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Jane Smiley Wants America To Get To Know St. Louis Better

October 18, 2019 Jane Smiley
Derek Shapton

Jane Smiley recently came back to St. Louis for her 50th high school reunion. But unlike many of us, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist wasn’t content simply to explore what had changed around town. Smiley also wrote an essay about the city, and her travels here, for The New York Times.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Smiley discussed her essay, detailing her abiding love for St. Louis, particularly its foliage and its wonderful old houses. 

She said she loved growing up in Webster Groves, where she lived until she was 11. “The wonderful thing about Webster is that it has all different kinds of neighborhoods all kind of smashed together, and so as you’re walking along, you’re seeing all these different houses, all these kinds of people,” she said. “It was a fascinating place to grow up and explore.”

Smiley added that she wasn’t one of those kids who dreamed of fleeing St. Louis for the big city. “I appreciated it even at the time,” she said. 

In her essay, Smiley suggested not only that St. Louis should get its props as a tourist destination, but that it might be “the most enlightening spot in America for discovering what America really is.”

“St. Louis is both representative of the good side and the bad side of America, because so many people pass through,” she said. “Especially in the old days. … It was a wonderful melting pot of all different kinds of people.” 

St. Louis remains interesting, she added, in that relations among various groups are “constantly being worked out; they’re constantly being worked on.” And yes, that has frequently manifested itself in protests, which Smiley sees as an admirable part of the city’s history.

“I don’t actually think the dirty laundry in St. Louis is worse than anywhere else,” she said. “There’s dirty laundry everywhere. But the willingness to air it, to talk about it, to deal with it, is important. I think that’s a virtue, in any place — the willingness to get it out in the open.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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