A Short History of a Large Place
Baltimore's Mini-Lit Milestones
1833: The Baltimore Saturday Visiter [sic] awards Poe a $50 prize for his story "MS. Found in a Bottle," a tale of one traveler's harrowing sea journey and demise. The story also garners the writer a benefactor, Baltimore author John Pendleton Kennedy, who would help support Poe throughout his career.
1834: Believe it or not, Poe was capable of romantic tales. "The Visionary," published in Godey's Lady's Book, qualifies as one.
1835: Poe's "Berenice," a tale of the fear one man has of his cousin/wife-to-be's teeth once she ostensibly has become a ghost, is published in the Southern Literary Messenger, where Poe would later serve as editor. Poe scholars say that the impetus for the story--which begins with the cheery "Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform."--came from a Baltimore Saturday Visiter [sic] news account of grave robbers exhuming tombs to extract teeth to be sold to dentists. Poe also publishes "Morella," "Lionizing," "King Pest," and the science-fiction precursor "The Unparalleled Adventures of Hans Pfaall" in the same magazine. He marries his 13-year-old cousin, Baltimorean Virginia Clemm, and moves to Richmond, Va.
1838: Poe's critically acclaimed tale of the supernatural "Ligeia," believed to have been written in Baltimore, is published by the Baltimore American Museum, as is the comedy "The Psyche Zenobia."
1847: Virginia Clemm dies of tuberculosis.
1849: Poe returns to Baltimore in September, possibly goes on a drinking binge, and is found five days later on Lombard Street near High Street (now the site of the vacant Flag House Courts housing project). He is taken to Washington Hospital (later Church Hospital), but dies only five days afterward.
1900: H.L. Mencken certainly can't be credited with rejuvenating the short story in Baltimore--he had other crabs to crack--but he did take a whack at it. In addition to serving as a reporter at the Baltimore Morning Herald, the prolific and developing "Sage of Baltimore" penned short stories and sold about 15 of them between 1900 and 1906. His first published effort, which appeared during Mencken's 19th year in the August 1900 issue of Short Stories, was "The Cook's Victory," a tale wrought from Mencken's reporting experience covering the harbor, according to Vincent Fitzpatrick, curator of the Mencken Collection of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Fitzpatrick calls it "a rather inconsequential tale" set on the Chesapeake Bay.
1909: Gertrude Stein publishes Three Lives. A well-regarded story included in the collection, "Melanctha," has Baltimore roots. Stein attended Johns Hopkins' medical school but failed four courses in her final year while suffering a romantic "disappointment" with a mysterious woman named May. She wove her love interest into the novella Q.E.D. and "Melanctha," the latter of which Stein claimed was the first truly 20th-century story. In it, Stein incorporated her memories of the lives of African-Americans she encountered while a medical student. Stein had left Baltimore in 1903 and eventually moved to Paris.
1922: Baltimorean-to-be F. Scott Fitzgerald makes Mount Vernon his setting for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a fantastical tale with some Poe-like overtones about a baby born at age 70 who then lives life in reverse, his hair turning "in the dozen years of his life from white to iron-gray, the network of wrinkles on his face becoming less pronounced." The story was published in Collier's.
Circa 1925: Dashiell Hammett's Baltimore-based short story, "The Assistant Murderer," is printed in Black Mask magazine. The future creator of Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man) supported his family as a young adult by working as a detective for the Pinkerton agency downtown. Mencken discovered the hard-boiled writer after Hammett submitted the 100-word anecdote "The Parthian Shot" to Mencken's magazine The Smart Set in 1922.
1930: Mencken's American Mercury publishes a series of satirical fictional dialogues by another of his discoveries, Eastern Shore native James M. Cain, a former Sun and Baltimore American reporter. It is believed that Cain wrote the dialogues, at least in part, while living in Baltimore, a town he loathed. (Legend has it he and Mencken became acquainted over lunch at Marconi's in 1924.)
1932: Fitzgerald, seeking help for his mentally ill wife, Zelda, moves to Baltimore after wiring Mencken for the name of a prominent psychiatrist. Fitzgerald's family featured a Baltimore connection. Francis Scott Key, for whom the writer was named, was a second cousin thrice-removed, though Fitzgerald referred to him as an "uncle."
1936: Esquire publishes Fitzgerald's story "Afternoon of an Author," an extension of his collection of Esquire essays detailing his fractured state of mind while living in Baltimore. In "Afternoon," Fitzgerald describes a bus ride down Charles Street from 33rd Street to downtown. No doubt today's MTA patrons can relate to Fitzgerald's experience: "The bus was a long time coming."
1937: The Fitzgeralds leave Baltimore for Hollywood, where Fitzgerald dies of a heart attack three years later at age 44. He is buried in Rockville, where his father was born.
1938: Cain, the author of the fast-paced potboilers The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, disliked Baltimore enough to base his serial "Money and the Woman (The Embezzler)" on a study of embezzlement written by one of his friends who happened to work for the same Baltimore insurance company as Cain's father. It is published in Liberty.
Circa 1950: John Dos Passos (U.S.A., Manhattan Transfer) returns to his mother's home state of Maryland, splitting time between a farm in Tidewater, Va., and three North Baltimore homes. Though he's primarily a novelist, some of Dos Passos' short sketches and "pocket biographies" in Century's Ebb and Midcentury were written here and published in magazines, says his biographer, University of North Carolina professor Townsend Ludington. "Dos never wrote anything with Baltimore as a backdrop," Ludington says of the former leftist who turned to hard-right politics in the '50s and '60s. "He was too busy slobbering over the Founding Fathers." Dos Passos dies in his Cross Keys townhouse in 1970.
1963: Eastern Shore native John Barth's "Water-Message" finds print in Southwest Review. In the story, a black domestic servant insists on listening to the Baltimore radio station that broadcasts results from the Bowie and Pimlico racetracks, where her husband regularly loses money.
1967: Barth melds basic reproductive biology with Lord Baltimore's place in history in "Lost in the Funhouse," printed in The Atlantic Monthly.
1973: As a reward for such postmodern prose, Barth (Giles Goat-Boy, The Sot-Weed Factor) is made a professor in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. He takes up residence in Guilford.
1980: Noted local fictionist and mega-word-producer Stephen Dixon (Frog, Gould) accepts a writing- teacher's post at Hopkins.
1984: Roland Park's Anne Tyler (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist) lands a short piece she wrote for Seventeen magazine, "Teenage Wasteland," in The Editors' Choice, a collection of the best short fiction of 1983. Besides her Baltimore-centric novels, Tyler would go on to publish short stories in Harper's, The New Yorker, and Ladies Home Journal, among others.
1988: The first chapter of Tyler's novel Breathing Lessons is published as a short piece in The New Yorker. Local reference points include Belair Road and banal AM talk radio, a Baltimore staple.
1994: The Brit lit journal Granta publishes T. Coraghessan Boyle's "Little America," yet another Baltimore-based tale that won't be cited by the local Chamber of Commerce. Based on the October 1988 death of Richard E. Byrd Jr., son of the famed polar explorer, "Little America" imagines an Alzheimer's-afflicted Byrd Jr., confused during a Boston-to-Washington train ride, being scammed by a Baltimore bum at Penn Station. Boyle's tale, in effect, equates Baltimore with the grim reaper.
1996: The Johns Hopkins campus and one of its students make parenthetical appearances in "Stories of Our Lives," which is included in Barth's collection On With the Story. At the story's conclusion, an art historian masturbates while watching the Hopkins women's lacrosse team work out at Homewood Field.
1999: In his collection Sleep, Dixon includes a story about a motorist who believes he might have seen a body along Falls Road. As Dixon's protagonist repeatedly doubles back to make sure of what he's witnessed, "Other Way" becomes a tale of mild paranoia, representing the disorientation we sometimes have between what we think we see and what our imaginations make of it. Although Dixon's settings in general center on New York, he does capture a sentiment that seems distinctly Baltimorean in this story, as his hero decides to finally go home and have a drink: "I don't want to carry my Good Samaritan feelings to the point of craziness, do I?"
2000: In the 150th anniversary issue of Harper's, Goucher College English professor Madison Smartt Bell (All Souls Rising) looks at Poe's "The Raven" from the point of view of the raven--rather, the crow--in the story "Small Blue Thing." "A stately raven," Bell mocks, "with a four-foot wing spread and a beak like a samurai sword, probably wouldn't have fit in the room." Bell's conclusion functions as a metaphor for this city's grim history of the short form and its practitioners, both in tone and in subject matter: "I still fly over the place [Poe's former Amity Street home] sometimes. It's the projects now, West Baltimore slums. All crack dealers and whores in tights. Everything right out there on the street. They lost something when they let go of the whalebone and lace. Long fancy opium pipes and hookahs like he smoked sometimes. Something, certainly, has been lost."
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