Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken–what about Anne Tyler?
When the President of the United States recently made disparaging remarks about the Baltimore district of a respected congressman and civil rights leader who happens to be investigating the President’s integrity, those who wanted to defend the congressman, and his city, published lists of what was great, good, worthy and world-class about Maryland’s biggest city. They mentioned Poe, who died there, and the sour, cynical H.L. Mencken, who did his best journalism and social satire in Baltimore in the early part of the 20th century.
Why wasn’t Anne Tyler on the lists that I saw? She’s won a Pulitzer, among other awards! Her books were made into movies! What gives?
You don’t have to visit Baltimore to know it is large enough to have all the problems, complexities, tragedies and contradictions of any Eastern seaport metropolis, made even more interesting by its distinctive northern and southern cultural styles. What isn’t so obvious is that the city is small enough so you can get quick, powerful, unexpected glimpses into how it works, how the numerous social, economic and cultural forces move, communicate and frequently frustrate each other. It also functions well as a city: despite its highly publicized difficulties, it delivers the exquisite experiences that visitors expect from an urban environment.
Like Philadelphia, where I once lived, the remnants from earlier historical periods don’t quite fit into the contemporary landscape, but they remind you that important things not only happened there, but continue to happen, if anyone bothered to pay attention. This is, among other things, what David Simon’s superb, but demanding Baltimore-based police procedural HBO series The Wire was about.
I learned to savor Baltimore when I wrote for Baltimore Magazine, the city’s lifestyle monthly. Most people I met became the subjects of profiles, but a few, like filmmaker and social critic John Waters, I met by accident.
One person–the one I most wanted to meet–did not talk to me, though the magazine gave me her telephone number. I called several times. I left messages. My calls were not returned. Unlike some journalists who believe they can get what they want by becoming a pest, I let it go. The privacy of people–especially those who do something that pleases me–must be respected.
If she had called back, I would have told Ms. Tyler that, when I first came to Baltimore for the magazine, I was unaware of her novels and did not know that I ate at the restaurant on which she may have based Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.
But I began to read her books and found them so beautiful that I no longer wanted to write or publish novels about violence and heroic acts of derring-do because there are bigger, better and more inspiring stories to be found in characters who are just a little bit broken, thwarted and troubled about the peculiarity of grace and the inappropriateness of love. We need more novels that show us people who can endure and survive the quiet, but no less painful complications that confront those who are not front page news and never will be, but, by the strength of their character and an innate faith in human decency, will come to a vital understanding of who and what they are.
Finally, I wanted to rejoice that books such as hers were still being written, and that they say something new and necessary about the generalities of urban life, and the specific qualities of Baltimore, that has not been said in so many novels I’ve read set in New York, Los Angeles and other big bad American cities.
One dubious gift that journalism brings is the possibility of meeting your heroes. I’ve done this often enough to know that, even if everything happens as anticipated, you walk away knowing that this person is your hero not because of what she’s done, but because of what you’ve wanted her to be.
But, as one who considers an Anne Tyler novel as much a part of Baltimore as any other experience I’ve had there, I wish those fervent list-makers had remembered that she lives, writes and, I trust, thrives in that marvelous city.
Her work is one more satisfying motivation to love Baltimore, whether you visit or not. Sometimes, the ability to appreciate a place, a person, a predicament, leads to greater insights about yourself. Though Baltimore has its difficulties–some of its denizens have indeed become front page news and a few incidents have torn neighborhoods apart, Tyler’s novels are clearly, obviously and wonderfully about what brings the city, and the world beyond it, together.