Why doesn’t this city have a Literary Hall of Fame — a complete museum to the notable authors, poets, journalists, columnists and singular scribes who have spent some time here?
After all, St. Louis is no literary slouch. It has played host to the likes of Samuel Clemens, T. S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin, Marianne Moore, Josephine Johnson, Maya Angelou, William Gass and more.
So many great writers have chosen to leave St. Louis at their first opportunity, and most of them have refused to look back. Perhaps this is because the city by the Mississippi, a river which inspired both Clemens and Eliot, has shown more affection for its dogs, its players of baseball and its rollers of bowling balls.
When the poet Howard Nemerov, who died in 1991, came to St. Louis to take an academic appointment, his acquaintances from back east were both horrified and amused. One friend penned the soon-to-be national poet laureate a letter of sympathy. He wrote that he could well understand Nemerov’s desire “to retire from the center of culture into some quiet backwater.”
St. Louis has always suffered a sort of cultural inferiority complex, a syndrome that especially affects its own homegrown intelligentsia. They all too readily concede that St. Louis is a mere fly-over city – sandwiched somewhere on a global longitude between Nashville’s Opryland and upstart Branson, the headquarters of the Baldknobbers.
In fact, St. Louis was not always a “backwater,” and it does not have to remain the quiet backwater that many consider it to be today. A St. Louis Literary Museum would spotlight the many contributions of writers who once called “Mound City” their home – from Sam Clemens to Eugene Field, to Harold Brodkey and Stanley Elkin.
A Journalistic Legacy
When I first suggested a St. Louis Literary Museum in a 2002 edition of St. Louis Journalism Review, I received a strong letter of support for the idea from Senator Paul Simon of Illinois. Simon wrote that he was going to put his own energy behind the idea, but unfortunately, he died within a few months.
Before becoming a U.S. Senator, Simon wrote investigative journalism across the river at the Troy Tribune. He became the youngest editor-publisher in the nation and built a chain of 14 weekly newspapers.
I suspect Simon was attracted to the idea for a literary museum because I suggested that journalists be included. Long before today’s president dismissed journalists as “enemies of the people,” there were those who disparaged journalists as mere hack writers.
St. Louis has had many journalists who have made the transition from newsroom to reading room. Journalist Joseph Pulitzer invented the modern newspaper and changed the face of American culture.
Elijah P. Lovejoy wrote in St. Louis for the Observer and then across the river with the Alton Observer. His editorial, “A Call For Anti-Slavery Action,” revealed the power of the written word. It also played a role in his martyrdom.
Just as Lovejoy has a monument to his work in Alton, Ill., Eugene Field is recalled in downtown St. Louis with the Field House Museum. A newspaper writer, Field is credited as the father of the personal column. He also wrote children’s poems, such as “Little Boy Blue” and “Wynken, Blynken and Nod.”
Theodore Dreiser, who worked for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, went onto write graphic works of fiction that were considered explicit during his time. His literary naturalism influenced a generation of young writers.
Martha Gellhorn is too often noted as one of the Ernest Hemingway’s wives. She was one of the nation’s first female foreign correspondents. She wrote six novels and six short story collections and a 1942 book about her travels in the Alaskan wilderness.
To Pulitzer, Lovejoy, Field, Dreiser and Gellhorn, add Joseph McCullagh, William Reedy, Zoe Akins, Fanny Hurst and more. As a newspaper partisan, this writer will always argue the case for scribes who “dirtied their hands” with printer’s ink.