Ted Mathys in the Stacks: Hall of Mirrors

Central Library's poet-in-residence Ted Mathys reports from Special Collections, where he is exploring the William Marion Reedy Archive. This is the first in a series. In the Stacks is a collaboration between the St. Louis Public Library and Coffee House Press: the program (founded by Coffee House in 2014) connects local authors with libraries and encourages artists and the general public to think of libraries as creative spaces.

For my residency at the Saint Louis Public Library, I’ll be digging into the Special Collection archives of William Marion Reedy. Reedy was the so-called “literary boss of the Middle West” and founder and editor of Reedy’s Mirror, a prominent St. Louis-based literature, politics, and social gossip magazine that seems to have all but disappeared from literary memory. But during its run from 1891 to 1920, Reedy’s magazine peaked with a larger national distribution than either Atlantic Monthly or The Nation. The library has the full run of the magazine, as well as Reedy’s private library.

I spent my first few visits with early issues of Reedy’s magazine, and was reminded of a particular hall of mirrors:

kane

There’s a famous scene late in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in which Kane, having blown his newspaper empire and been dumped by his second wife, is alone with his monkeys and Roman statues and servants in his absurd Florida mansion, Xanadu. He paces down an ornate hallway with his snow globe in hand, and passes between opposing mirrors, which reflect him infinitely. Welles exploits this trick of camera placement and mise-en-scène to exaggerate Kane’s paradoxical nature. He’s an arrogant, entitled bully, but one who cares mostly about bullying people into loving him. He’s a political populist but only so long as he’s “popular.” He’s an irrepressible consumer who hates everything he buys. As his reflections ricochet in the distance, Kane gets simultaneously larger in number and smaller in stature. To me he’s not a flat, incoherent character; he’s about as complex as they get, knowable only as the sum of his many reflections.

I’m starting to think of William Marion Reedy as a real-life analogue of the fictional Kane. Reedy was a precocious Irish kid from the north side of Saint Louis who entered Saint Louis University, where I now teach, at the age of 14. He was a newspaperman who had grown restless with journalistic convention, so founded his own eclectic magazine. He was overweight, humorous, and enamored with European decadence, but his political views remained stubbornly conservative. He desperately wanted St. Louis to have more artistic ambition, to get out of its provincialism, and yet he had no desire to flee to the east coast cities or Chicago. He was a high society man who pilloried that set in his magazine. And he married a brothel keeper, for which nobody really forgave him. It’s hard to get a bead on Reedy, except through his raffish writing, which is consistently lucid, sly, and as engaging to read as anything I can get my hands on today.

Mirror2Mirror1

Each issue of The Mirror begins with a section called “Reflections,” punning on the name of the magazine and giving Reedy a platform to editorialize on matters of the day. These “reflections” are short observations that read like a mash-up of prose poems, salacious police blotters, and op-eds, and taken together they give us parables of St. Louis life at the end of the 19th century. And Reedy wrote them under a bunch of pseudonyms – “Uncle Fuller,” “Marion Reed,” “F.S.R.,” and so on. The reader isn’t really fooled by the pen names because of the consistency of his tone, but the upshot is that most of the magazine is devoted to these multiple reflections by multiple versions of one writer who, like Kane, remains deliciously slippery. Here’s Reedy’s “reflection” on one local politician’s ostentatious diamond stud in an issue from April 1894:

“The most gorgeous thing in St. Louis just now is Alderman “Jim” Cronin’s diamond stud. It’s as large as the stopper of a cologne bottle on milady’s dresser. It weighs as much as a 44 calibre bullet, and it glitters and gleams like an electric light of 1,300 candle and 250 horse power. When the lights went out in the Assembly room Friday evening, the illumination from the stone enabled the members to transact business without interruption. It looked as if the Alderman had found the lost Pleiade, and stuck it in his shirt bosom. Its fulgurous refractions burned all the back hair off the head of his deadly rival, Delegate Billy O’Brien. In the daylight Mr. Cronin wears an asbestos pad between the “spark” and his shirt so that it cannot burn into his manly bosom. It broke the camera when Harry Newbold tried to photograph it. The diamond is as much a mystery as Wilkie Collins’ “Moonstone.” Every member of the House of Delegates has searched the minutes of the meetings for two months back in a vain endeavor to determine the identity of the measure voted for by the Alderman that produced this splendiferous jewel. Who will explain the secret of Cronin’s Kohinoor?”

Originally from Ohio, Ted Mathys holds an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he received the John C. Schupes Fellowship for Excellence in Poetry; and an MA in international environmental policy from Tufts University. He lives in St. Louis, where he is Creative Writer in Residence at Saint Louis University and co-curates the Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts Poetry Series. He is the author of three books of poetry, Null Set (2015), The Spoils (2009) and Forge (2005), all from Coffee House Press.

Ted will give a reading and presentation on Wednesday, April 20th at 7 pm, in the Carnegie Room of the St. Louis Central Library.

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