FLYING INTO St. Louis from the east, the eye follows the curve of the Mississippi southward to the flash of sun on stainless steel. Just west of the Arch, the light glints on glass towers flanked by the sculpted oval of Busch Stadium and the flat rectangle of the Convention Center.

To the north of the towers, where housing projects are clustered near expensive new apartments, German, Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants once lived in brick row houses. William Marion Reedy, editor of the feisty literary magazine, The Mirror, was born here in the Irish neighborhood of Kerry Patch. Editor Reedy encouraged St. Louis writers Fannie Hurst, Zoe Akins, Orrick Johns and others. He reached out to young writers elsewhere, including a teen-aged Edna St. Vincent Millay, and introduced such foreigners as John Galsworthy and Joseph Conrad to Americans. He spurred his friend Edgar Lee Masters into producing the poems that would comprise The Spoon River Anthology.

Katherine O'Flaherty was born in 1851 not far from the Reedy home, but she received no encouragement from the famous editor. In 1899, as novelist Kate Chopin, she published The Awakening, and Reedy's Mirror joined others in condemning its gentle sensuality. Reedy, taking the male line of the day, wrote: "The woman who is polyandric commits a sin against Nature. The man who is polygamic does not."

When Kate Chopin was a little girl, Samuel Clemens lived a few blocks away while he worked as a journalist and learned how to pilot a steamboat.

To the south of the towers, past the railroad yards, a brick row house stands alone amid parking lots and commercial buildings, the home of children's poet Eugene Field, son of the lawyer who defended Dred Scott at the courthouse in St. Louis.

Eliot at Home

AT 11th and Olive streets downtown there once was a Prufrock furniture store, a fact apparently noted by another young native of St. Louis, T.S. Eliot. Eliot soon left for London and never came back, but he wrote to Marquis Childs of the Post-Dispatch, "Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any other part of the world." Eliot also inscribed "Missouri to Missouri" on a photograph he gave to another St. Louis-born poet, Marianne Moore.

Beyond the core at the river's edge, the city opens like a fan, demolition and reconstruction spreading southward to the neat, red-brick neighborhoods of the "scrubby Dutch," northward to working-class communities and westward to the private places and substantial houses built by the rich several generations ago. Remembering St. Louis, Theodore Dreiser wrote, "The first time I saw one of those 'places' I was staggered by its exclusive air and beauty . . ."

In the middle distance, St. Louis University, the "oldest university west of the Mississippi," has expanded into the demolition zone. Nearby are Powell Symphony Hall and the ornate Fox theater. In one of the new university buildings, on a recent Sunday, the St. Louis Literary Award is bestowed on John Updike by the Associates of the St. Louis University Libraries. Like Saul Bellow (who received the award in 1986), Updike gives a short talk after spending a weekend being entertained by members of the organization.

Bar Hopping

FARTHER WEST, on another evening, Duff's is the site of a River Styx Association event, a casual gathering of poets and musicians. Duff's is a cozy, friendly place for poets, warm in the glow of old wood and worn antiques. Across the street is Left Bank Books and nearby are two other literary hangouts, Llewelyn's Pub and Dressel's. Duff's is often crowded -- for latecomers the only space likely to be left is at the far end of the bar where the audience can hear but not see the performers. No problem with Sterling Plumpp, a visitor from Chicago whose resonant, booming voice carries to the far corners of the connected rooms, most memorably in a repeated refrain about the poet's dead mother -- "Only nineteen years old, two kids . . ."

At the bar, a gracious man moves over to make room -- poet Quincy Troupe, sitting next to the star performer of the evening, Verta Mae Grosvenor of Public Radio. Later, Verta Mae, author of Cookbook Vibrations, talks about growing up on an island off the coast of South Carolina, working to rid herself of the lilting dialect so looked down upon by mainlanders, regretting the fact that she now sounds like the radio announcers she used to mimic in order to learn standard English. Nearby, East St. Louis poet Eugene Redmond talks shop with poet Michael Castro, moderator for the evening. A strikingly handsome woman is rounding up guests for a party afterward honoring Verta Mae.

On a different night at Duff's, a 10-inch snowfall hasn't deterred the overflow audience for Glen Savan reading from his novel, White Palace. Even the most staid listeners are caught up in the witty, raunchy humor as Savan's supposedly sophisticated young protagonist tangles with his uninhibited, redneck mistress.

This is the Central West End, where T.S. Eliot was a boy, where Tennessee Williams spent part of his early manhood, where Josephine Johnson painted murals on school walls, where William Inge tried out his play, Front Porch (it flopped). It is now a bastion for cultural liberals, the kind who wouldn't be caught dead in suburbia, who enjoy being near the Central West End's many art galleries, antique stores and trendy shops -- and its elite clientele.

Grove of Academe

OUR westward march is detoured by the massiveness of Forest Park stretching from the tall buildings of the Barnes Hospital complex to the cloistered neighborhoods of Clayton and the campus of Washington University. Mansions line the north flank of the park, guarding the territory where Fannie Hurst and Sara Teasdale once lived, where Sally Benson's Meet Me in St. Louis was set, where Emily Hahn was born, where Thomas Wolfe spent a summer in 1904 while his mother ran a boarding house for World's Fair visitors.

South of the park, beyond the Arena where the hockey Blues play, above an east-west slash of railroad tracks and industrial plants, are the small houses built for immigrant laborers, for the Italians of The Hill, where Joe Garagiola and Yogi Berra grew up. Closer to the Arena are the tightly packed houses of "Dogtown," where Glen Savan placed the lusty heroine of White Palace.

At the the southwest corner of Forest Park rises the mock tudor elegance of the Cheshire Inn. There one evening, in a private dining room that could have been the main hall of a modest English castle, members of the St. Louis Writers Guild finish their dessert before listening to novelist-philosopher William Gass elaborate upon the art of the essay. Gass has the uninterrupted attention of his audience, raising eyebrows only when he suggests that women shouldn't try to write like men, an elaboration of his point that each writer should maintain a distinctive style. Several women in the audience gently prod him on this point as Gass eases his way out of a corner.

Gass also takes aim at editors of newspaper book sections and of literary magazines who want to cut and change a writer's copy. When one editor complained about Gass's page-long sentences, Gass's retort was, "Good! That's the way I like them. . . . Good writing has to be so much yours that to tamper with it is to tamper with your character."

Circling to the north and west of Forest Park brings us to the heart of University City on the north edge of the Washington University campus, where, at the turn of the century, University City founder Edward G. Lewis -- a visionary with the ways of a con man -- erected his monumental buildings on an Egyptian theme. On this evening, Stanley Elkin reads to the accompaniment of the Mid-America Dance Company as part of the River Styx Performance Series, which blends literature, art, music and dance.

One handsome, dapper, silver-maned man stands out in the audience -- Jarvis Thurston, who, with his wife, poet Mona Van Duyn, edited Perspective, the literary magazine that attracted so much talent two decades ago, printing early works by Elkin, Howard Nemerov, Donald Finkel and others. It was Thurston who lured these burgeoning talents into comfortable professorships in the Washington University English Department. (Another Thurston catch, William Gass, teaches philosophy, but he is an important adjunct to the writing program there.)

While awaiting Elkin's entrance, Thurston describes the luxurious private train to which he had delivered a weekend guest, his friend, poet John Malcolm Brinnin, who then set forth on a leisurely trip by rail westward from St. Louis.

Elkin, although he moves slowly and carefully with the help of a cane (he has multiple sclerosis), seems as vigorous as ever, and his forceful reading, particularly his inflection and timing, adds dimension to his text -- adapted from his latest novel, The Rabbi of Lud.

A Pride of Poets

ON A WET evening a little farther west, in one of those tiny commercial corners of Clayton that used to supply the food and other necessities for a neighborhood, the Nevertheless Press Gallery is filled to capacity as poets Charles Guenther and Judith Saul Stix display their contrasting styles: Guenther, once a compassionate friend to Ezra Pound during Pound's imprisonment in St. Elizabeths Hospital, now a gray eminence himself, a poet whose style is self-deprecatory, scholarly; Stix direct, dramatic in her reading of poems on the theme of childbearing.

Outside, it is raining softly. The bakery-deli next door has tables and chairs on the sidewalk; it could be Paris in the spring.

St. Louis may not be Paris, nor is it New York City, but it is a town that writers find comfortable. Poet Donald Finkel was an Easterner, lured here, as were Elkin, Nemerov, Gass and poet John N. Morris, by the knowing ways of Jarvis Thurston, but they remained because of the charms of this setting. Finkel finds St. Louis, as compared with the East, "a much more satisfactory atmosphere for writing, for bringing up a family, for working -- all the aspects of life."

Finkel and his wife, novelist Constance Urdang, did move back East briefly, only to return here. "I have a profound sense of gratitude toward St. Louis, to University City, to Washington University in particular. It's given me a chance to do things I probably could not have done in the East. And I imagine I wouldn't have been as happy doing them in the East. Oh, I may drift back to the East, but it will be because of a particular attraction, not because I'm dying to leave St. Louis."

These sentiments are echoed by all of the Washington University group. As Nemerov wryly put it, "My children were very firm. There was no way we were going to move out of here." And Elkin: "I'm perfectly satisfied where I am. It works for me."

John Morris also is a transplanted Easterner, who wishes St. Louis "were 500 miles closer to the Atlantic," but he too will stay put. "I lived in Manhattan and never knew any of the literary people there, but I never really wanted to much -- because it seemed sort of frenetic. Here we're all comfortable, perhaps dull middle-class people who nevertheless practice an art."

This seems to be true as well for the many genre writers who call St. Louis home -- mystery writer John Lutz, for instance. Undoubtedly St. Louis loses some young writers who swarm to the literary beehives elsewhere seeking warmth and illumination. But there are others, like Glenn Savan, who see St. Louis as a good place to write. "You're not distracted by all the crazy things going on outside your window, as you are in New York." David Carkeet of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and David Clewell of Webster University apparently plan to stay on for a while, too.

In fact, those of us who have lived in St. Louis for several decades have acquired a certain smugness. When travelers from both coasts refer to us as inhabitants of the "flyover," a cultural wasteland, we smile. St. Louis is not only a good place to write, to live, to study, to raise a family, it's a secret that only a few million of us share. We don't mind keeping it that way. :: Clarence E. Olson is the book editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.