From Mark Twain to Jonathan Franzen, St. Louis has been home to a surprising number of great writers

From Mark Twain to Jonathan Franzen, St. Louis has been home to a surprising number of great writers
Dan Zettwoch
Click here for a full-sized map of Literary St. Louis

"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.

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