‘Saint Pollution’: Aspects of Environmental Literary History in 1870s-1920s St. Louis

Presented by Jason Finch, Associate Professor, English Language and Literature, Åbo Akademi University; Visiting Researcher, Divided City Initiative, Center for the Humanities, Washington University in St. Louis (September–December 2022)

City Seminar 2022: The Divided City

Environments and atmospheres of smoke, metal, brick and human/nonhuman encounter recur in the literature of St. Louis during its period of national and international prominence, approximately the 1870s to the 1920s. This body of writing is extensive both in genre and in terms of authors and readers’ diverse positionings. But academic work on St. Louis literary history remains sparse, and is largely concerned with the crisis period of the later twentieth century.

Rather than tracing writers of civic importance or the roots in this city of those who became world famous elsewhere, Jason’s current research seeks atmospheres particular to St. Louis in the period’s rich literary corpus. Environmental case studies selectively examined in his paper include the city’s notoriously smoky air and the impact of transport infrastructures (including in accidents and the role of tracks in dividing urban populations from one another spatially). The noxious industries of St. Louis, centrifugal demographic moves northwards, southwards and westwards, and the pervasive rail yards and streetcar lines of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century city echo through poetry, fiction and nonfictional prose by Sarah Teasdale, Kate Chopin, Marietta Holley and Theodore Dreiser. In their 1890s to 1920s texts, the tone is energetic, not elegiac or melancholic like that of later, memorializing, writings by exiles T.S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams, an energy retained in underexamined memoirs from the 1930s to 1950s by the dramatist Orrick Johns and the world champion boxer Henry Armstrong. Methodologically, the paper links literary urban studies with environmental history.

The City Seminar was founded in 2007 as a forum through which scholars across disciplines and from colleges and universities throughout the St. Louis area share ideas, research methods, theories, and topics on urban issues int he United States and abroad. The City Seminar has been especially effective in bringing Architecture, Urban Design, and Humanities scholars into regular dialogue. Click here for more information about The Divided City.


Headline image: The Smoke Nuisance: Report of the Smoke Abatement Committee of the Civic League (1906) (in Special Collections, John M. Olin Library, Washington University in St. Louis)