Anne Tyler is indelibly tied to the city, but authors as contrasting as Frederick Douglass and John Waters have shown some of its different faces
When I began writing novels set in my home town of Baltimore, the living writer most identified with the city was Anne Tyler. More than two decades later, that’s still true. Yet Tyler’s books are not about Baltimore per se. The city is her backdrop, not her subject. Tyler would be one of the great American novelists wherever she lived.
She gets Baltimore right, of course, because she’s Anne Tyler. The question, as always with any Baltimore-based story, is which Baltimore? It’s a city of contradictions, as open to interpretation and variation as the best jazz standards.
Once one of the largest cities in the US, Baltimore has been losing population in recent years and its public image is dismal. There was the Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, numerous scandals involving the police department and now our mayor has been forced to step down in a scandal over a children’s book. It’s a poor city with a high homicide rate. Still, there are those of us who love it and choose to live here.
And writers have always been drawn to Baltimore. Edgar Allan Poe lived and later died here, although didn’t produce any significant work here. Gertrude Stein went to medical school and took up boxing; Dashiell Hammett, forever associated with San Francisco, was once a Pinkerton detective agent in the city. But in truth, there’s not enough fiction about my home town. To come up with a list of 10 books, I had to go beyond novels.
Meanwhile, there’s a reason we call it Smalltimore. This list includes friends, a mentor, a minister and a husband. Tyler is the only living Baltimore writer on this list I’ve never met – and she was a good friend to my friend, Rob Hiaasen, shot to death last summer alongside four of his newspaper colleagues.
1. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler (1985)
If I have to pick just one Tyler as a classic Baltimore novel, I’d go with The Accidental Tourist because Macon Leary and his siblings typify a certain kind of north Baltimore eccentric. Alphabetised kitchen, a family card game that only the family understands? I know these people.
2. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)
“[I]t was no small affair, in the eyes of the slaves, to be allowed to see Baltimore,” Frederick Douglass writes in his memoir. As a boy, Douglass was sent to Baltimore from a large plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and it changed his life: he learned to read and write here. But he had to leave in order to escape slavery.
3. The City of Anger by William Manchester (1953)
Manchester, perhaps best known in the US as Winston Churchill’s biographer, doesn’t identify the eponymous city in his novel as Baltimore, but it’s clearly based on the place where he worked as a reporter. (The Evening Sun, where I would work many decades later.) It centres on an election, corrupt politicians and similarly corrupt cops. It’s depressingly relevant.
Read more: www.theguardian.com