Street Sense

By Kalaidis, Jen | Humanities, July/August 2012 | Go to article overview

Street Sense


Kalaidis, Jen, Humanities


MARYLAND ONE WAS A SOCIAL CRITIC WHO INSPIRED the term "muckraker." One launched an empire based entirely on promoting good manners. And another changed the hip-hop world forever. What could Upton Sinclair, Emily Post, and Tupac Shakur possibly have in common?

They all lived, worked, or found inspiration in Baltimore's historic Mount Vernon neighborhood.

"Mount Vernon is such a beauty for Baltimore, but so many people don't know its history," says Josephine Williams, tour guide and former Maryland Humanities Council's executive director. With a goal of increasing public awareness about the neighborhood's rich history, she and colleague Lisa Kier created the Maryland Humanities Council literary walking tour of Mount Vernon.

The tour commences at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, just blocks away from the heart of historic Mount Vernon Square. There, participants learn the how this accessible and unpretentiously designed library served as an intellectual refuge for the poor and working class during the Great Depression. "This is a tour about writers and buildings," says Williams, who then reveals this was the place where Pulitzer Prizewinning poet Karl Shapiro got his start.

The nearby George Peabody Library served a similar purpose for John Dos Passos. Housed in a sprawling, elegant building begun by philanthropist George Peabody in 1857, the Peabody was established to make culture accessible to all. This mission resonated with Dos Passos, who dedicated his literary career to exploring the ins and outs of American culture through fiction. Upon entering the library, tour participants can even see the desk he often wrote at for nine-hour stretches at a time.

While Dos Passos was pioneering his own style of nonlinear fiction, another iconic writer was working less than a block away. A post-Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald was living at the Stafford Hotel, where he completed what would be his last finished novel, Tender Is the Night. A decade of extravagance and indulgence had caught up with the Fitzgeralds by this point - E Scott's alcoholism was worsening, and Zelda was hospitalized for schizophrenia.

Perhaps the Fitzgeralds' misfortunes would have been less if longtime friend Gertrude Stein had been nearby. And so she was - but a few decades earlier. As a young woman at the turn of the century, Stein was one of the few women enrolled in medical school at Johns Hopkins University. Other pioneering women such as poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and etiquette queen Emily Post also spent time in Mount Vernon.

And what would a literary neighborhood be without its critics? Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, spent the first decade of his life in a boardinghouse in Mount Vernon. …

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