Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A City of Ghosts

Several months ago the publisher of a local online literary magazine asked if I might consider producing a site map of places of literary interest. Initially I thought this might be a good idea. Because I had been developing a keen curiosity about the legacy of Wilmington’s history of jazz, and because I felt that literature and jazz seem to go well together because, at least, their histories were contemporary, I considered doing a site map that contained both.

I began by listing locations, first the homes where different authors, poets, and musicians had lived. Then I listed other locations like schools, clubs and other places of business like bookstores. After listing about a couple dozen sites, it dawned on me how unviable a site map of this type would be.

Site maps are made for tourists or interested persons as a tool, but I found there would be little or nothing to actually see. The home of jazz great Clifford Brown is still a vacant lot. The home of Alice Dunbar-Nelson had been replaced with an office building. I-95 runs through the block where the Wertenbakers had grown up. Ellerslie, where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had lived, had been torn down decades ago. A plaque installed on the former home of James Whaler, Wilmington’s most successful 20th century poet, had been removed by the owner. The Wilmington location of Friends’ School, where nearly all successful early 20th century Wilmington authors had at attended least in part, had decades ago moved to an affluent suburb, leaving its former Wilmington location still a largely vacant lot. Many famous clubs, like the Club Baby Grand and The Spot, that made Wilmington’s jazz history so notable, have become the victims of “urban renewal.” The very street on which Daisy Winchester had her speakeasy doesn’t even exist anymore. For those few places that Wilmington’s literati frequented, the most well known –– if indeed “well known” is even applicable –– was the Greenwood Book Store, but I challenge anyone to tell me where it had been located.

In 1934 Wilmington author Henry Seidel Canby published The Age of Confidence (Farrar & Rinehart). In it Canby examines life in Wilmington during the turn of the 20th century. Locally, one can tell by his name he’s a part of a large and old family in Wilmington. Canby should know. In the book he gives thorough perspective on subjects still relevant today: family life, lifestyle, religion and literature and pop culture. Yet there’s a bigger story. It’s the story of a city at a turning point in history. It is a comment on the Progressive Era because he examines the age before it. It was an age of laissez faire, those values and sentiment still imbibing those flavors from old southern chivalry, steeped in the works of Walter Scott, Fenimore Cooper, Hawthorne, and Ulysses Grant’s Memoirs. There’s little of Whitman and Poe if anything at all. Certainly there was a boho somewhere lurking in some cultural crevice of Wilmington reading Poe and Whitman, but for the majority who had ushered in the 20th century it was an “age of confidence.”

Canby wrote The Age of Confidence at a time after The Progressive Age had fallen into the pit of The Great War, and after the tawdry age of The Roaring 20s. The Great Depression was obstructing the careers of many emerging literati who first flourished thanks to the cultural boost provided by the Progressive Era.

At the onset of The Great Depression many Wilmington literati moved to New York City to continue their careers, surviving with pop novels and journalism. Canby never forgot his roots even though he was one who went to New York and found success. He founded The Saturday Review of Literature, which could be found on most newsstands. He wrote books about Thoreau and Whitman and was considered among the most preeminent of reviewers and cultural commentators toward the middle of the 20th century, and he was the father of Wilmington’s literati. His house is now someone’s personal property, unless its been turned into an apartment house, in which case it’s someone’s private property. The house belonging to Christopher Ward is nearby, but Ward did not leave Wilmington. He remained to write histories in retirement. Ward’s fiction was beginning to wither into the throes of the Depression. Wilmington poet James Whaler went away and became a professor, which is a profession that occupied Canby for many years. Even Canby’s wife, who is loosely portrayed in Canby’s only novel, Our House (1919, MacMillan) was a successful poet, having her work published in Scribner’s, The New Yorker, and The Saturday Review of Literature. Marion Canby’s poetry is collected in High Mowing (1932 Houghton Mifflin).

In Wilmington we had, at one time in the 1920s, more than a half dozen successful novelists living in or near Wilmington, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. All but Fitzgerald are now ghosts gathering dust on those library shelves where their work might be found.

The Progressive Era ended with the World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, but two aspects of its legacy continued in the 1920s. The first, which didn’t work, was Prohibition, and which helped launched the “Lost Generation.” The other was Women’s Suffrage, which did work. By the time Canby wrote The Age of Confidence, Delaware Avenue in Wilmington, where he and Christopher Ward had lived, was a ghost of its former self. While others of Wilmington’s literati ––Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Charles and Peyton Wertenbaker, Anne Parrish and James Whaler –– left town, Canby’s book was no more than a reminder of a city that once was, and was filling up with ghosts.

As the 1930s developed, however, the power of the music being made on Wilmington’s eastside ushered in a new cultural era. Jazz was being heard and played and attracting the attention of the jazz world. Great jazz artists from Wilmington like Betty Roché, Clifford Brown and Lem Winchester would be propelled into the “big time.” This time it was not The Great Depression that ended an era, but some racist and faulty idea called “urban renewal.” The wholesale destruction of an entire section of
Wilmington nearly destroyed our city’s jazz community.

Here are the ghosts I still see in Wilmington, when I see someone carrying a case for a musical instrument, or a familiar figure standing on a doorstep in a building no longer there, or in a plate glass window where once a jazz club or bookstore or gallery once stood. This vision of ghosts is superimposed upon all the amnesia inflicted by those politicians and developers who think as little about how the changes they’re making of our city today will affect us all tomorrow as they think little about how the contribution from the past still haunts Wilmington. Then again, maybe I’m the only one who is haunted, but I’d rather be haunted than drowning in a sea of ignorance and amnesia.


  1. Thank you for this piece. This past is fascinating and does much to recover the city I live in. Please keep providing more of the same. MC

  2. Steven, Thank you for sharing your knowledge of this important history. I learn so much from what you write. More, please.

  3. !!!!!!!!!!!!

    Lovely and immensely bittersweet.