I recently made a connection that has been in front of me for 40 plus years and which has nearly bowled me over. I spent the last weekend in September enthralled by the presentation of papers at the virtual 42nd annual conference of the International T.S. Eliot Society. I have been immersed in Eliot’s poetry as a layman for all those years and of course in the Classic Ragtime of Scott Joplin and his collaborators.
I have studied Eliot’s work and also Joplin and his St. Louis ragtime friends. I have even taught the history of St. Louis. However, it took a passing reference to Eliot’s family and his St. Louis home while he was growing up that suddenly joggled all the details together and like a jigsaw puzzle coming together, an image appeared.
To describe the image, let me take you back to Trebor Tichenor’s old stories of ragtime in the Chestnut Valley of St. Louis. That district loosely described was from Market Street on the South to Morgan on the north, Jefferson on the west and roughly around Tucker on the East. It was part of larger African American districts or ones nearby variously known as Death Valley, Mill Valley, and The Ville. It was where ragtime flourished briefly before World War I.
Biographers have thoroughly documented the lives of Eliot and Joplin. The period Joplin and Eliot lived in close proximity only occurred during a brief window of time (1901-1903) but the details of the two men’s lives give me a lot to ponder. Now in all fairness, I have to imagine others have made this connection and I know others have come close.
However, after connecting the dots to this new realization, I suddenly imagined a poignant scenario.
A young teen-ager bounds onto a city streetcar one day in 1903, pays his fare and takes a seat behind the Operator. No other passengers are coming so before the Conductor engages the power, he glances in his rear-view mirror to be sure his passengers are properly seated, There are only two in the car that morning. The Operator sees a boyish face immediately behind him and then across the chasm of empty seats, a dignified fellow sits in sad humiliation in the far back seat. With a sudden jerk the streetcar begins to move.
These three strangers have ridden together often. The Operator knows the boy will get off near his school and the man in the back will depart at Union Station. Few conveyances would transport such combined genius as that dusty, dented old streetcar that early 20th century day.
But for only a moment, like a camera, the rearview mirror might have captured the face of a future Nobel Poet Laureate and an image of one of the great seminal American classical music composers this country would eventually celebrate posthumously. Both of these men lived less than two hundred fifty yards from each other, but in 1903 St. Louis, they would have been separated by a wide racial divide. My imagined scene on the St. Louis streetcar would make a wonderful element for a modern opera or stage play.
For the brief time Scott Joplin lived at what is now 2658 Delmar, he was only two short city blocks from the Eliot home at 2635 Locust. The Eliots had remained at that location, because T.S. Eliot’s distinguished grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, founder of Washington University in St. Louis, had owned the property. The neighborhood was experiencing a serious decline, as described in Dr. Frances Dickey’s article “T.S. Eliot and the Color Line In St. Louis” (March 2021 Modernism/Modernity)
Thus, we find this man and this boy, probably unknown to each other, living in close proximity. Given Eliot’s known passion for novelty music and the English Music Hall, we can only speculate about what might have happened had they met.
Larry Melton was a founder of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1974 and the Sedalia Ragtime Archive in 1976. He was a Sedalia Chamber of Commerce manager before moving on to Union, Missouri where he is currently helping to conserve the Ragtime collection of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. Write him at [email protected]