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Disappearing Ink

Richmond has yet to embrace fully its literary greats.



Earlier this fall a colorful banner on West Broad Street proclaimed the grand opening of the Virginia Commonwealth University Barnes & Noble. Inside, a sea of black and gold tchotchkes emblazoned with Ram mascots vied for space with textbooks, art supplies, magazines and even a Quiznos.

On the shelves, however — among the classics, bestsellers and nonfiction — a search for titles by James Branch Cabell turned up nothing. The Richmond novelist, who became an overnight international sensation in the 1920s when his “Jurgen” was censored, is the man for whom the VCU library is named. But he's not on the bookstore shelves.

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    How about works by Cabell's contemporary and friend, the aristocratic, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Ellen Glasgow? Her stately old house on West Main Street stands within shouting distance of the university's recently expanded Monroe Park campus. You won't find her works in the new store, either.

    What of Richmond's two other Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, Douglas Southall Freeman and Virginius Dabney, a former rector of the university? Their volumes aren't readily available in the bookstore either.

    But the presence of those greats, along with other significant 19th- and 20th-century literary figures, lingers across Richmond and its neighborhoods, in the spaces where those authors wrote, walked and drew inspiration. In these places you also find fascinating connections with another side of Richmond's history — one that is not about the Civil War, not about politics and not about government. These are writers who chronicled a broader Virginia history, including the Confederacy and the years that followed.

    Richmond has yet to fully embrace and explore its literary past, much less weave it into a tourism narrative. For most locals, literary Richmond begins with Edgar Allan Poe and fast-forwards to contemporaries Tom Robbins, David Baldacci and Patricia Cornwell. But all of them live elsewhere, and the Richmond-born, St. Christopher's-educated swell, Tom Wolfe, has long been a habituAc of Manhattan.

    Here are some reminders of Richmond's living, literary history.

    A Visit by Dickens (1842)

    Richmonders were infuriated with Charles Dickens (1812-1870) for the things he wrote about their city, especially slavery, once he was back in London. But there was tremendous excitement here in March 1842, when he and his wife, Catherine, arrived by railroad from Washington, D.C., for a private visit.
    The couple, largely here to see a slave-based economy firsthand, checked into the elegant, new Exchange Hotel. That hostelry, since demolished, stood at the foot of Council Chamber Hill, a densely populated neighborhood that disappeared with the state government's expansion at Franklin and 14th streets near the towering Monroe Building.

    Before the couple could unpack, a welcome wagon of citizens descended with an invitation to dine that next night. Dickens at first declined, but after Richmonders persisted he agreed to dine with a few luminaries.

    One hundred people arrived at the Exchange for dinner. Gov. Thomas Rutherford sat next to the writer, and most of those who attended apparently marveled at how, though only 30, Dickens had already published such popular works as “Oliver Twist,” “The Old Curiosity Shop” and “Nicholas Nickelby.”

    In a toast, a Richmonder acknowledged that the city couldn't claim a Washington Irving or a William Cullen Bryant, both of whom had dined with Dickens in New York. But the Englishman was reminded that Virginia's sons — Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Marshall — had produced literature of a “constitutional” character.

    The next day while a number of Richmond ladies called on Catherine Dickens at the hotel, the author visited a cigar factory and South Side farm to examine the plight of the African-American slave.

    “I left … with a grateful heart that I was not doomed to live where slavery was,” Dickens wrote in “American Notes” later that year, “and had never had my senses blunted to its wrongs and horrors in a slave-rocked cradle.”


    “The Raven” Is Released (1845)

    Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston to impoverished actor parents, but when his mother died he moved in with a wealthy Richmond family, the John Allans, who lived at Main and Fifth streets. Poe studied in England and at the University of Virginia. He also briefly attended the U.S. Military Academy. He published a few books of poetry but made meager living writing short stories for periodicals.

    Poe returned to Richmond in 1835 as assistant editor of the monthly Southern Literary Messenger, one of the best-respected magazines ever published here. The following year he married 13-year-old Virginia E. Clemm, who was living with her mother in a rooming house on Council Chamber Hill at 14th and Bank streets. The couple lived in New York when she died in 1847.

    With the March 1845 issue of the Messenger, the literary world stood up and took notice of “The Raven.”

    Four years later, however, only a handful of people bought tickets to hear Poe speak in the concert hall of Richmond's Exchange Hotel in August 1849. Those who heard his lecture, “The Poetic Principle,” received a treat: After his remarks he gave a reading of “The Raven.” Someone who attended said of his poetry: “We know of no person who so thoroughly understands this subject.” No argument there.

    Although a number of Richmonders wanted Poe to return soon, he died seven weeks later in Baltimore at 44. He is buried there.

    Nothing came of an effort to build a monument here to Poe in 1906, but in the 1920s the Poe Museum opened in Shockoe Bottom. A statue was placed in Capitol Square in 1957. The Allan home and the offices of the Southern Literary Messenger have been demolished.


    Thackery's Welcome (1853)

    William Makepeace Thackery, the author of “Vanity Fair” and “Barry Lyndon,” gave three lectures in March 1853 at the Athenaeum, a hall on East Marshall Street near 11th Street in Court End.

    Richmond turned out in all its finery and heard what was described as a “caustic and withering review” of the author's life. The tall and portly author also spoke on the work of Jonathan Swift. Thackery was entertained lavishly in private homes.

    Although his work was not as well known as Dickens, Thackery was more obliging of Richmonders' attention and agreed to deliver three more lectures at the conclusion of his Southern speaking tour. He returned in the spring and lectured on English writers Pope, Gay, Hogarth, Fielding and Goldsmith.
    Thackery returned to Richmond in January 1855, again speaking to large crowds at the Athenaeum. His topic was life in England during the reigns of the Kings George of Great Britain.


    At Home with Words (1874-1945)

    Of the writers who lived and worked in Richmond, the one whose home is most identified with them is Ellen Glasgow. She lived at 101 W. Main St. — a private residence today, but still known as the Glasgow House. It was at this address that she was wrote many of her books in an upstairs study, and died after a long career.

    Although Glasgow didn't attend school she voraciously read books in her father's library and traveled the world. Growing up in late-19th-century Richmond, she had little use for the romantic, literary depictions of the old South popular at the time. In more than 19 novels she depicted Virginians — usually women — as real-life individuals facing difficulties in the modern South.

    Glasgow's “The Wheel of Life” (published in 1906), was reviewed favorably compared with Edith Wharton's “World of Mirth,” which had been released the year before.

    Glasgow never married, lived on the upper West Side of New York for a time and had a summer place in Maine. But she always returned to West Main Street.

    In February 1934 Glasgow gave a dinner party at her home for Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. Stein, who'd lived in Paris for 30 years, was in Richmond on a promotional tour for “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” The couple had worked their way south from New England, visiting Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House before arriving at the Jefferson Hotel.

    “I was not disappointed it was a nice place to walk in and the hotel had baby alligators in it and we liked everything,” Stein wrote of the Jefferson in her imitable prose.

    “I usually avoid visiting royalty, fads and people who lecture,” quipped Glasgow, who nonetheless pulled out all the stops for her at-home dinner party. While Stein wore a severe, loose-fitting muumuu and tie-up shoes to the soiree, Glasgow was decked out in a sequined gown accented with feathers.

    There were few literary types to invite, but Richmond writer James Branch Cabell was included as were Stein's publicist and his boyfriend.

    Glasgow's household servants wore starched uniforms as they greeted guests and served shad roe, Smithfield ham, platters of beef, hot breads and whole oranges cooked with cherries and nuts. After dinner, a few dozen additional guests arrived for eggnog.

    Toklas later described Glasgow as having “an incredible smile and charm. … She was transcendent.”

    Glasgow may be mostly forgotten today, but she was quite famous in her time. Cabell, whom she'd known since childhood, wrote to her in 1941: “You have had a recognition more wide than Shakespeare ever received during his lifetime, or for that matter, Homer. Should you not ever publish another line your fame is none the less secure and opulent.”

    But in 1942 she did receive further recognition with a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “In This Our Life,” which had been published the year before. Among the congratulatory telegrams was that of Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone with the Wind.” Almost immediately the movie adaptation of “In This Our Life” was completed, starring Bette Davis.

    Glasgow, although in bad health, wrote three more books.

    She died in November 1945, 10 days after suffering a heart attack. Her doctor arrived, and as instructed gave her a dose of strychnine: Glasgow had feared being buried alive. But the previous day she had pulled herself together and, wearing a bright red dress, presided over a meeting of the SPCA.

    Her funeral was held at her home. Fellow Richmond writers Douglas Southall Freeman and Virginius Dabney were pall bearers. She was buried in Hollywood Cemetery with her beloved dog, Jeremy (whose own coffin had been exhumed from the back yard), in the coffin with her.


    Controversy and Fame (1879-1958)

    James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow had known each other since childhood when she visited the Cabell home regularly at First and Franklin streets (site of the Richmond Public Library today). She found Cabell shy as a boy.

    In May 1898, Glasgow happened to be in Williamsburg when Cabell was accused, along with three classmates, of homosexual activity, and asked to leave the College of William and Mary, where he was a senior. He denied the charge, but returned to Richmond. Reconsidering — thinking his withdrawal would be seen as a confession — he successfully sought reinstatement. He graduated that year Phi Beta Kappa.

    Glasgow admired his stance.

    Controversy resurfaced in 1901 when Cabell was suspected as the murderer of Richmonder John Scott, rumored to be having an affair with Cabell's mother.

    By 1902 Cabell was writing short stories and articles in national magazines. But he attracted little attention until the publication of his novel “Jurgen” in 1919. The title hero takes a trip to fantastic destinations where he inevitably beds the women.

    The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice banned the book in 1920 for its “indecencies” and particularly for a joke regarding papal infallibility. He became the darling of writers and was propelled to fame.

    Before Christmas in 1920 writer Zelda Fitzgerald, who had never met Cabell, wrote asking where she could obtain a copy of the banned book to give her husband as a present. Cabell mailed a copy. On Christmas day, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Cabell a note thanking him profusely. This began a friendship with the Fitzgeralds.

    Cabell wrote 52 books. Among his most successful were “Smirt” (1934), “Smith” (1935) and “Smire” (1936). He said that all his works were allegorical on one of three levels — that of the average individual; of the average Virginian; and of humanity.

    In 1913 he had married Priscilla Bradley Shepherd, a widow with five children, and they had a son, Ballard. After Priscilla's death Cabell married Margaret Waller Freeman. His home at 3201 Monument Ave. still stands, although his country place, Dumbarton — near the Staples Mill Amtrak station — has been demolished.

    Cabell died in Richmond of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1958.


    A Scholar's Pen (1886-1953)

    Douglas Southall Freeman was born in Lynchburg. His father, in the insurance business, moved the family to Richmond when Freeman was a child. After graduating from the University of Richmond, he took a doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins in 1908. He launched his journalism career with a series he wrote for the Richmond Times-Dispatch on tax reform. The articles landed him a position as head of the state tax commission.

    In 1915 he became editor of the Richmond News Leader editorial page, a position he held until 1949. He also had a twice-daily radio broadcast. His editorials during World War II gained him praise: “Probably the sanest and soundest observer of the European War in the United States,” as Life magazine put it.

    For many years, to support three college-age children, he taught journalism at Columbia University, taking an overnight train to and from New York each week.

    But Freeman's greatest fame was for his historical scholarship and writing. His opuses included “R. E. Lee” (1934), a four-volume work (which received the Pulitzer Prize) and later the three-volume “Lee's Lieutenants” and “George Washington.” Freeman wrote “Washington” in his third-floor study at Westbourne, his home on Oak Lane in West End's Hampton Gardens neighborhood.

    A close friend of Ellen Glasgow, he arranged an honorary degree for her in 1938 from Duke (he was on the faculty). She expected a doctor of laws, not a doctor of letters, so she protested and the university issued a new degree. Duke officials asked Freeman to award her the replacement degree in his home. With friends and the presidents of the University of Richmond and William and Mary attending — in full academic regalia — Glasgow received what she'd held out for.

    Freeman's self-discipline was legendary. He awoke at 2:30 a.m. and worked at home until leaving for his newspaper office downtown. There, he worked from 5:40 a.m. until his radio broadcast at 8 a.m. Leaving the radio studio, he returned home for lunch and an afternoon spent writing. He was in bed by 8:45 each night.

    A Henrico County high school is named for him. Considering Freeman's volumes on Confederate military leaders, the school's athletes are, appropriately if not politically correctly, known as Rebels. S


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