Fielding Dawson: The Best St. Louis Writer You've Never Read

This week's Riverfront Times explores our city's literary history. Check back throughout the week for online-only maps and articles supplementing this week's cover story.

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Fielding Dawson
David Clewell, a professor at Webster University, currently reigns as Missouri's poet laureate. Could it be possible that the places where he wrote could someday achieve literary immortality?

He dashes those hopes pretty quickly. "I probably run into more people at the Belleville flea market," he offers. "I make a religious pilgrimage there every month."

Did he ever write a poem here? "When I first moved to St. Louis, there was an alley behind the apartment where I lived on Pershing," he says. "My poem 'Two Alley Songs for the Vegetable Man' is about St. Louis. I couldn't believe there was an old-style vegetable man, like" -- here he breaks into song -- "'Carrots! Apples!' It was very charming, but it took place between five and six in the morning."

Does he have a favorite St. Louis writer? "Fielding Dawson," he says without hesitation.

Who?

"He was a big deal in experimental fiction," Clewell explains. "He wrote a ton of books. I knew him in the last ten years of his life. He'd come back to Kirkwood to visit his aging mother and his Aunt Dot, who always was a little dotty. He showed me his old childhood room and he'd spin stories and we'd play baseball. He was like a stranger in his own land."

Dawson was born in New York but moved to Kirkwood when he was eight, where he lived in a house on Taylor Avenue with his mother, sister and a variety of eccentric aunts and uncles. His father, a journalist, died when Dawson was eleven.

His 1982 book Tiger Lilies: An American Childhood is an impressionistic memoir of growing up in Kirkwood in the 1930s and '40s. "It's pretty indescribable," says Clewell.

This is true. It's not a coherent story but, like memory itself, more of a collage of anecdotes about people Dawson knew, descriptions the streets they played on and the schools they attended and, most importantly, how it felt to be Fielding Dawson at that time and place. The writing itself is lovely.

I stopped, and listening, looked around. Beneath my feet the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks stretched in silver around the bend: east to St. Louis, and as I turned to see, west to Kansas City. I was standing in the middle of Kirkwood, Missouri, hearing the sound of distance in the echo of my father's voice, saying my name.

In 1949, Dawson left Kirkwood for Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, an experimental school for writers and artists whose faculty included Willem de Kooning, Stefan Wolpe, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, MC Richards, Paul Goodman and Buckminster Fuller. Dawson studied poetry with Charles Olson and art with Franz Kline.

After college, Dawson moved to New York where he became part of the Beat scene. He lived there for the rest of his life, turning out 22 books of memoirs, short stories and a history of the Black Mountain movement, as well as exhibiting his artwork, collages of words and images, at galleries. He also taught writing classes at maximum-security prisons. "This revolutionised his life," wrote Michael Hrebeniak in an obituary for the British Guardian. "It was no easy ride: raging men attended his classes, and criticism engendered threat."

But Dawson persevered and became an advocate for prison reform.

"He's completely underread," says Clewell. "He didn't like public life." He did, however, continue to hang out with avante-garde artists at the Cedar Tavern and Max's Kansas City in New York; he also served as the pitcher on Max's softball team.

Dawson died in 2002. Several of his books are still in print; Clewell recommends Krazy Kat and 76 More: Collected Stories 1950-1976 and An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline. You can find Tiger Lilies at the Kirkwood Public Library.

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