Great Writers on St. Louis, Part 3

This week's Riverfront Times explores our city's literary history. Check back throughout the week for online-only maps and articles supplementing this week's cover story.

Howard Nemerov - image via
Howard Nemerov

Not all St. Louis writers have been natives. Most of the transplants, it is true, came here because they got jobs at Washington University's writing program, but gradually they turned into lifers, even if they went to high school elsewhere.

Wrote Howard Nemerov, the poet who arrived at Wash. U. in 1969: "When I moved here a little snit from Brandeis wrote me a very unconsciously funny letter, in which he said he understood my wish to 'retire from the center of culture into some quiet backwater.'"

(Fun fact: Nemerov's sister was the photographer Diane Arbus.)

The novelist Stanley Elkin, in his essay "Why I Live Where I Live" (collected in the anthology Seeking St. Louis: Voices From a River City, 1670-2000) composed a hymn to St. Louis' enduring -- and endearing -- mediocrity:

Stanley Elkin - image via
Stanley Elkin

"And I live where I live because I am comfortable, because the climate is equable, because the movies come on time but the theater is road show, second company, because the teams are dull but we get all the channels, because there can't be four restaurants in the city that require jackets and ties and there's a $25,000 ceiling on what city employees may earn and I make more than the mayor, the head of the zoo. Because I feel no need to take the paper."

Tim Hawley, a local book dealer and proprietor of Contre Coup Press, once published a limited-run edition of Elkin's essay in pamphlet form. He writes on his blog:

I had never met Elkin - indeed, I never did meet him, despite printing this book and another book that he had written. But I knew some people who had been in his classes, and he had quite a reputation - quite a reputation, indeed! One woman who took a class with him told me that he had given the class an assignment, and when they turned them in at the beginning of the next class meeting, Elkin stacked the writings on the desk in front of him, picked up the top item and started reading it silently. After a few moments, he exclaimed, "Oh my God! What a bunch of shit!" He then took the entire stack of papers, lit them on fire with his cigarette lighter and tossed them into the waste paper basket to burn.

Copies of Hawley's pamphlet would eventually sell for $600, mostly to Elkin completists.

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