St. Louis Blues

The city of St. Louis is the story of this hour. At the heart of North America, where the great Missouri River joins the Mississippi, it was the gateway to Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase—to Indian territory, the fur trade, the buffalo, the plains, and all the minerals below—redefined in the 1800s as the American West. The World’s Fair of 1904 made St. Louis a monument to American progress. It included a village of Filipinos captured by the young US empire in East Asia. Henry James came home from England to have lunch with Mark Twain at that fair. “Meet Me in St. Louis” was the song, the second most famous St. Louis song. But even then the fault-lines were clear before race war exploded in East St. Louis in 1917, and a great American city started disappearing.

The question is whatever happened to the city of St. Louis, Missouri, facing southern Illinois across a bend in the Mississippi River. Where did it go and why? The World’s Fair of 1904 was its crowning moment. St. Louis was then the 4th largest city in the US, the emblem of America and where we were going. It was The Twenty-Seventh City in the title of Jonathan Franzen’s breakout novel in the late 1980s. Today on the list of cities by size, St. Louis is number 70.

The Broken Heart of America is the title of a historian’s fresh take on the fate of St. Louis. It was one of the most compelling books I read toward the end of 2020. It is a merciless self-examination of a city by a native son of Missouri; an inquiry into a St. Louis “condition” that keeps showing symptoms over two centuries and more. “Racial capitalism” is the very short form of Walter Johnson’s long diagnosis. He is tenured on the Harvard history faculty, but he wrote this book “less as a professional historian than as a citizen,” he says, measuring a history that has benefitted him as a white man and a Missourian.

Guest List
Walter Johnson
Professor of History at Harvard.

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