When asked to describe her training in etiquette by a reporter The Baltimore Sun, Emily Post declared that her education primarily “consisted of nothing more complicated than…life among people trained like herself from infancy to do the right thing at the right time in the right way.” Post was not only elaborating on her background; unwittingly, the author and Baltimorean “by birth and in heart” was also characterizing a common thread in the writing styles of several of female writers who are associated with the city.
Baltimore’s literary culture is both vast and variegated, but overall the writers associated with the city share a drive to in the words of John Updike, “…give the mundane its beautiful due.” In particular, this common purpose in examining everyday life is highlighted in the works of two of Baltimore’s best-known female writers, Lucille Clifton and Anne Tyler.
Born in Depew, New York, in 1936, Clifton was the first member of her family to graduate from high school, and later obtained a scholarship to Howard University, where she studied drama. Ultimately, Clifton decided that poetry was her main inspiration, and began publishing her poems while employed at a succession of state and federal government jobs. In 1971, Clifton began focusing on her poetry full time when she became a writer in residence at Coppin State College in Baltimore. It was during this residency that Clifton began a long, rich relationship with both the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland at large. Following the publication of her works Good News About the Earth and An Ordinary Woman, Clifton was named Maryland’s Poet Laureate in 1979, holding the position for several years. After a short stint living in California, Clifton returned to Maryland, and was a faculty member at St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s City from 1989 until her passing in 2010.
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Of her work, the poet Rita Dove noted that “…Clifton’s poems are compact and self-sufficient…Her revelations…resemble the epiphanies of childhood and early adolescence, when one’s lack of preconceptions about the self allowed for brilliant slippage into the metaphysical.” Clifton wrote in a “quiet, even woman’s voice,” telling readers truths that could be as dark and hurtful as they were luminous and uplifting.
Written in lowercase type while raising her six children, Clifton’s work was quietly, concisely resilient in the face of the adversity she experienced as an African American woman. As she said in “Won’t You Celebrate with Me,”
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman …
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Although she was not a contemporary of Clifton’s, Anne Tyler nonetheless shares in Clifton’s Baltimorean style of every day truth telling. Originally hailing from Minnesota, Tyler began writing short stories at an early age. She moved to Baltimore with her husband Taghi Modarressi, a child psychiatrist and fellow author, in 1965. Following a career hiatus after the birth of her two children, Tyler refocused her efforts on her writing, and in 1970 she began a prolific phase of her career that has lasted to today.
There is a clear symbiosis between Tyler and her adopted city that is evident throughout her work. Tyler has set sixteen of her novels in the city, and Baltimore’s unique culture serves as a springboard for her prose. In her novels, Tyler has preferred to focus on large themes that characterize people’s motivations rather than a plot-driven approach; the question of “how to live” undergirds her characters’ lives. Similarly to Clifton, Tyler utilizes a quiet, even voice, and the nuances of her work are bolstered with a bevy of details that animate her writing.
Tyler has been frank about her fascination with the middle class, and it’s perhaps fitting that her characters share her home neighborhood of Roland Park. However, Tyler’s novels show that her fixation on the middle class’ soul searching is far from mutually exclusive with central human struggles. Tyler is sanguine about the way in which her characters interact with those of a grittier story such as The Wire, noting in a recent interview that, in a “pocketed city” such as Baltimore, people from different backgrounds “walk the same streets, … (but) we almost don’t see each other.”
“Pocketed” as the city and their respective works may be, Clifton and Tyler’s styles speak in a style that is uniquely Baltimorean. The work of Clifton and Tyler addresses elemental truths about what is most important to people: celebration, love, and survival. Irrespective the content of their writing, both women have wrangled with the monumental basic things of life, the things that animate us to continue to struggle and to survive.
Alexander, Elizabeth. “Remembering Lucille Clifton.” New Yorker, February 17, 2010. Accessed March 15, 2015.
Allardice, Lisa. “Anne Tyler: A Life’s Work.” The Guardian, April 13, 2012. Accessed March 15, 2015.
Thomson, Graeme. “‘I began writing with the idea that I wanted to know what it would be like to be someone else:’ Why Anne Tyler Might Be the Greatest Novelist You’ve Never Heard Of…” The Daily Mail, January 31, 2015. Accessed March 15, 2015.
“Emily Post: October 27, 1873-September 25, 1960.” The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project. Accessed March 15, 2015.
“Lucille Clifton: 1936-2010.” Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. Accessed March 15, 2015.
“Lucille Clifton: 1936-2010.” Poets.org. Accessed March 15, 2015.