In search of... Anne Tyler in Baltimore
This Pulitzer prize-winning author lives quietly among the people and places that inspire her, says Gerson Nason. The city could be a living novel
Sunday 19 January 2003
Anne Tyler ... didn't she write The Accidental Tourist?
That's right, plus 14 other novels published since 1964, including Breathing Lessons, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. Her most recent book is Back When We Were Grownups, published last year.
She's also the inventor of the Anne Tyler moment: those simple observations of day-to-day life that we can all relate to, but which she defines more lucidly than most. "It was her roommate who answered the door. Wouldn't you know Sophia would have a roommate? Roommates are so wholesome. I picture them in quilted white bathrobes, their faces scrubbed and their teeth freshly brushed, although whenever I'd seen Betty she was wearing one of those pink trouser outfits that're trying not to look like a uniform." (A Patchwork Planet)
What has this all got to do with Baltimore?
Well, Baltimore, Maryland, is where Anne Tyler lives and where 11 of her novels are set. It's a city of 2.5 million souls (650,000 within city limits) 40 miles north-east of Washington DC.
But why go there?
For the same reason that Jane Austen fans go to Bath and Brontë sisters aficionados go to Haworth in Yorkshire. Baltimore is Anne Tyler Country.
How do you mean?
Those quirky eccentrics and bickering oddball families in her books are not a complete invention. Tyler, who lives unobtrusively among the people she writes about, has a gift for capturing the palpable atmosphere of Baltimore's neighbourhoods and Baltimoreans.
You mean if I go to Baltimore, I'll find Anne Tyler characters in the flesh?
In the opinion of some, Baltimore is a living Anne Tyler novel: full of peculiar citizens and strange, inbred traditions. The city is an amalgam of north and south, owing partly to Maryland's historic role as a slave-owning state that stayed in the Union. Anne Tyler herself is a hybrid of north and south. Born in Minneapolis in 1941, she grew up in North Carolina. As a writer, her sense of place, character and language are southern, but she observes from the point of view of an outsider.
So tell me, what is there to see in Anne Tyler country?
Well, there's Roland Park. That's where Anne Tyler's genteel characters live. Macon Leary of The Accidental Tourist, Delia Grinstead from Ladder of Years, the Peck Family in Searching for Caleb, among others, hail from there. One of the first planned suburban communities in the US when it was conceived in 1891, landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr, son of the man who designed New York's Central Park, Roland Park – with its curving, tree-lined lanes, network of public footpaths and large shingle houses with wrap-around porches – is a masterpiece of turn-of-the-century urban planning. It also epitomises upper-middle-class Waspdom in all its glory. The original deeds for houses forbade their sale to Jews, blacks and immigrants. These housing patterns were enforced until the 1970s.
As Adrian Bly-Brice says in Ladder of Years, "Everybody in Roland Park has a last name for a first name."
If I want to see Anne Tyler characters up close, where do I go?
Try Eddie's of Roland Park at 5113 Roland Avenue, a gourmet food market that also functions as a nexus for social interaction of local residents. The opening scene of Ladder of Years takes place there, the one in which Delia Grinstead begins her flirtation with Adrian Bly-Brice in the fresh-produce aisle.
Across the road from Eddie's, the Roland Park branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library fills with local children each day when school lets out. "Gilman boys in their shirts and ties, and teenage girls in Bryn Mawr aqua or Roland Park Country School blue." (Ladder of Years)
Or, if you prefer people-watching while eating, try Petit Louis, a French restaurant serving reasonably priced lunches and dinners, at 4800 Roland Avenue in the nation's first strip mall, built in quaint Tudor style in 1896 (00 1 410 366 9393; www.petitlouis.com).
Where are the down-at-heel characters?
Charles Village, an eclectic neighbourhood adjacent to Johns Hopkins University, with ornate but crumbling 19th-century Baltimore rowhouses. Try exploring St Paul, North Charles and Calvert Streets which are graced by the city's best-preserved grouping of Victorian architecture. Anne Tyler characters such as Muriel Pritchett from The Accidental Tourist, the Tull family in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Rebecca Davitch in Back When We Were Grownups reside in Charles Village.
Nearby Johns Hopkins University is the alma mater of several Anne Tyler characters and the world capital of lacrosse. Visit the Lacrosse Hall of Fame (00 1 410 235 6882), just opposite, at 113 West University Parkway, admission $3 (£1.90).
Further downtown on St Paul Street is the 1911 Beaux Arts Penn Station, where various Anne Tyler characters catch Amtrak trains to points north and south. The waiting room with its restored stained-glass skylight is where Barnaby Gaitlin first laid eyes on Sophia Maynard in the opening scene of A Patchwork Planet, while both were settin out to Philadelphia. An Anne Tyler novel usually involves unexpected social interaction of one kind of Baltimorean with another. The proximity of Roland Park, Charles Village and Govans/Waverly allows for unlikely attachments.
Is there any attachment to the arts?
So far, no Anne Tyler character has been spotted inside the Baltimore Museum of Art (00 1 410 396 7100; www.artbma.org) but if you're in the neighbourhood, the Cone Collection is a must-see. Etta and Dr Claribel Cone – spinster cousins of Gertrude Stein – amassed an exquisite collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings in the 1920s, buying directly from Picasso and Matisse in their studios. There are 113 Picassos alone and more than 40 Matisses in addition to works by Cézanne, Gauguin and Renoir.
Any chance of a bite to eat?
You mustn't leave Baltimore without sampling the superb local seafood from Chesapeake Bay. Obrycki's Restaurant at 1727 East Pratt Street (00 1 410 732 6399; www.obryckis.com) is the place to go for crabs: crab soup, crab cakes and steamed crabs in season. It reopens for the coming season on 11 March. At Lexington Market (00 1 410 685 6169), the oldest continuously run market in the country at 400 West Lexington Street, be sure to try fresh-shucked oysters on a half shell.
How do I get there?
A three-night trip to Baltimore in February costs from £299 per person, based on two sharing, with Quest Travel (0870 442 3513), if you book by 28 January. The price includes return flights from Heathrow with British Airways and room only at the Baltimore Comfort Inn West. Car hire costs £39 per day with Hertz. For further information contact the Baltimore Convention and Area Visitors Bureau (01444 255190; www.baltimore.com).
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