Literary Tourism: St. Louis, Missouri

Saint Louis (or St. Louis) has a long and thorough history in American literature as the Gateway to the West and the port of the Mississippi. It has also had some not so great connotations in recent years, as a system breakdown brought further attention to a painful national problem. It is a city of scholars and of self-taught men. It was also my home for four years, though in retrospect that wasn’t nearly enough time for me to have explored all the greatest parts of it.


Bookish Sites

The St. Louis Public Library boasts five Carnegie library buildings, including the Central Library. The Central Library was recently renovated and beyond the colossal archways stand several decadent reading rooms. The rest of the system, which includes 17 branches, is nothing to sneeze at, either.

Photograph of the St. Louis Public Library Central Library

Isn’t that just the quintessential Carnegie Library building?


Photograph of the St. Louis Public Library Central Library.

And the interior…what would you do for that reading room?


While the libraries have everything for the self-learner, there is also an array of colleges to choose from–we’re nearing DC levels of stone-throwing, here. On either end of the massive Forest Part sits Washington University in St. Louis and the Washington University School of Medicine. Further east in the city you’ll find Saint Louis University and Harris-Stowe State University. You’ll also come across Fontbonne University, the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Missouri Baptist University, and Maryville University, which is actually farther from the city center than Ferguson. These campuses can definitely claim some of the greatest spots in the city, and some of the most beautiful reading rooms.

Photograph of the Ridgley Library Reading Room, early twentieth century.

The Ridgley Library was replaced long ago with a larger, more high tech building a couple hundred yards to the west…

Photograph of Holmes Lounge, Ridgley Hall, Washington University in St. Louis

…but Holmes Lounge was a place I spent a lot of time trying not to fall asleep while writing essays in those comfy, comfy chairs…


The St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance provides indie coverage for a large part of the St. Louis area, including one store across the river in Illinois. Two of its members, Subterranean and the CWE Left Bank Books, were definitely stomping grounds for me when I lived there–at least once I broke out of the Wash U bubble and started to explore more of the city.  


Bookish History

While we all know the story of Samuel Clemens the riverboat pilot, there is a lengthy history for literature. Sally Benson’s semi-autobiographical novel Meet Me in Saint Louis (“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley!”…no? Okay.) was originally a series of short stories about the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where T.S. Eliot had a season pass and Kate Chopin suffered the cerebral hemorrhage that led to her death. Later, Tennessee Williams would be less than a fan of his time living there, and Jonathan Franzen would be part of a society of pranksters at Webster Groves High School.  


Night Photograph of St. Louis World's Fair grounds.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, AKA the 1904 World’s Fair, lit up the St. Louis skyline on the western edge of the city and drew countless people on a daily basis.



Born Here

St. Louis seems to have something in the water for producing talent. Not only does the list of people from the city burst with popular musicians and stars of screen and stage, but also several great creators of the written word. How many cities can boast being the birthplace of not only multiple Poet Laureates of the United states and Pulitzer Prize winning authors, but Mighty Joe Pulitzer himself. Maya Angelou, William S. Burroughs, A.E. Hotchner, Harold Ramis, and Sara Teasdale are just the beginning.

Photograph of Kate Chopin's final home.

The Kate Chopin House in the Central West End is on the National Register of Historic Places, but is currently privately owned. It’s where she wrote her last poem and short story before dying of the aformentioned cerebral hemorrhage.


Set in St. Louis

My first St. Louis book (that I recall taking place in St. Louis, anyway) was Guilty Pleasures. I imagine there are several (thousand) books with this title, but the one I’m talking about involves a woman who can raise the dead, who suddenly has to deal with a succubus master vampire with a crush. For me, the first eight books were a practice in exploration, as I streamlined them during the winter break of my freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis while I was at home in DC. Anita Blake’s mysteries often took a back seat to my trying to pinpoint if I could figure out where something was supposed to be in the city. Usually, the answer was no. But I had fun anyway.

Obviously, the writings of Laurell K. Hamilton are not the only ones that take place in St. Louis. Jonathan Franzen’s debut novel from 1988, The Twenty-Seventh City, takes place in the city of his youth. Countless works of suspense, erotic romance,mysticalurban, historical, and inspirational fiction all take place in this city of a thousand faces. The Glass Menagerie takes place in St. Louis.


My time in St. Louis was wonderful, but it could have been greater if I had done more exploring of some of the cooler literary and historic locations in the city. What I’ve mentioned above is nowhere near an exhaustive list of the greatest parts of the literary history and literary present of Saint Louis, Missouri.

What are your favorite aspects of Literary St. Louis?

The dog days are over, and cool, crisp weather approaches. Spruce up your fall wardrobe with new lightweight scarves.