BALTIMORE -- Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ogden Nash, Lewis Thomas, Anne Tyler, Russell Baker, and Edith Hamilton are just a few of the writers who have called this city home for part of their lives and, in many cases, written about it.
''The literary tradition is one of the fine aspects of Baltimore," says Frank R. Shivers Jr., author of several Baltimore-related books, including ''Maryland Wits and Baltimore Bards." If there's a literary style that exemplifies the city, Shivers says, ''It's H.L. Mencken's tradition. It's urban, gritty at times." One of the most influential social critics and editors of his time, Mencken lived for most of his life in the Baltimore row house where he was born.
The city's rich literary ancestry isn't something the casual visitor is likely to spot. ''Baltimore is not trying to impress or toot its own horn," says Shivers. ''You up in Boston had a tourist trail for decades. People come here looking for sites, they're not going to get much help."
Shivers says the city is developing a literary trail for visitors -- ''In three years, you'll have an easier time" -- but in the meantime, with a little digging, you can find several interesting spots.
Mencken We had to search the Web to find the location of his grave in Loudon Park Cemetery west of downtown. And though Henry Louis Mencken's house is a National Historic Landmark, it's been closed to the public since 1997 for lack of money. There's a Mencken Room at the nearby Enoch Pratt Free Library, open to the public only one day a year: the Saturday closest to his birthday, Sept. 12.
Fitzgerald, Hamilton, Baker, Stein The historic district of Bolton Hill, just northwest of downtown and within walking distance of the train station and many of the city's cultural sites, has been home to a Who's Who of writers. It's a beautiful neighborhood, with graceful 19th-century Baltimore architecture and tree-lined streets. The former homes of several writers are identified with round, blue markers. The pale gray house at 1307 Park Ave. is the last place Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, lived together in the early 1930s and where he is thought to have had the breakdown detailed in ''The Crack-Up." Directly across the street was the home of Hamilton, whose book ''Mythology" is still the standard text on the subject after 60 years. Others from Park Avenue include journalist, humorist, and Pulitzer Prize winner Baker (1501 Park) and ''The Lives of a Cell" physician and essayist Thomas (1819 Park). Houses in the neighborhood include that of Stein (2408 Linden Ave.).
Dorothy Parker Her ashes are buried at the national NAACP headquarters. It seems an unlikely spot for Parker, who is so associated with the Algonquin Round Table and New York literary scene, and who never lived in Baltimore. How did she wind up being buried here? According to the Dorothy Parker Society, Parker left her literary estate to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated less than a year after her death. The estate was then left to the NAACP. Lillian Hellman, the executor of Parker's will, never gave instructions on what to do with her ashes. They remained at the crematory for six years, then at her lawyer's office for 15 years. When the story surfaced in the late 1980s, the NAACP built a small memorial in back of their office for the ashes.
It's not easy to find, but at the back of the suburban building at 4805 Mount Hope Drive, you find a bowed brick and glass memorial.
Edgar Allan Poe Many places have strong ties to Poe. Baltimore's claim includes the house on North Amity Street where he lived for three years in the 1830s with his aunt and her daughter (who at age 14 became his wife). The tiny, three-story brick row house, where he wrote his first published horror story, is now a museum. Downtown markers lead you to the street, but you have to look carefully to spot the house. Once inside, visitors can find some artifacts from Poe's era, such as reprints of his obituary, his telescope, and a lap desk. But the most interesting draw is Jeff Jerome, the curator who has worked at the museum for 30 years and says he first got hooked on Poe ''sneaking in underage" to those early '60s Roger Corman-Vincent Price fright films.
Jerome says Poe gets a bad rap for being abnormally morbid. ''Horror stories were just a small portion of his literary output," he says. ''He was also capitalizing on the current fears of the time -- most people had a fear of being buried alive -- because he wanted his stories to sell."
There's a big annual event to commemorate Poe's birthday on Jan. 19. The ''Poe Toaster" has been showing up every year since 1949 on that date to lay three roses and a partly full bottle of cognac at the Poe memorial in Westminster Burying Grounds. (Poe was originally buried in an unmarked grave in 1849. In 1875 a monument to him was dedicated, paid for in large part by money collected from Baltimore schoolchildren and teachers.) Jerome began watching for the Poe Toaster in 1977 and knows the identity of the man. But he's not telling, except to say, ''It was a father, and now his son."
If you want a taste of contemporary literary life, check out Hampden, a working-class-turning-artsy neighborhood north of Bolton Hill. It's a great spot to find up-and-coming writers and keep track of local talent. The Minas Gallery hosts regular poetry readings and stocks lots of books by Baltimore-based writers, as does Atomic Books, a few blocks away. ''We carry everything from Edgar Allan Poe to [mystery writer] Laura Lippman," says Rachel Whang, the bookstore's co-owner. The store's specialty, though, is ''lots of zines by local zinesters, and graphic novels," Whang says, among them works by graphic novelist Brian Ralph, who lives in Baltimore.
Contact Kathy Shorr at email@example.com.