Huck, "and it was like the whole world lit up."
The year before he wrote Huckleberry Finn, Twain indulged in another long wallow in the past, Life on the Mississippi. "After twenty-one years' absence," he wrote, "I felt a very strong desire to see the river again." But the St. Louis he had known had disappeared.
Twain took it personally: "Half a dozen sound-asleep steamboats where I used to see a solid mile of wide-awake ones! This was melancholy, this was woeful....The towboat and the railroad had done their work, and done it well and completely."
He never came back, except for brief family visits and stops on lecture tours.
Mark Twain may have been the greatest writer to love and leave St. Louis. But, as you'll see, he wasn't the only one. Use this map to follow in the footsteps of some of the poets, novelists and essayists who once called our city home and who, no matter how much they later claimed to hate it, could never stop writing about it.
To see where St. Louis' writers once lived, visit the ongoing Literary St. Louis blog series throughout the week. Check out our interactive map, read more great quotes from writers about our city, and find out who inspired T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
The 1904 World's Fair
Everybody went to the St. Louis World's Fair, and that included the city's writers. T.S. Eliot, then a lad of sixteen, had a season pass. So did Kate Chopin, but her season ended prematurely: While visiting the fairgrounds on August 20, one of the hottest days of the summer, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She died two days later.
In order to avoid her alcoholic husband and also profit off the fair, a North Carolinian named Julia Wolfe moved here with her three children and opened up a boardinghouse on Cates Avenue. The oldest, twelve-year-old Grover, died of typhoid, which he contracted while working at a concession stand; the youngest, three-year-old Thomas, later memorialized the sojourn in his 1937 novella The Lost Boy, a sequel to Look Homeward, Angel.
Most visits to the fair were not as tragic. The historian Henry Adams was impressed — in a way — by its size and ambition. "One saw here," he wrote, "a third-rate town of half-a-million people without history, education, unity, or art, and with little capital — without even an element of natural interest except the river which it studiously ignored — but doing what London, Paris, or New York would have shrunk from attempting." Still, he considered it an inferior achievement to the cathedrals of Europe.
Sally Benson would have disagreed. Her 1942 memoir, Meet Me in St. Louis (the basis for the 1944 movie), chronicled what some still consider the most exciting year in the city's history. Here the Smith family finally sees the fair in all its glory:
"Well —" Mrs. Smith began as tiny sparks of light outlined the Cascades, Festival Hall and the Colonnade of States. Suddenly the outlines of the columns, the arches, and the great statues were obliterated entirely. The lights glowed in dull redness and expanded into white light. It was as though the picture had been rebuilt in a minute, not of substance but of light. The successive falls of the Cascades shone in the brilliance. The white lights faded out and from bottom to top, from end to end, the Festival Hall, the Colonnade, and the Pavilions stood out in carmine.
Everyone stopped talking, and Rose drew in her breath sharply. "There has never been anything like it in the world," she said. "There never will be."
Mr. Smith put his arm around his wife's waist and Tootie and Agnes clung to Grandpa Prophater. "And just think," Mrs. Smith said, her voice soft and awe-stricken. "It's all right here where we live."
Thomas Lanier Williams, later known as Tennessee, moved here with his family in 1918 and lived here for nearly twenty years, but he never felt at home. "I found St. Louisans cold, smug, complacent, intolerant, stupid, and provincial," he wrote as an adult, once he had escaped. "I hate the place."
Still, Williams' first plays were produced here, when he was a student at Washington University, and he immortalized his family's cramped apartment at 6254 Enright Avenue in University City in his first great success, 1944's The Glass Menagerie. (He also had an affair with the playwright William Inge, then the theater critic for the St. Louis Star-Times.)
In 1968, Williams returned to St. Louis — which he called "St. Pollution" — when his brother Dakin checked him into Barnes Hospital, mostly against his will, for drug and alcohol rehab.
And then I was in the house on Wydown Boulevard in Clayton, Mom's old Spanish stucco dwelling, and it was morning and I had firmly decided not to enter a hospital.
"Mother, have you ever heard of sibling envy?"
"Oh yes, I think so," said Miss Edwina coldly.
A bit later I said I would go to the hospital provided an ambulance was summoned to take me. Dakin talked me out of that. He got me into his car and drove me to Barnacle Hospital. At first, that first day, I was put in the Queen's Division — and I didn't make up that name, that's just what it's called. It is the rather posh division for the "mildly disturbed." I was placed under the "care" of three neurologists and an internist.
The treatment at Barnes likely saved Williams' life, but it caused a permanent rift between him and his brother. When Williams finally died in 1983, Dakin, knowing his hatred of St. Louis, had him buried in Calvary Cemetery.
John Burroughs School
Founded in 1923, John Burroughs School has long been considered one of the best — and most exclusive — private schools in the city. Among its distinguished alumni are the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley (whose latest book, Private Life, is partially set in St. Louis), class of 1967; the novelist and junkie William S. Burroughs, class of 1931; and the journalist Martha Gellhorn, class of 1926.
Burroughs was no relation to John Burroughs; his grandfather, also named William S. Burroughs, founded the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. Our Burroughs grew up in luxury in the Central West End; his family later moved to Ladue. He was subsequently stationed at Jefferson Barracks during a brief stint in the Army, which ended abruptly when Burroughs, in an attempt to impress a friend, cut off part of one of his own fingers with poultry shears.
After that unfortunate incident, Burroughs left St. Louis and became famous as a charter member of the Beat generation, writing the novels Junkie and Naked Lunch. He achieved infamy for accidentally shooting his wife while drunkenly trying to reenact the legend of William Tell with a martini glass in place of an apple (though Burroughs would later claim it didn't happen that way). He also collaborated with Jack Kerouac on a mystery called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, allegedly inspired by a news report about a fire at the Saint Louis Zoo.
Like Mark Twain, Burroughs was distressed by changes to St. Louis in his absence: "But what had happened to Market Street, the skid row of my adolescent years?" he wrote in 1965. "Where are the tattoo parlors, novelty stores, hock shops — brass knuckles in a dusty window — the seedy pitchmen — Where are the old junkies hawking and spitting on street corners under the glass lights?"
Martha Gellhorn was among the first students to attend Burroughs; her mother, Edna, a noted suffragist, was one of the founders. As an adult, Gellhorn didn't return here much; she later formulated a theory about St. Louisans abroad, which she shared with her then-husband, Ernest Hemingway, known as U.C., or Unwilling Companion, in her book Travels With Myself and Another:
I had seen another Caucasian board the train at Shaokwan and made a bet with U.C.
"Bet you 20 dollars Chinese he comes from St. Louis."
"I think it's a law. When you get to the worst farthest places, the stranger has come from St. Louis.'"
"Done." I moved along the unsteady train until I saw the man, reading alone in his cindery compartment. I asked if he was American. Yes. Did he come from St. Louis? He looked only slightly surprised and said Yes. I said thank you and left and collected twenty Chinese dollars. U.C. thought about that. Hours later he said, "Maybe it's something you catch from the water. Maybe it's not your fault."
Gellhorn was the third of Hemingway's wives to come from St. Louis. Hemingway attempted to justify this: "I think if one is perpetually doomed to marry people from St. Louis, it's best to marry them from the best families."
To which Gertrude Stein retorted, "A man who has married three women from St. Louis couldn't have learned much."
The Wednesday Club
St. Louis' longest-standing women's literary club was originally called the Shelley Group, after the poet, when it was founded in 1889. The husbands of its members, however, objected to the name because Shelley had been a noted atheist and refused to give them money for dues. The founders had no choice but to shut the club down, but a year later, they reorganized as the Wednesday Club, a name they considered less controversial. Among its early members were Edna Gellhorn, mother of Martha; Irma Rombauer, who would write The Joy of Cooking; and the poet Sara Teasdale.
The Wednesday Club's annual poetry contest has been responsible for launching the careers of several St. Louis poets, including Tennessee Williams, Marianne Moore (who later became a judge) and River Styx editor Richard Newman.
But the Wednesday Club's finest moment may have come in 1899, when one of its former members, Kate Chopin, published her novel The Awakening, about a woman who abandons her husband and children to pursue a career as an artist and an affair with another man. Though the book created a scandal (and then disappeared, until it was rediscovered by feminist scholars in the 1970s), the members of the club did not expel her, as is widely reported; she had dropped out several years earlier in order to have more time to write.
The Wednesday Club stood by Chopin. In the middle of the controversy, they invited her to give a reading. Four hundred women showed up to hear her.
As Emily Hahn recalled in her memoir, No Hurry to Get Home, her career as a world traveler began when she was 15, when her family moved from St. Louis to Chicago.
"Later on, in Chicago," she wrote, "it suited me to mope as if I'd lost a paradise when we moved away from St. Louis, and I began to dream of running off — if not to that one, then to some other. And St. Louis was, in fact, a pleasant place. There must have been other towns along the Mississippi with a similar charm — places where cement had not yet tamped down everything and nature still showed through — but I thought mine unique."
Her homesickness resulted in an abortive attempt to escape back to St. Louis, which didn't get her any farther than the home of a school friend. Hahn's later ventures would be more successful. As a college student in the mid-1920s, she and a friend drove a Model T from Chicago to Albuquerque. A few years later, she set off alone for the Belgian Congo because, as a little girl, she had looked at the atlas and decided it was the farthest place one could go. She stayed for two years, living with a dissolute American anthropologist and his two Congolese wives and volunteering with the Red Cross.
Hahn's further adventures included a long stint — she had only intended to stay two weeks — in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1930s and early '40s where she edited a magazine, filed dispatches for the New Yorker and fulfilled another childhood dream, this one of becoming an opium addict. (A short memoir about the experience began, "Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can't claim that as the reason I went to China.")
St. Louis doesn't figure at all in any of Hahn's essays about her later life, despite her many travels. A possible explanation: As a new college grad, she lived here briefly in 1927, working as a secretary for the Deko Oil Company although she had been trained as a mining engineer. The job bored her, and her hometown to her surprise, made her miserable. That spring, she made a bet with herself: If Charles Lindbergh could make it across the Atlantic, anything was possible, and it would be all right to leave her safe, comfortable existence in St. Louis. As we know, Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis landed safely in Paris. The next day, permission granted, Hahn was gone, off in search of adventure.
A certain sort of writer considers it a badge of honor to be arrested. St. Louis writers are no exception. One of Howard Nemerov's neighbors in the Parkview neighborhood, mistaking the poet for a bum, called the police out to arrest him for vagrancy. Another poet, Richard Newman, was booked by the cops for skinny-dipping in the fountain by the fake ruins in Tower Grove Park. (The water, he reports, was rather slimy and only came up to his knees.)
But run-ins with the police are not always fun. In 1991, Gerald Early, an essayist, cultural critic and a professor at Washington University, was arrested at Le Chateau Village in Frontenac, apparently for being black. The incident made national news; an article appeared in the New York Times. Here's Early's account, from his book Daughters:
Ida [Early's wife], an officer in the Junior League, took me and the children to a Junior League Christmas bazaar at Le Chateau Mall, which was where the Junior League Headquarters was located then. While she and the girls looked at the Christmas displays, I, bored and restless, walked around the mall for a bit then went back to our van and sat there for a time and read. After 20 or 30 minutes, I went back through the mall to get them. I walked past a jewelry store. A man and a woman stood in front of it, talking. I didn't say anything to them, never stopped to look at anything in the jewelry store, barely even glanced at them. I simply wanted to go home....
When I arrived back at the Junior League headquarters, I couldn't find Ida or the kids. Once again, I went down the front steps of the Junior League and stood there, waiting for them to come out. Then the adventure began. A young police officer named Mayer drove up and asked me what I was doing there. He told me that he had received a call with a description of someone who looked like me "lurking" in the mall. Something in me snapped. There I was, I immediately thought, about to be humiliated before the whites coming in and out of the building (and there were a good many of them doing so, through the front entrance), being reminded that I was a nigger, that I had no business being where I was, that I was a "threat" to the good white folk of Frontenac.
Maya Angelou, then called Marguerite Johnson, was born in St. Louis, but when she was three, her parents divorced. She moved to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with her grandmother. Four years later, she and her brother, Bailey, returned to St. Louis and their mother. In her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she recalls driving into the city for the first time:
St. Louis was a new kind of hot and a new kind of dirty. My memory had no pictures of the crowded-together soot-covered buildings. For all I knew, we were being driven to Hell and our father was the delivering devil....The Negro section of St. Louis in the mid-thirties had all the finesse of a gold-rush town. Prohibition, gambling and their related vocations were so obviously practiced that it was hard for me to believe they were against the law.
Angelou's premonition of Hell proved correct. A year after she arrived in St. Louis, her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, raped her. Freeman served four days in jail; upon his release, Angelou's uncles kicked him to death. Angelou blamed herself and stopped speaking for five years. She and Bailey were sent back to Stamps. They never came back to St. Louis.
This week's Time magazine cover boy, the "Great American Novelist," is a somewhat proud product of Webster Groves High School. Jonathan Franzen's latest book, Freedom, out later this month, is already being hailed as a masterpiece.
Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections, won the 2001 National Book Award, but that's not why it made Franzen infamous. After the book was selected by Oprah for her book club, Franzen offended the media goddess by confessing his ambivalence about the honor to several reporters he met on his book tour. Oprah rescinded her offer, and Franzen got saddled with a reputation as a snotty intellectual. (Deserved or not? Let the debate begin!)
The Corrections, which was set in a thinly disguised St. Louis called "St. Jude," was not especially kind to our city. But Franzen claims to have fond memories of growing up in Webster Groves, and he made an attempt to defend his hometown in an essay in his book The Discomfort Zone.
"As an adult, when I say the word 'Webster Groves' to people I've just met, I'm often informed that I grew up in a suffocatingly wealthy, insular, conformist town with a punitive social hierarchy," he wrote. "The twenty-odd people who have told me this over the years have collectively spent, by my estimate, about 20 minutes in Webster Groves, but each of them went to college in the seventies and eighties, and a fixture of sociology curricula in that era was a 1966 CBS documentary called 16 in Webster Groves. The film, an early experiment in hour-long prime-time sociology, reported on the attitudes of suburban sixteen-year-olds. I've tried to explain that the Webster Groves depicted in it bears minimal resemblance to the friendly, unpretentious town I knew when I was growing up. But it's useless to contradict TV; people look at me with suspicion, or hostility, or pity, as if I'm deeply in denial."
Despite his best efforts, Franzen even managed to have some fun during his Webster Groves years; in his senior year at Webster High, he and his friends formed a society of pranksters. On one occasion, they disabled all the classroom bells and sent Mr. Knight, the principal, on a quest around the school to find them, using a series of doggerel poems, composed by Franzen, as clues.
"My idea was to enchant the school for Mr. Knight," Franzen explained in another essay from The Discomfort Zone, "to render the building momentarily strange and full of possibility as a gift to him; and I was in the middle of discovering that writing was a way to do this."
Knight followed the clues, the bells were recovered, and, if Franzen is to be believed, the pranksters were mentioned by the superintendent at graduation.