5 Famous Authors' Takes on St. Louis

25, November 2017

St. Louis has a history of producing wordsmiths who recall their hometown fondly, but what about writers who aren't from here? We pulled some of the most entertaining assessments dating back to the 1920s and 1930s from the book Seeking St. Louis: Voices from a River City, 1670–2000 and the scrapbooks Notables Who Visit St. Louis, housed in the Library & Research Center. These critiques are particularly striking in a time when opinions are so often expressed with the click of a button or swipe of a screen. Spoiler alert: Not all of the following opinions are ones the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission would print in a pamphlet.

1. Charles Dickens

Color watercolor painting of Charles DickensCharles Dickens at the Tremont House in Boston. Watercolor painting by Pierre Morand. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Charles Dickens and his wife embarked on a six-month American tour in 1842, one that included a stop in St. Louis. Dickens went on to publish his impression of this city—and many others—in the book American Notes.

The town bids fair, in a few years, to improve considerably: though it is not likely to ever vie, in point of elegance or beauty, with Cincinnati. . . . Just adding, that it is very hot, lies among great rivers, and has vast tracts of undrained swampy land around it, I leave the reader to form his own opinion.

Modern Equivalent: Dickens doesn't follow #stlwx, even though it's often really beautiful.

2. Joseph Hergesheimer

Vertical, black-and-white photograph of writer Joseph Hergesheimer smoking a cigarJoseph Hergesheimer, 1940. Photo by Al Aumuller. Library of Congress.

Joseph Hergesheimer was at the height of his popularity when he published his essay “On West Water” in the Saturday Evening Post in October 1922. He perceived St. Louis as a "go big or go home" sort of city.

At first I thought it had many aspects of Philadelphia; but that impression was quickly vanished—St. Louis was St. Louis. . . . Its personality was not clear at once, but the main characteristic was perceptible at a glance; everywhere there were Places. . . . There was a passion in St. Louis to be not merely big, but bigger, in as many ways as possible, than all other cities; in reality, the biggest.

Modern Equivalent: Hergesheimer "likes" St. Louis on Facebook, if not enthusiastically.

3. O. O. McIntyre

A black-and-white photograph of 10 journalists at work at the Cincinnati Post copy desk.Journalists at work at the Cincinnati Post city copy desk, 1910. Photo by O. O. McIntyre. Wikimedia Commons.

O. O. McIntyre was born in Missouri and raised in Ohio, but it wasn’t until he moved to New York City that the country knew his remarkable name. His column, “New York Day by Day,” glamorously detailed life in the Big Apple and was published in more than 500 newspapers nationwide. McIntyre visited St. Louis in December 1922 and wrote a guest column for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

There is a warm, hospitable beat to the St. Louis pulse. If I had my choice I believe that I’d settle here. . . . In all my life I have never had a more enjoyable week. The ladies of St. Louis, it seems to me, are more lovely than the women of Paris, London or New York. And yet as luck would have it, the second day I was here I was taken to the Zoological Gardens in Forest Park and was kissed by a chimpanzee.

Modern Equivalent: McIntyre floods his Instagram with St. Louis photos; New Yorkers quietly unfollow him.

4. Vicki Baum

Vertical, sepia-toned photo of Vicki BaumVicki Baum, ca. 1930. Photo by Max Fenichel. Wikimedia Commons.

A native of Austria, Vicki Baum found success in the US when her 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel was adapted into the film Grand Hotel. Starring Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, it was a massive hit and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1932. Baum spoke to St. Louis’s Wednesday Club that fall with some tough love about the Great Depression.

You Americans with your little Depression do not know what privation is. You are a baby with its first bump. It hurts, but after all, it is only a little bump. . . . I find St. Louis comparably happy.

Modern Equivalent: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

5. Hannen Swaffer

A vertical, black-and-white bromide print of Hannen Swaffer wearing a fedora.Hannen Swaffer, 1930. Bromide print by Howard Coster. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Hannen Swaffer was described in the October 18, 1937, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as “an English labor writer and former London dramatic critic.” His criticism wasn't limited to the theatre, though—he also leveled some at the Missouri History Museum for a certain exhibit.

We in England can't understand why [Lindbergh] should be a great American here. He is a brilliant and courageous young airman, one of a type to be found in any nation of the world. Why all this much they gave him? Soap, for example. And bay rum and collar buttons. . . . A bunch of bloody junk that should be sold at a rummage sale.

Modern Equivalent: Can't believe it when Uber driver explains Kirkwood Road's other name; gives driver zero stars. 

—Kristie Lein, Associate Editor

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