A couple of years ago I gave a slide talk related to the Eighth Street Tunnel, a public works project that connected the heart of Kansas City with the West Bottoms by way of a trolley, or cable car, that rumbled through the high bluffs on the edge of downtown toward the stockyards and the original Union Station below. The tunnel has long been sealed, though it remains a curiosity for those who have a penchant for tucked-away pockets of local history.
My talk focused not on the tunnel per se but on the Eighth Street experience of a writer who grew up there but is not much remembered today. It occurred to me that the story of Edward Dahlberg’s boyhood remains a valuable and vivid Kansas City tale worth sharing.
Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977) was one of the 20th century’s most erudite and irritating writers. Born in Boston to an unmarried and itinerant mother, Lizzie, he and she landed in Kansas City when he was in short pants, about 1906.
Edward grew up on and around Eighth Street, where his mother practiced her profession as a lady barber. They lived in a flat in a stone house on “dilapidated” McGee Street, just off Admiral Boulevard, according to one of Dahlberg’s accounts, though a city directory also puts his mother at 710 E. Eighth St, which would have been a few blocks east of McGee.
Late in life, Dahlberg wrote this about his home town:
“I have never forgotten how I imagined an Eighth Street Kansas City brothel smelled. The prostitutes occupied rooms upstairs over Basket’s Chili Con Carne lunch counter, which was next to a saloon and the first lady barber shop in K.C., where part-time streetwalkers and fast chippies cut the hair of round-shouldered ranchers from Lincoln, Nebraska or Dallas, Texas.” There was indeed a restaurant operated by J.S. Baskett, two Ts, at 12 E. Eighth St.
Lizzie first worked for someone else, but eventually opened her own shop, the Star Lady Barbershop, at 16 E. Eighth St. She first appears at that address in the Polk’s city directory of 1911. The streets and the situation were not always kind to the introverted boy, and at one point, when his mother’s long hours of work and complicated relationships with men became too much for her, Lizzie sent Edward off to a Jewish orphanage in Cleveland. When he returned to Kansas City a few years later as a young adult, he worked in the stockyards of the West Bottoms and became increasingly embarrassed by his mother and her occupation. He left for Omaha and points west, then eventually New York, where he managed to obtain an education in the classics at Columbia University in the mid-1920s.
Dahlberg memorialized and rhapsodized over his mother in his autobiography, Because I Was Flesh, published in the mid-1960s. The book is poetically lush and feverishly frank about personal and sexual anxieties. It’s full of classical and biblical allusions, elevated language that could stop a casual reader in her tracks, and colorfully resonant descriptions of Kansas City in the early 20th century.
The town was not a senseless Babel: the wholesale distillers were on Wyandotte, the commission houses stood on lower Walnut, hustlers for a dollar an hour were on 12th and pimps loitered in the penny arcades between 8th and 5th on Main Street. If one had a sudden inclination for religion he could locate a preacher in a tented tabernacle of Shem beneath the 8th Street viaduct, and if he grew weary of the sermons, there was a man a few yards away who sold Arkansas diamonds, solid gold cuff links, dice, and did card tricks. Everybody said that vice was good for business, except the Christian Scientists and the dry Sunday phantoms who lived on the other side of the Kaw River in Kansas City, Kansas.
Dahlberg, like many writers, ended up in Europe in the 1920s. And there he produced his first novel, Bottom Dogs, which was published in 1930. D.H. Lawrence wrote an introduction. The critic Edmund Wilson said “Bottom Dogs is the back-streets of all our American cities and towns,” and some readers eventually identified the book in a line of “proletarian naturalism” linking him with the likes of James T. Farrell and even Jack Kerouac.
In Because I Was Flesh, Dahlberg revisits and essentially rewrites that first book, turning his fictional character and his mother Lizzie into the real characters of memoir.
In both books, Dahlberg writes about growing up in the shadow of the Eighth Street Viaduct, which spanned a few blocks beginning at Walnut and heading west toward the Eighth Street tunnel. Lizzie Dahlberg’s shop stood beneath the viaduct and next door to the Electric Fish and Oyster House. Wouldn’t you want to have the chance to dine again at the Electric Fish and Oyster House in downtown Kansas City?
Dahlberg must have read another book by a onetime Kansas Citian. Clyde Brion Davis, a newspaper man who once toiled at The Star, penned an autobiographical book called “The Great American Novel…” in the late 1930s.
Davis arrived in Kansas City around the same time as Dahlberg, 1907. From the Union Station in the West Bottoms he was directed to a wooden runway that led to the elevated station. “And presently I was rattling along in a trolley car over the roofs of factories and railroad tracks and thence through the Eighth Street tunnel and into the hilliest and most hectic city I have ever seen. No Kansas Citian walks along the streets. He travels at a half run. It is easier to skip down the hills than to hold back in a dignified walk. And the momentum helps climb the hill ahead.”
Davis also wrote about the street life underneath the Eighth Street Viaduct:
It “cuts a heavy black span across sun-drenched Main Street and Delaware and throws an equally black and cool shadow beneath. A few wagons and drays plod up the hill beside this shadow, but underneath the viaduct and around the pillars is a haven for the weary and heat-stricken. And here is the gathering place for that remarkable clan known as ‘street fakers.’ There is Peters who sells Magic Oil….There is Edwards with his straw hat and red, white and blue hatband and beery breath who is ‘advertising’ Arkansas diamonds. … There is the street faker with the patent potato peelers and the one with the revolutionary cleansing cream.”
Davis doesn’t mention the Star Lady Barbershop, but surely he encountered Lizzie in one shop or another under the viaduct and perhaps even sat in one of her chairs for a trim and a scrape as the city buzzed outside and the streetcar trundled overhead.
When Edward Dahlberg left Cleveland and returned to Kansas City he was 17 or 18. It’s tempting to consider that he might have been here around the same time as Ernest Hemingway, who was working as a reporter for The Kansas City Star (in 1917-18). They were about the same age. But there’s no existing correspondence between the two of them and no evidence that I’ve yet turned up that each was aware of the other’s life in Kansas City. I’d add however that in the ensuing years, Dahlberg developed a strong dislike of Hemingway and his work.
When he came back, though, Dahlberg found what he felt like was a changed place: “The city was now filled with Christian Scientists, spiritualists and impecunious bachelors who went to the tabernacles and religious gatherings to meet spinsters who thought maidenhead and godhead were indivisible. The city was no longer my parent. I could not saunter along Locust, McGee and Cherry Streets. Kansas City had become a great, soulless town, and the laughter had expired underneath the 8th Street viaduct.”
It’s possible, of course, that what had changed was Dahlberg’s sensibilities rather than the city. He was no longer seven years old. He was a young adult, on the verge of exploring his own future.
Lizzie Dahlberg owned her barber shop at least into 1925 or so. She wound up owning one or more houses in North Kansas City and Northmoor. I think I have copies of some letters that Dahlberg wrote to Sherwood Anderson from one of those houses, perhaps after Lizzie had died.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Edward Dahlberg returned to Kansas City as recently as 1965 to be a writer in residence at UMKC. I once heard from an English teacher there that Dahlberg was very much the dirty old man that he sometimes revealed himself to be in his books. Not to excuse his behavior, but that was the world he had grown up around, in that “smutty and religious town,” in those turn-of-the-century years.
In the end, Dahlberg turned on the city of his eye-opening youth: “Homer detested Ithaca, and let me admit, I hate Kansas City, which is still a wild, rough outpost town of wheat, railroads, packing houses, and rugged West Bottoms factories.”
Echoing Thomas Wolfe and others, Dahlberg concluded, “Nobody ought to return to his native city; it’s a premature burial, and yields nothing but a terrible sickness of the mind.”
Because I Was Flesh, by Edward Dahlberg. (New Directions, 1967).
Bottom Dogs, by Edward Dahlberg (City Lights, 1961).
“The Great American Novel…,” by Clyde Brion Davis (Farrar & Rinehart, 1938)
The Leafless American & Other Writings, by Edward Dahlberg (McPherson & Co., 1986)