Ted Mathys in the Stacks: On Cyclones and Call Outs

Central Library’s poet-in-residence Ted Mathys reports from Special Collections, where he is exploring the William Marion Reedy Archive. This is the second 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.

There’s a myth that admissions officers at elite colleges have so many applications by equally qualified megastudents – those valedictorians who have 1500s on their SATs, are captain of the school squash team, serve as president of the debate club, spent 3 summers doing service work in Guatemala, and moonlight as cartoonists – that they just throw the stack of applications down the stairwell and see which ones land face up.

This past week I’ve felt a bit like one of those admissions officers, staring down 25 years of Reedy’s Mirror with 52 issues per year. The Special Collections librarians have advised me against throwing the archive down the stairwell, so instead I’ve decided to pluck ten key events in Saint Louis history from the period and see how Reedy handled them. They are:

  1. The infamous 1896 St. Louis tornado.
  2. The 1896 Republican National Convention in St. Louis.
  3. The St. Louis streetcar strike in 1900.
  4. The 1904 World’s Fair in Forest Park.
  5. The 1904 Olympics in St. Louis.
  6. Construction of the St. Louis Coliseum, site of the Veiled Prophet Parade, in 1908.
  7. The 1914 publication of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology in Reedy’s Mirror.
  8. The 1914 founding of the NAACP Missouri Chapter in St. Louis.
  9. The 1916 battle over a proposed segregation ordinance.
  10. The 1917 East St. Louis race riots.

These ten events, then, will help me wade into Reedy’s process of, as his biographer put it, “bringing life and letters into phase with one another.” Starting with The Great Cyclone of 1896.

At 5:00 p.m. on May 27, 1896, a super twister made a direct hit on Saint Louis. In just 20 minutes the tornado killed 255 people, damaged almost 10,000 buildings and structures, and decimated Lafayette Park. It remains the single deadliest incident in St. Louis history.

Reedy’s Mirror was set to go to press the following morning. I imagine him up late at night, scrambling to reorganize the issue’s text and to write something appropriate. The issue did appear on schedule, and Reedy’s “Reflection” on the tornado begins with a thunderous statement: “This city awakes to-day, after a night of suspense, to but a dim realization of one of the most colossal calamities that ever befell an American metropolis.” The reflection maintains a sober tone, personifies Death, and calls the storm a “visitation” whose “majestic horrors” will only be appreciated over time and by degrees. Reedy tries to find purpose and meaning in the event, and writes that “there was one thing about the storm that those who have passed through it remember with a certain increased pride in humanity. During its fiercest moments no one thought of himself. Affection for others was stronger than personal fear.” I believe that Reedy believed this.

In subsequent issues, the cyclone starts to morph into a platform for Reedy to do what he does best: call out selfish members of genteel society who haven’t donated to the relief fund, and dream up cyclone metaphors to address politics, slam the newspapers, and make people laugh. He would have excelled on Facebook.

In June, he lambastes the national newspapers for sensationalizing the event, inflating the death toll, and padding their stories with “sloppy ‘fine writin.’” He then starts in on the Mayor, who had declared that St. Louis needed no outside aid for cyclone recovery efforts. Reedy points out that in their pride, the politicians and wealthy people are throwing the poor people under the bus: “The big factories will rise again. The fine homes will be rebuilt. The man whose house, that he had not yet paid for, is splintered and shattered into debris that cannot be rebuilt.” So, “Let the gentlemen who have told the outside world that we want no help ask the people whose homes were swept away for their opinion on that proud pronunciamento.”

Then Reedy gets weird. In one reflection he tries to wrap his head around Malthus’ en vogue theories on the dangers of overpopulation, and argues that “Wars, at least bloody wars, are a thing of the past. Pestilences are becoming rarer and rarer and diseases, necessarily fatal a score of years ago, are now regarded as little worse than a bad cold. But there have been killed by natural forces in the last three months more people than have been slain in battle for thirty years. Cyclones, tornadoes, floods, come upon the world and in a mere pang of fear thousands of peasants lose their lives.” I can’t tell if he’s being satirical, but he basically argues that the population question is a non-issue because for all societies in all times, natural disasters will wipe out enough people.

Reedy then plays punching bag with one newspaper, The Chronicle, which has proposed a new tax on corporations to repair city institutions. “By all means,” he writes, “Tax them to death. Tax their profits until they dwindle to losses… The rich are all criminals… They bribed the cyclone to pass them by and devastate the poor man.” Then the characteristic swift pivot: “The rich have no rights. They are Enemies of Society. The Chronicle is right. It is the Friend of the People. It is a rich corporation.” Boom. The reader can feel Reedy’s delight as he turns the Chronicle’s boneheaded oversight against them.

Finally, he’s gotta have his jokes: “I direct the attention of the dog-catchers to the cyclone humorist… I object to the cheerful lunatics who say that St. Louis is a solid city and can always raise the wind. I loathe the fellow who says in response to this that the wind razed us right back. Who does not abhor the meteorologist in motley who accounts for the disaster by saying that the cyclone was due to our having recently, by our vast progress, taken the wind out of Chicago’s sails? It is weariness to the flesh to listen to the narrow-gauge infidel who points out that the churches suffered more by the storm than the breweries and saloons because the latter were better able to beer the pressure of the elements.”

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