These Literary Legends Left Their Mark on Delaware

Some of the world's most famous 20th-century writers had roots in the First State and left their mark here.

Nestled snugly south of Philadelphia and northeast of Baltimore, northern Delaware has played host to several notable authors throughout the years.

One of the first prominent literary giants to grace our state was Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) in the 1840s. Much has been made of his infamous visit to St. Patrick’s Inn in Newark (now the Deer Park Tavern, owned by Ashby Hospitality Group).

As a quasi-successful editor and emerging creative writer in Baltimore, Edgar Allan Poe is said to have taught at Newark Academy (now the University of Delaware) to earn extra cash in the 1840s.
As a quasi-successful editor and emerging creative writer in Baltimore, Edgar Allan Poe is said to have taught at Newark Academy (now the University of Delaware) to earn extra cash in the 1840s. Courtesy of University of Delaware Archives.

Legend posits that when Poe visited the inn in 1843, he slipped in the mud while getting into his carriage and, feeling vexed, declared, “A curse upon this place! All who enter shall have to return!” Though there is no empirical evidence of Poe’s “curse,” the tale has continued to permeate local culture.

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In fact, tavern staff and English professors from the nearby University of Delaware regularly collaborate to read excerpts from Poe’s work on his birthday in January and during the Halloween season. In 2011, a mural of Poe surrounded by ravens was completed in his honor (in conjunction with Newark’s 350th anniversary) at 77 N. Chapel St. The painting includes the date Newark was founded (1758) and the words, “City of legend, myth, romance, history, mystery.”

While the tale of Poe’s curse is certainly alluring, there are other tantalizing accounts of the poet’s visit to the First State.

As the short-story genre grew in prominence in mid-19th-century America, Poe was increasingly drawn to its art and craft. As a quasi-successful editor and emerging creative writer in Baltimore, he continued to write within the serialized fictional genre. Evidence suggests that Poe turned to the lecturing circuit for extra cash and eventually landed at the Newark Academy (now the University of Delaware) during the 1840s.

In his 1934 book The University of Delaware: A Historical Sketch, Christopher Ward notes that Poe spent an entire week at the Newark Academy, “lecturing daily,” and an article from the Newark Post from 1927 claims that “Poe, just before his untimely death in Baltimore in 1849, lived in Newark, Delaware, for a week, during which time he lectured to the students at Newark Academy.”

Reverend Epher Whitaker, a graduate of the class of 1847, wrote a letter in 1905 stating, “[Poe] was always prompt when the Academy bell in the steeple rang the hour for his lecture. All heard him with attention and pleasure.”

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While patrons continue to tip their pints to Poe at the Deer Park Tavern, may they remember that he not only graced one of Delaware’s most beloved watering holes but also imparted his knowledge and craft in a succession of lectures to the students and professors at Newark Academy. Poe’s visit surely contributes to the enduring legacy of our state’s higher education. But Poe wasn’t the only literary icon to leave an imprint on the region.

A bit farther up the road in Wilmington, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875– 1935), the famed poet, activist and educator, made Delaware her home for a period of time in the early 20th century.

The famed poet, activist and educator Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875–1935), made Wilmington her home for a period of time in the early 20th century.
The famed poet, activist and educator Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875–1935), made Wilmington her home for a period of time in the early 20th century. Courtesy of Delaware Historical Society Photograph Collection.

“[A]s a black woman, [Alice Dunbar-Nelson] was often denied pay for her work. She co-edited the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive black newspaper, and published The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a literary anthology for black audiences.

Dunbar-Nelson was born in New Orleans and educated at Straight University (now Dillard University) and Cornell University (earning her master’s in English). After a tumultuous marriage to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (they wed in 1898), she moved to Wilmington and began teaching at Howard High School and the State College for Colored Students (now Delaware State University). At that time, Howard High was the only educational institution in the mid-Atlantic to offer a high-quality secondary education to Black students.

Dunbar-Nelson sought to empower Black women and enable political change. She wrote for various local, regional and national publications, for both academic and popular audiences. But as a Black woman, she was often denied pay for her work. She co-edited the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive Black newspaper, and published The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a literary anthology for Black audiences.

As a Delaware resident, Dunbar-Nelson was instrumental in the women’s suffrage movement in the mid-Atlantic region, co-founding the Equal Suffrage Study Club, fighting for reform in education for young Black women and girls, and speaking at rallies throughout the area. In 1918, she published one of her most notable poems, I Sit and Sew, addressing her feelings of futility as a woman of color while World War I raged on in Europe.

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As a passionate educator engaged in progressive politics, Dunbar-Nelson aggressively fought against institutional racism and sexism. Her advocacy and stalwart progressivism landed her in hot water with Howard High administration, who fired her for engaging in “political activity.” But she never wavered in her commitment to speaking up for the underprivileged and unvoiced.

Not long after Dunbar-Nelson’s tenure in Wilmington, the most famous couple of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (1900–1948), sauntered into northern Delaware with the hope of finding a bucolic retreat from their intercontinental, bacchanalian lifestyle.

Ellerslie, a now-demolished Greek revival mansion in Delaware, was once home to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who hoped its remoteness and vastness would allow F. Scott to finish writing his novel Tender Is the Night, untempted by popular nightspots and playmates.
Ellerslie, a now-demolished Greek revival mansion in Delaware, was once home to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who hoped its remoteness and vastness would allow F. Scott to finish writing his novel Tender Is the Night, untempted by popular nightspots and playmates. Courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society. Garrett Family Album Collection.

After the author’s success with The Great Gatsby in 1925 and prior to settling in Delaware, the couple had lived loudly and lavishly on Long Island, in Europe and briefly in Hollywood while F. Scott worked on a movie script. Upon the recommendation of F. Scott’s former Princeton roommate, the Fitzgeralds, along with their daughter, Scottie, rented a 30-room mansion in Wilmington for $150 a month.

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Bettman/ Bettman. Courtesy of Getty Images.

The Greek Revival mansion, Ellerslie, was situated in Edgemoor, on the Delaware River, with sweeping lawns and abundant isolation. Zelda wrote that the mansion was “sure to bring us a judicious tranquility.”

The hope was that the location’s remoteness and the mansion’s vastness would allow F. Scott to continue working on his novel Tender Is the Night uninterrupted and without the temptation of popular nightspots or seduction of famous playmates.

It did not take long, however, for the Fitzgeralds to begin throwing raucous parties at Ellerslie, inviting friends and notable artistic figures. It was not unusual for a Friday-evening party to roll into the following Monday. Food was scarce; booze was not. American novelist John Dos Passos, who once visited the Fitzgeralds, wrote that their parties were “delirious…a wild time.” Edmund Wilson, writer, literary critic and journalist, stated, “The aftermath of a Fitzgerald evening was notoriously a painful experience.”

Notorious American novelist Ernest Hemingway was also a one-time guest at Ellerslie, in 1928, as he and F. Scott had become increasingly close by that time. Hemingway stayed the night after watching a Princeton vs. Yale football game. The two writers reportedly got into a skirmish with police officers on the Wilmington train station platform the next day.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing during this period was less than fruitful—a reporter stated in the Philadelphia Inquirer that “[F. Scott] would write a few lines [and] tear up what he had written. After a few hours, he would leave the house and walk aimlessly around [the] grounds.”

But Zelda was creatively and artistically active. She repurposed the mansion’s enormous ballroom into a dance studio and trained with Catherine Littlefield, the director of the Philadelphia Opera Ballet, often dancing feverishly.

Beyond her ballet training, Zelda was an avid painter and writer who drafted short stories that would later be published in the monthly magazine College Humor. Her husband’s name would appear as the co-author on these stories, as to obtain quadruple the fee.

The Fitzgeralds left Wilmington for Europe in the spring of 1929, but their time in the Delaware city left an indelible mark that is felt to this day. In commemoration of the time F. Scott and Hemingway spent together in Wilmington, restaurateur Scott Morrison opened the Ernest & Scott Taproom in 2011, at 9th and Market streets, in the former Delaware Trust Building. (It closed in January 2020, but Wilma’s, a New Orleans–inspired restaurant with an adjacent duckpin bowling alley, now operates in its space.)

Ellerslie was used as an office for the Krebs Pigment and Chemical Co. for 40 years, but it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1973. A Dupont plant was erected in its place, but the magnificent trees that framed the mansion remain as a testament to the Fitzgeralds’ time spent on the Delaware River.

Ellerslie was used as an office for the Krebs Pigment and Chemical Co. for 40 years, but it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1973. A DuPont plant was erected in its place, but the magnificent trees that framed the mansion remain as a testament to the Fitzgeralds’ time spent on the Delaware River.

It is an enduring testament to the First State that these literary notables chose Delaware as their home (however temporarily). Their presence and contributions to the creative, activist and cosmopolitan communities in the state will continue to inspire and enlighten generations to come.

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