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Frank R. Shivers Jr. may have been born way back
on Dec. 24, 1924, but the vigorous Baltimore writer is still young enough to
talk trash. In his new book, Maryland Wits & Baltimore Bards, Shivers gushes endlessly about the grand literary history of Charm Cityand pisses on the pathetic number of writers produced by the nation’s capital.
“Quite honestly, we have a literary tradition and Washington doesn’t,” says Shivers, who teaches writing and literature at the School of Continuing Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “D.C. doesn’t allow writers to put down roots.”
Shivers has lived with his wife in the same red brick Bolton Hill row house for 43 years and, as he’s fond of pointing out, has thoroughly mastered the art of stoop-sitting on his white marble steps.
So it’s no surprise that when it comes to District-bashingespecially by a die-hard Baltimoron like this guyShivers has no problem unloading the nastiness: “Like the old saying goes, ‘Go to Washington to see the monuments, but never spend a nickel.’ In other words, don’t encourage them.”
In 330-plus pages of exhaustive research and breathless
praise, Shivers name-drops Baltimore’s finest writers like
bombs from the sky: H.L. Mencken, Dashiell Hammett,
Frederick Douglass, Francis Scott Key, Gertrude Stein, John Barth, John Dos Passos, Russell Baker, Anne Tyler, and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe. (Shivers also mentions Tom Clancy, but due to a technicalityClancy’s being an ever-lovin’ prick, not to mention a shitty writerthe master of the techno-thriller will not be counted.)
“I brought Washington into the book by way of contrast,” Shivers says. “Washington has had transient writers, some of whom stayed for a long time. But the greatest Washington-associated writer, Henry Adams, wasn’t even a real Washingtonian. He was from Massachusetts.”
Baltimore, Shivers explains, with its courtly charm, crabby cuisine, and proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, lures writers for life, whether it’s Mencken and Poe or Barry Levinson and John Waters (whom, although they are much better known as movie directors, Shivers counts because they write their own scripts).
Shivers does offer up a few legitimate D.C. writersKatherine Anne Porter, James M. Cain, Jean Toomer, Gore Vidalbut it’s slim pickings after that. When I try to claim F. Scott Fitzgerald as a Washington writer (who cares if it was Rockville? The District needs all the names it can get), Shivers cuts me off immediately: “Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minn., and wrote what I think is his finest book, Tender Is the Night, in Baltimore.” Fitzgerald’s grave is in Montgomery County, Shivers explains, “because he wanted to be buried with his parents.”Sean Daly