From Wau-Bun to Bellow
Chicago-area writers and writing
See Illinois (unpublished)
Another excerpt from my unpublished manuscript for the guidebook, See Illinois. You will have read worse summaries than this one. The source notes in the original have been omitted.
If the elites of the late 19th century sought to reform Chicagoans via the arts, a later generation of literary artists saw Chicago as just the place to reform the arts themselves. The writers, poets, and theater types of what came to be known as the Chicago renaissance saw themselves as reformers–not merely adding something new—as was happening in jazz—but explicitly rejecting the old.
As artists everywhere tend to do, Chicago’s identified with the social outcasts of the city, and more than a few took up their cause, in their studios if not in the streets. In the 1890s, for instance, many of the better sort of writer began cranking out “utopian” tracts on temperance or socialism or feminism. All such writers were aiming higher than the crime and romance novels that the city produced by the dozens, although subsequent writers would argue that they were aiming in the wrong direction, since the truth about Chicago lay in the streets, indeed the gutters, not in the clouds.
The artists of the “Chicago Renaissance” would reject genteelism as too seemly, and embrace much of what offended their betters. If Chicago was to break free of genteelism and its stale imitations of academic artists, they concluded, it must produce artists nurtured by the streets, not the salons.
The attempt of this newer generation of artists to express the noise, the struggle, the tumult they saw all about the city put Chicago for a time at the forefront of what was new and important in American arts. No less distinguished a critic than H. L. Mencken called the city in the years just before World War I “the literary capitol of the United States.” The city saw a flowering of experimentation in the theater and dance as well. No one described those heady days better than David Lowe:
It was a rare moment in Chicago. It would have been a rare moment in any city at any time. Sullivan and Wright had just completed two of the masterpieces of world architecture. Poetry, The Little Review, and The Dial were all being published there. In the Fine Arts Building, Maurice Browne was conducting the nation’s first Little Theatre where it was possible to see the early efforts of Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Sherwood Anderson, and Maxwell Bodenheim. Under Frederick Stock, the Chicago Symphony had reached new heights with more world premieres than any other orchestra in America. Opera too was flourishing, spurred on by Chicago’s own Mary Garden, who had created the role of Mélisande in Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Sitting in the Fine Arts Building with Henry Fuller, Hamlin Garland, and Garland’s brother-in-law, the sculptor Lorado Taft, Henry James had, in 1905, expressed his surprise and approval. It was, he said, like the Paris of his youth. [The Fine Arts Building still stands at 410 S. Michigan Ave.]
This movement was not strictly speaking a renaissance, as there was no previous cultural tradition in the city to revive. If it was a renaissance, it was not a Chicago one but a renaissance of American literature and other arts that happened to take place in Chicago, because it was there, for a few years, that the environment for making new kinds of art was most fecund. It might more aptly be titled the Chicago Revolt; critic Robert Bray likens it more accurately to the Great Awakening, the efflorescence of Christian fervor that periodically swept the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries. But popular usage sanctions “renaissance,” so renaissance it will remain. (See below for more on the Chicago Renaissance.)
The Chicago Renaissance was over by the mid-1920s—Mencken said so. Virtually all the important Chicago writers had decamped for the East, the critics that shaped the movement had quit or their papers folded, Poetry was without locals poets worth printing. The Friday Literary Review lasted only seven years before it was closed by its publisher who was dismayed at its leftward lurch; The Little Review, as noted, by 1919 had discovered Greenwich Village, then at the beginning of its own Renaissance. The city’s book publishers never grew into the Scribners and Macmillan of the Midwest. True, the 1920s saw many popular works by Chicago authors, from Ferber’s So Big to Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page. But of course this was popular stuff, and didn’t count, since the Renaissance had begun with the intention—to quote from Margaret Anderson’s plans for The Little Review—to “make no compromise with public taste.”
Looking back, plain to see that the Chicago Renaissance was a uprising of the mostly middle class young that would not be seen again until the 1960s, when a new generation took up many of the same causes, often, unwittingly, with the same arguments, and with not much more effect. Noisy and scruffy but never as dangerous as they or their enemies believed they were, both generations of rebels proved to be right about what was wrong, but wrong about how to make it right.
Ben Hecht, looking back from 1963, wrote, “I’ll make only one boast of us when we were unknown in Chicago—no one has taken our place.” In the 1950s and ‘60s and beyond, Chicago signal contribution to ideas was not Poetry or Little Review but Playboy; today its Harriet Monroe is Oprah Winfrey.
It can be argued that the real Chicago renaissance—meaning that artistic ferment that had the broadest and most lasting effect on the rest of the country—happened just after World War I, not just before it, and that its perpetrators wielded by pens but horns. The jazz musicians, black and white, that came mostly from small towns (delta hamlets, Iowa farm river towns, and Chicago’s own new suburb were reshaped by the dynamic of the city—arrival, newness, dislocation—that excited the word-minded small-towns boys and girls who flocked to Chicago in the 1890s.
The city’s critics have announced more than one new Renaissance since the 1920s. Indeed, the city produced more literary talent since the Renaissance than during it—James T. Farrell, Meyer Levin, Willard Motley, Gwendolyn Brooks, and of course Saul Bellow. But for most of a century now, the situation has usually been more like that encountered by Liebling in 1952: “For a city where, I am credibly informed, you couldn’t throw an egg in 1925 without braining a great poet, Chicago is hard up for writers.”
The “Chicago writer”
If its industrialists built Chicago (or, recalling the contributions of the long-ignored working class, caused it to be built) then writers may be said to have created it. The assumption used to be common among even educated people that Illinois writing and Chicago writing were one and the same. Of the 35 noteworthy Illinois writers whose names have been carved into the frieze atop the new Illinois State Library in Springfield, no fewer than 27 are connected to the city or its suburbs. Among them are such worthies as Harriet Monroe; John Dos Passos (much of whose USA trilogy is set in Chicago); Gwendolyn Brooks; Sherwood Anderson; Ben Hecht; and George Ade. (The others are: George Ade; Nelson Algren; Sherwood Anderson; Paul Angle; L. Frank Baum; Saul Bellow; Ray Bradbury; Cyrus Colter; Theodore Dreiser; Finley Peter Dunne; James T. Farrell; Edna Ferber; Henry Blake Fuller; Hamlin Garland; Lorraine Hansberry; Ernest Hemingway; Robert Herrick; Ring Lardner; Frank Norris; Donald Peattie; Elia Peattie; Carl Sandburg; Upton Sinclair; Louis (Studs) Terkel; and Richard Wright.)
One can quibble with the selectors, as with any “greatest” list. The ISL sought to honor Illinois’s “most distinguished“ authors, not necessarily its best. A major prize virtually guarantees distinguished-ness of this sort; thus the presence of Edna Ferber, who won a Nobel Prize even though few think she deserved one. James T. Farrell always makes these lists, in spite of his being ridiculed in the 1950s as the worst writer in America by Time, the worst news magazine in America.
Nor was popularity a criterion. Even in Chicago, many of the city’s better writers are not exactly household names, unless the household happens to be in Hyde Park. Asked to identify him, most Illinoisans would guess that Henry B. Fuller was Secretary of State in the Kerner administration Critic Robert Bray recommends Elia Peattie’s The Precipice as "one of the finest—and unaccountably neglected—of Chicago novels by and about women." Peattie was the first "girl reporter" on the Chicago Tribune, and rose, if that is the appropriate term, to become that paper’s books editor and head literary critic. Peattie befriended the young Floyd Dell before he became a literary critic that outshone her, even inviting the young Dell to her home and read one of J. M. Synge’s recent plays to him. More locals probably know the names of Cubs center fielders from the 1920s than know her name or her work.
Finding the “best” among any large groups of writers is tricky. Finding the best Chicago writer is made trickier by the fact that no one quite agrees on what a “Chicago writer” is. William Maxwell set Folded Leaf, his fine growing-up novel, in Chicago but he was the antithesis of the Dreiser/Farrell/Algren set. Bertold Brecht is honored by some as a Chicago writer on the strength of his St. Joan of the Stockyards, but Brecht is a Chicago author in the same sense that Saul Bellow is a Prague author for having set part of his Dean's December in that city.
Nor is nativity the criterion. John Dos Passos is often claimed as a Chicago writer, but while he was born here he was raised largely in Virginia, and never lived here, and wrote about the city only glancingly and in a late, minor novel. Indeed, most of the authors associated with the city came from somewhere else and stayed in Chicago only on their way somewhere else, fleeing as Wright did to Paris and Bellow did to Hyde Park. Upton Sinclair might have authored the most famous Chicago novel in The Jungle, but he was not a Chicagoan. Willa Cather was another of the type that critic Bray calls a literary tourist; all Chicago contributed to the heroine of The Song of the Lark, writes Bray, "is an unwelcome knowledge of 'rush hour.'" Then there are the writers who were citizens of Chicagoland but who never wrote about it; the model of the type is Ernest Hemingway, who was from a near-Chicago suburb and never wrote about it but whose likeness in bronze stands just outside the Chicago Authors Room on the seventh floor of the Harold Washington Library along with Gwendolyn Brooks and Saul Bellow.
Head Professor Saul Bellow is the Chicago novelist who looms largest over the city’s literary landscape. New City newspaper in 2002 put it this way: “The contenders for best Chicago novel begin and end with the works of Saul Bellow.” He is Chicago’s very own Nobelist—Hemingway doesn’t count, him being from Oak Park. Recalling the novels Herzog, Humboldt's Gift, and, preeminently, The Adventures of Augie March (which more than a few critic have called the not only the great Chicago novel but the great American novel), James Hurt observed in Writing Illinois, “Bellow’s treatment of Chicago is comparable in scale and significance, if not in method, to Dickens’s use of London or Joyce’s of Dublin.”
An artist of such reputation is perforce a civic asset, like the Sears Tower or the Cubs, and while Chicago may be indifferent to art it is fully alert to celebrity. Not many novelist are feted at the Art Institute by the mayor, as Bellow was for his 75th birthday by Richard J. Daley. “Mayor Daley in a little City Hall ceremony gave me a five-hundred-dollar check, awarded by the Midland Authors’ Society for my novel Herzog.” recalled Bellow years later. “’Mr. Mayor, have you read Herzog?’ asked one of the reporters, needling him. ‘I’ve looked into it,’ said Daley, thick-skinned and staunch. Art is not the mayor’s dish. Indeed, why should it be? I much prefer his neglect to the sort of interest Stalin took in poetry.”
Novels as history
Much history intrudes, if only unconsciously, into the work of Chicago’s novelists. Many found it impossible to resist the temptation to pick settings and themes, even characters from the crowded cupboards of the city’s past. The Fort Dearborn massacre, the great fire, the rise of industry, labor strife, politics, immigration—many Chicago novels are histories passing as novels. (Not a few, like Frank Norris’s The Pit and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, are taught in American history classes.) The city’s past provided all the plot many writers needed, and offered incident and character that few could create on their own.
Thus it is that the classic Chicago novels were worth reading in their day because they were about a subject that was new and unexplained—Chicago—are today recommended because they are about a subject that has become old and unremembered—Chicago. The reviewer who recommended George Ade’s Chicago stories, which were republished in 2003 by the University of Illinois Press—to “those interested in studying the urban history of this period”—is not alone.
Do the city’s fiction writers offer useful glimpses into the past? One problem is that many novels are not only history disguised as fiction, but polemics disguised as history. In the perennial contest between heroes and villains, writers nearly always sided with the underdogs, the losers, the inarticulate.
Another trap awaits the unwary reader—the transformation of the facts of the city’s past into myth. A city’s first step toward self-consciousness is the creation of its own heroes. Hero-making is clearly the ambition of Juliette Kinzie’s Wau-Bun, the “Early Days” in the Northwest. The book—a novel widely mistaken as a reminiscence—is generally ranked as a milestone in the literary history of Chicago and Illinois. Kinzie was the daughter-in-law of trader John Kinzie, a big wheel in Chicago in the days when commerce still moved by canoe. Her book was an influential account of the Fort Dearborn massacre, which constituted the whole of the rest of the nation’s awareness of the young city on the lake, much as the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention would color how the world saw late 20th century city. (The massacre was the subject for writers up the Civil War; that unhappy incident caused more ink to be spilled than blood.) Unfortunately, Wau-Bun also is misleading, as it depicts the social life of pioneer Chicago, with no more accuracy than was needed to establish her in-laws as the city’s First Family.
Chicago treats its famous authors as celebrities rather than artists, trotted out to entice tourists or impress the critics. It was perhaps inevitable that Carl Sandburg—who knew something about how important self-promotion is to a career—has been adopted as the city’s unofficial Chicago Writer. Sandburg is not much respected by the literati however. David Mamet said of Sandburg, “His poetry was a second tincture of Walt Whitman; and, finally, not good for all that much more than correcting the roll on a pool table.” However, he and Studs Terkel, his successor to the mantle of Chicago Everyman, embodied the kind of place it is. His description of his Chicago as the city of big shoulders (widely misquoted as “broad shoulders,” such is the pull of the Chicago Bears on the popular imagination) is quoted endlessly. Hungry visitors to the historical society can snack on Hobo hash” or “Sheboygan bratwurst” in the Big shoulders Café. Naming a park or school after the poet was not enough; the massive Sandburg Village between Division Street and North Avenue along Clark and LaSalle, a urban renewal project for upscale renters in the 1960s, was named by the developer after the poet of the common people.
A better choice for the city’s poet laureate is Gwendoline Brooks, who is by far the most honored of Chicagoland’s artists, much less of its poets. Kevin Stein and G. E. Murray, co-editors of the verse collection, Illinois Voices, write, “After five decades of poetic achievement, she earned an honored place in that realm of American poetic originals that includes Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Pound, Moore, Williams, Crane, Bishop.” The Illinois State Library at 300 South 2nd St. in Springfield was renamed the Gwendolyn Brooks Building in 2003. Public middle schools in both Harvey and Oak Park are named after her.
Usually, the worlds of business and literature intersect only in publishers; offices, or at the desks of writers who take business as a subject. Occasionally the worlds of the page turner and the bean counter intersect off the page as well.
The Chicago impresario of the tract house was developer Samuel E. Gross. Gross (who was the model for the character Samuel E. Ross in Dreiser’s novel Jennie Gerhardt) built more houses than anyone in Chicago’s history. On the side, Gross practiced law, read science and the classics, invented mathematical instruments, dabbled in cartography—and wrote.
Tim Samuelson, the Cultural Historian for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, has noted how Gross had time on hands during a real estate depression in the 1870s and used it to write a play, a comedy of manners that he titled The Merchant Prince of Cornville. The work featured a character who wore a mask with large nose. Gross had sent his manuscript to the Paris theater whose staff included a friend of Edmond Rostand. When Gross heard in 1897 that Rostand had published a new play, Cyrano de Bergerac, whose hero sported a large nose, he put two and two together. Concluding that Rostand has stolen his story, Gross sued for redress in Chicago court.
Samuelson did not find even a passing resemblance between the two works, and he was not the only one. The British critic Lytton Strachey ridiculed the claim that the finest poet of the day had stolen from the worst. Nonetheless, in 1902 the federal district court in Chicago ruled that Rostand had in fact stolen Gross’s idea. This was the kind of verdict that rich men often get in Chicago. The judge had assigned profits from the play to Gross, but the Chicagoan accepted on a symbolic $1 in damages, explaining that he was not after money, only justice.
Marshall Kirkman was raised in central Illinois. He went to work for the Chicago & North Western Railroad Company in 1856 as a messenger boy; by the time he retired in 1910 he had worked his way up to vice-president. He was a prolific author on the subject of the railroad business, and railroad buffs know him as the author of, among many other works, the 12-volume The Science of Railways and Classical Portfolio of Primitive Carriers.
Having exhausted railroads as a topic by 1900, Kirkman took up historical novel writing. He devoted to the life and times of Alexander the Great the same attention he had given railroads. (He wrote five novels on Alexander.) He also produced a book about a less exalted character he named Gilbert Holmes. The New York Times reviewer at the book’s release ranked The Romance of Gilbert Holmes with the best of American literature. Readers today may agree with the critic who kindly wrote, “His fiction was in no sense excellent, but it was better done than might have been expected in view of his temperament and background.”
Few writers, of course, write only about Chicago. They write about parts of the great city—neighborhoods, peoples, places. Further, their accounts are flavored by their own experience, and every Chicago writer—like every Chicago plumber and painter and professor—is never only a Chicagoan.
The need of Chicago’s immigrant and recently-immigrant citizens to explain themselves to the wider world—and to come to terms with their own often tumultuous experience of the city—has inspired a small library of novels and stories. A Reader’s Guide to Illinois Literature, compiled in 1985, lists 90 (mostly) novels that chronicle the lives of the city’s Hungarians, Germans, Swedes, Jews, Slavs, Poles, Irish, Norwegians, and Lithuanians alone.
Richard Wright was born in 1908 in Mississippi. He moved to Chicago in 1927. His color and lack of formal education doomed him to the usual menial jobs, including washing dishes and mopping floors. He later worked for several years as a post office clerk, but it was his two years working for the WPA Federal Writers; Project that made him a writer. Wright drew on the WPA Federal Writers’ Project “Negro in Illinois” files for a 1941 nonfiction account of black life during the Great Depression. Maren Stange, author of Bronzeville, described the resulting Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the U.S. as an effort “to rework specific sociological concepts in a vernacular register.”
However it was Wright’s fictional work, such as the short story collection, Uncle Tom's Children (1938), and his novel Native Son (1940), that established him as a writer of note. Critic James Hurt has noted that Wright’s work from those years “introduced a new voice to African-American writing, blunt, direct, and angry.” Native Son is the story of an African American boy named Bigger Thomas who, like Wright, had been transplanted from the Deep South to the Chicago of the '30s. Wright replaced pathos with anger, and dared to make the central character—he cannot be called its hero—not a saintly martyr to white racism but a complicated personality capable of thievery and ultimately murder. The result is what some have praised as the first novel that actually spoke the truth about American social and class relations.
Native Son sold 250,000 hardback copies in six weeks and it and his autobiographical Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945) have been required reading in high schools and colleges for a generation. While not a native son, Wright was in some important ways more of a Chicago writer than many a local. The distinguished critic Alfred Kazin has observed that Native Son and Black Boy “show the power of Chicago on a talent that might have been nothing without the force of Chicago.” Wright left Chicago for good in the late 1930s; he died in Paris of a heart attack in 1960 at the age of 52.
The Chicago ethnic revealed in books and stories alarmed or repulsed many a Downstater, but such reactions obscured family traits such people had in common with other Illinoisans. Robert Bray has noted that “genre paintings”—stories that are linked to the rural nostalgists—also are typical of Chicago’s “circumscribed communities” that, like the Downstate villages, are bound by church and kin. The hermetic neighborhoods that are the locus of most ethnic fiction set in Chicago are defensive enclaves in which the inhabitants have hunkered down against industrialism, progress, the other—all the traditional foes of the parochial small-towner.
Like most such labels, the term “ethnic” obscures as much as it illuminates. Harry Mark Petrakis and Sandra Cisneros are ethnics, but fabulists rather than realists. The Chicago writer Farrell felt closest to was not the naturalistic Dreiser but Sherwood Anderson, whose small-town worlds most resembled the close-knit neighborhoods of his youth.”
An interesting case is that of novelist Willard Francis Motley. A nephew of painter Archibald, Motley was born 1909, in Chicago. For two years in the 1920s, the young Motley edited and wrote a children’s column in the Chicago Defender as the first “Bud Billiken,” Motley graduated from Englewood High School in 1929 and began followed the apprenticeship common for writers at the time that included odd jobs and a stint with the WPA Writers’ Project, He moved from his comfortable Englewood neighborhood into the slums of the West Side; material from that years found its way into his first novel, Knock on Any Door published in 1947. The novel was a best-seller, and made (in 1949) into a motion picture version starring Humphrey Bogart.
Motley is on some ways the most successful of the black writers of the era, yet he is seldom listed among Chicago “black “ writers since he did not write what used to be called race novels, nor did he set his tales in his old neighborhood. (The hero of Knock was Nick Romano, an Italian kid of the sort he got to know in Little Sicily on the West Side.) He was a bit of embarrassment to the young black leaders of the era, being a staunch believer in integration and a critic of race-conscious writers like James Baldwin. He was not popular with critics either; blends of sociology and sentimentality, his subsequent books were bad enough to make Hollywood movies out of, such as the sequel to Knock titled Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1958). Motley spent his last years in Mexico, broke and ignored.
The Regular Chicago Guy
Chicago writers tend to fall into one of two camps in terms of style and preoccupation, camps that might be labeled The Regular Guys vs The Professors. The Regular Guy has given the world what is widely recognized as the Chicago style of writing, whose hallmarks as distinct as the Chicago style of architecture or, for that matter, the Chicago style of hog dog. It gives us settings that are invariably described as “gritty,” described in a style that is described as ”naturalistic” or realistic” although “crude” would usually do as well. Its heroes are of the working class, usually ethnic, and live in its neighborhoods.
The early exemplars of what Alfred Kazin called the “willful primitivism of Chicago bards” were was Carl Sandburg and Theodore Dreiser. Later, the mantle was taken up by James T. Farrell, whom Lloyd Lewis once described as “the dean of the shock ‘em and sock ‘em school of writing.” Lewis concedes that Farrell was “ponderous and even pedantic,” but that he wrote with honesty and power. Words to that effect have been offered about all the major practitioners of the Chicago fictional style; power or “honesty” is what one offers when refinement of style or subtle of insight into either the city or its people is beyond a writer. (The residence of James T. Farrell at 2023 E. 72nd St., where he worked on the first part of his Studs Lonigan trilogy, is today marked by a plaque.)
The Regular Guy camp—more numerous if not necessarily more representative—is home to Sandburg and Dreiser and Norris, Ben Hecht and James T. Farrell, Cyrus Colter, Motley and Gwendoline Brooks, Norbert Blei and Stuart Dybek. Sandburg was the flag carrier for the group in the old days; these days it held aloft by Studs Terkel, everyone’s favorite anti-intellectual intellectual, who even took his nickname from Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy.
Dreiser—libertine, iconoclast—is in many ways the archetypal Regular Guy author. He was given a fine tribute by Chicagoland poet Lisel Mueller in her poem, “For A Thirteenth Birthday,” in which she addresses a teen to whom she has given a copy of Sister Carrie:
And so I give you Dreiser,
his measure of certainty:
a table that's oak all the way through,
real and fragrant flowers,
skirts from sheep and silkworms,
no unknown fibers;
a language as plain as money,
a workable means of exchange;
a world whose very meanness is solid,
mud into mortar, and you are sure
of what will injure you.
The Guys set up their tents in the neighborhoods, They are studiously even ostentatiously American in diction, and celebrated as “vital” the cultural crudities and tribal simplicities that the professors condemn as crude. There is more than a little in this celebration of the outsider, of the not-quite-American, the writers themselves, who, in long tradition in Chicago, are often not quite American themselves. The perspective is usually from the Left. The socialist tract of the 1890s surfaced again in new covers in the 1930s and thereafter. Explains Timothy B. Spears in the Encyclopedia of Chicago about Studs Lonegan, “Deterministic and marked by a strong recognition of social inequity, Farrell's novels bear the imprint of his University of Chicago education.” Willard Motley is another good example of an author whose works are informed (or rather uninformed) by the leftist politics of the day, and which tend to be didactic if not exhortatory.
However, it was the Professors that gave Chicago its first literature worth the name. The major figures were Robert Herrick and Henry Blake Fuller. Robert Herrick had dubious credentials as a Chicago guy, as he was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (in 1868), educated at Harvard, and was a member of the faculty in the University of Chicago; publisher Henry Regnery got close when he called Fuller an “unwilling Chicagoan;” the subject matter was Chicago but the sensibility was New England. Such upholders of the genteel did not see Chicago as a new and exciting kind of city but as a failed old one.
The Professors work in the Fuller tradition; Fuller’s successors include Willa Cather and Saul Bellow. Regnery recalls how Fuller, explaining to a colleague why he was reluctant to undertake another Chicago novel, replied, “Who wants to read about this repellent town?” That attitude—fascination alloyed with disgust—was typical of much of Bellow’s later work too. And Bellow, like Fuller, taught at the University of Chicago.
The history of women’s fiction writing in Illinois is for all intents and purposes, a history of women writing in and about Chicago. Women writers in Chicago have tended to be ghettoized—first to cheat them of attention they deserved, lately to give them attention they never got and that some don't deserve.
Certainly the contributions of women to the region’s literary culture have been substantial. A startling number of Chicago important literary personalities have been female—Harriet Monroe and Margaret Anderson, Margaret Curry, and the city’s signal poet—sorry, Carl— Gwendoline Brooks.
“Woman writer” is as treacherous a generalization as Chicago writer. Their works are as varied in subject matter and sensibility as men’s. Their ranks include authors of hardboiled detective fiction— Sara Peretsky, most famously—and ethnic writers—Sanda Cisneros, most adroitly—and a novelist of Dreiserian social sweep—Edna Ferber, who wrote many stories two plays about the city, and several novels, one of which –So Big—was a national sensation. Elia Peattie’s The Precipice, based loosely on the life of Hull House mainstay Julia Lathrop, gave us “probably the most advanced woman character developed by an Illinois author in the first two decades of the [twentieth] century,” in the view of Babette Inglehart. Willa Cather wrote three Chicago-based novels—The Song of the Lark (1915), The Professor’s Umbrella, and Lucy Gayheart, the last about a Nebraska girl’s sobering experiences in Chicago. Only the last dealt with the classic Chicago themes of the naif in the city.
Such literary feuds as have enlivened Chicago’s often soporific book world have been stirred by the U of C, or rather by the resentment felt toward it by those offended by its presumption. This was an aspect of the antagonism between Algren and Bellow, the champions of their respective tribes. Algren was a creature of the working class Northwest Side, while Bellow went to school in Evanston, lived late in life on the North Side lakefront, and identified with the university where he taught for 30 years. Each was a symbol of the larger aesthetic that informed their books, and people lined up behind each according to whose vision of the city and its people they thought truer.
“Which school is the better?” is a silly question. “Which is more representative?” is slightly less silly but no easier to answer. The Regular Guys held the summit for decades, but of late the Professors are winning, but only because gentility is on the rise—at last. The old Chicago is dead, and the practitioners of Regular Guyism are obliged to be nostalgists (as Bellow was nostalgic in Augie March). Stuart Dybek and Norbert Blei carry Sandburg’s flag through the scattered shot of critics who find it all a bit passé; ethnic fiction is in these days, but Dybek and Blei write about this era’s wrong ethnics.
The Regular Suburban Guy
“Chicago writers” get the press, but Chicago’s suburbs have nurtured good writers too. Indeed, as is true of so many things, much of the writing and writers popularly identified as “Chicagoan” are in fact a product of its suburbs.
Some writers had no choice in being suburbanites. Ray Bradbury was born (in 1920) and raised in Waukegan. So was Ward Just. Just grew up to write some dozen novels that have earned him the respect of critics—his 1997 Echo House was a National Book Award finalist—if not fame. Just was the scion of a long (for the suburbs) line of newspaper publishers in Waukegan, where the Justs owned and ran the Waukegan News-Sun for three generations. Just’s writing career began as a reporter for the family paper but he escaped his fate as a future publisher-to-be by moving to Chicago and the Newsweek bureau.
Just made his professional life in Europe, Asia, and Washington, DC, but he returned imaginatively to Waukegan in a 1978 novel, A Family Trust, whose characters and plot bear a resemblance to his own family that should not be considered coincidental. (Just calls his fictional Waukegan ”Dement” and his protagonist family the Risings—not so sly jokes.) It is not perhaps Just’s best book, but the story nicely describes effect of the demise of that go-getting generation of Babbits from the end of the Korean War until 1973. In the process he charts the demise of the town too. The 1920s in many ways saw the last of the town-builders in Chicagoland, to be replaced by sons and daughters who were, and are, career-builders; the elders’ deaths in the 1960s and ‘70s left their hometowns, in Just’s words, “like an army with too few generals.”
Oak Park has been an exporter of writers for decades. Richard Bach was born in Oak Park in 1936, although he soon moved with his family to California; it is that place that informed the sensibility that gave an unsuspecting world Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a modest novel that charmed readers by the million on its release in 1970 and caused most critics to want to barf. Jane Hamilton, author of A Map of the World and other novels, grew up in Oak Park in the 1950s and ‘60s. Charles Simic, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990, was born in Yugoslavia but came to the U.S. as a sixteen-year-old in 1954; he went to high school in Oak Park.
Oak Park, of course, was the childhood home to Chicagoland’s most famous writer, Ernest Hemingway. His life is well known among those who are interested in that sort of thing—brave service with an American ambulance unit in World War I, the newspaper reporting of foreign wars, the hunting and fishing, the boxing and bullfights, the love affairs, and eventually the suicide in an Idaho hunting lodge, his gift spent, his style parodied, his image reduced to that of a buffoon to a generation unpersuaded by macho chest-thumping.
Oak Park, known today for being a determinedly tolerant place, was in the time of Hemingway’s youth a teetotal town of upright Protestants that was known in the 1890s as Saints’ Rest. For decades Hemingway biographies have offered his career was a flight from Oak Park and its rather smug suburban respectability. The grownup Papa drank and fought and had sex, for which the town condemned him; he also neglected to write about them, for which the town resented him. More recent biographers suggest a more nuanced view; Oak Park repression was an issue for the young man, to be sure, but it was his attempts to come to terms with the repression that Hemingway himself internalized and wreaked upon himself that accounts for what was bad about his life and god about his art.
Oak Park only begrudgingly conceded that Hemingway was one of theirs. But fame in America is the universal solvent that dissolves all disapproval. Hemingway’s Nobel in 1954 helped thaw local frostiness toward him, although probably not as much as the gradual dying off of his parents’ generation. By the 1990s Hemingway’s peccadilloes looked innocuous even by suburban standards. Hemingway was a shameless self-promoter, and he would have appreciated the impulse if not the object of the Oak Parkers who lately have turned his youthful residence into another reason for tourists to visit.
Oak Park gave more young men than Hemingway the urge to push over a few privies. One of them was Kenneth Fearing, born four years after Hemingway. Fearing was best known as the author of a stylish detective story he called The Big Clock that was adapted into the films The Big Clock (1948) and No Way Out (1987). Fearing was a good poet too, although his work in that form was marred by which one critic called "a dependence on purely muscular, hard-boiled idioms which threatened to characterize him as the Ernest Hemingway of modern verse.”
Dave Eggers grew up in Lake Forest (which he describes in one biography only as being “close to Chicago” although it is more than thirty miles from the Loop) and studied painting and journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which not close to Chicago at all. His memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was a surprise must-read in 2000 colleges. In an interview, Eggers recalled himself at thirteen, “sitting in my orange-carpeted bedroom in ostensibly cutting-edge Lake Forest, Illinois, subscribing to the Village Voice and reading the earliest issues of Spin, I thought I had my ear to the railroad tracks of avant garde America.” Thinking that Lake Forest was even ostensibly cutting edge is one of those things that every thirteen-year-old comes to be embarrassed by.
The region’s better novelists may have avoided the suburbs as a setting but they embraced it as a home. Writers tend to be among the less excitable sort of professional person, and they no less than middle managers yearn for the quiet and beauty of the suburbs. Carl Sandburg, the quintessential Chicago poet, lived for many years in the western suburbs, first in Maywood in 1914 and then (from 1919 until 1930) in Elmhurst. Sherwood Anderson for a time sought refuge from the city’s high rents in a cabin in Palos Park. Archibald MacLeish, who was born in Glencoe in 1892, was a successful lawyer with a wife and kids when he decided to move his family to Paris and write poetry full time. This is not what Glencoe lawyers usually do, but MacLeish pulled it off; he went on to be a multiple Pulitzer Prize-winner, Broadway playwright, and Librarian of Congress. 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning poet Lisel Mueller was born in Germany on 1924 and in 1958 the Americanized Mueller moved with her husband to Lake Forest, where they lived for forty-one years until 1999.
Evanston—a place convenient to the city, with Northwestern University to provide all the comforts that the literati need, from coffee to bookshops to impressionable company, has always attracted writers;, many of these taught at Northwestern, including Cyrus Colter and Leon Forrest, Joseph Epstein and Garry Wills. Among Evanston’s native writers of note is Edward “Pat” Tanner. As Patrick Dennis, Tanner published the novel for which he is best known, indeed, for which he is known at all—Auntie Mame. Mame dwelt on the best-seller lists for two years in the 1950s and was adapted for both Broadway and the Hollywood screen. Tanner was born in Chicago in 1921 but grew up, unhappily, in Evanston. In his day he was one of the country’s more popular comic writers, a ?? of camp; at one point he had three novels on the New York Times bestsellers list at once.
In his private life Tanner was a closeted gay and an inveterate poseur whose life was worth a novel in its own right. (Late in life he became a butler.) His work is uneven, but at his best Tanner was one of the very few Chicagoland writers since the days of Dunne and Hecht who was really funny; his saucy comedies of manners make him a major minor writer.
Hemingway might have felt obliged to flee Oak Park, but more mature writers have found it a congenial spot. No plaque attests to it, but newpaper-man-playwright Charles MacArthur settled in Oak Park briefly as a 17-year-old recently ecaped from Scarnton, PA; he worked for a local newspaper and roomed in the Frank Lloyd Wright house during the time when the architect’s abandoned wife was obliged to convert the upstairs into rental apartments.
Oak Park also was the adult home to two men who were among the 20th century’s more widely read authors, of very different kinds. For 25 years the Rev. William Eleazar Barton presided at the First Congregational Church when he was not churning out sermons, church manuals, and parables that found many readers of Christian works. (Barton once attributed Christ’s success to the fact that he was, while resident in Bethany, a suburbanite.) But Barton is also remembered by a larger world for his equally profuse writings on Abraham Lincoln. Barton published 13 books on the Great Emancipator; his 1925 two-volume biography was for a time considered important, although it is little read today. He also found time to instruct the world on women, God, books, Walt Whitman, and (in 1923) Chicago in books that found a wide readership in the 1920s.
Barton was present in Oak Park in the first quarter of the 20th century, and thus shared that precinct with another prolific popular biographer—Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan. Burroughs lived in Oak Park for a year in 1910 but had to give it up and move in with his wife’s family in the city. Tarzan hit it big, and by 1914 Burroughs could afford to move back to Oak Park, to a proper house on Augusta in 1914, the first of the Burroughs’ three houses there. Burroughs wrote 14 novels as an Oak Parker before leaving in 1919.
Hemingway and Burroughs lived in Oak Park at the same time, just after the turn of the 20th century. In his 1999 bio, The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, author John Taliaferro recalls the moment in 1941 when Burroughs, in Hawaii in 1941, found himself in the same restaurant with Hemingway, then at his peak as an author and a celebrity; Burroughs refused entreaties to introduce himself, believing “that they were in fact oceans apart."
Burroughs’ hero even more than his popular success made him not quite respectable in the eyes of Oak Park’s starchier citizens. (Oak Park, after all, was long a town in which even Roman Catholics were considered dangerously primitive beings.) It is a less stuffy place than it used to be, and just as Oak Park has forgiven Hemingway his being a bad man it has forgiven Burroughs for being a bad writer. Plaques now adorn some of the houses in which Burroughs lived and worked.
Suburbs were settings for books as well as writers. The region’s fiction writers—usually former residents, disaffected or nostalgic by turns—have produced a well-stocked library of minor works; one such work is Half Gods, by Lynn Montross, about the fictional town of Willow Ridge. Few other Chicagoland towns have not been chronicled at least once, usually under a made-up name—itself a very suburban sort of propriety. Jane Hamilton set her novel, The Short Story Of a Prince, in an Oak Park disguised as Oak Ridge. Lombard appears in Green Valley, by Katharine Reynolds, and Evanston was dressed up as Elmwood in Yesterday's Children by LaMar Warrick. So Big, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1925 for Edna Ferber, is the story of an orphaned Chicago woman who starts a new life as a school teacher in High Prairie, Illinois, a Cook County community of Dutch truck gardeners that is better known, at least locally, as South Holland.
One kind of novel that is a natural for a suburban setting is the coming-of-age story. Chicago’s suburbs are filled with bright young things with good educations who were raised to believe that they are the most important thing in the world. Such accounts are legion, and some of them are good. Waukegan’s Ray Bradbury became famous for his science fiction tales, but in 1957 he published Dandelion Wine, a novel about a 12-year-old boy from a fictionalized Waukegan and 1962’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, the latter a gripping novel about two 13-year-old boys who must save the town (“Green Town”) from a diabolical carnival. (Bradbury Park in Waukegan stands just three blocks west of the public library near the Waukegan River ravines where the author played as a child.) Among the better recent ones was The Great Pretender by James Atlas, which recalls growing up Jewish in 1960s Evanston, and Rich Cohen’s memoir of youth in Libertyville, Lake Effect, which earned much praise when it came out in 2002.
The queen of the coming-of-age story is Rosamond Du Jardin. Du Jardin is one of those authors who must be described as beloved. Born on Illinois’s old Grand Prairie near Tuscola in 1902, du Jardin moved to Chicago at two and there attended public schools. Married, she lived in Glen Ellyn in the 1950s before moving on to Bloomingdale in 1956. She wrote 17 very popular novels about and for teens. Several of them, such as Practically Seventeen (1949) and its sequels, were set in the made-up Chicago suburb she called Edgewood.
As happened to the authors inspired by the revolt against the village in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Illinois, the Chicago suburbs have been the grit to the writer’s oyster. Hemingway comes to mind, of course. So does Peter Devries, the George Ade of the upscale suburbs and perhaps Illinois’s pre-eminent modern literary humorist, DeVries was born in 1910 in Chicago and raised in a strict household that was suburban in its repression, its decorum, and its evasions. After odd-jobbing during the Depression, DeVries ended up an editor at the famous Poetry magazine in 1938; after four years he went on to The New Yorker, where he found fame.
Before he died in 1993 he published some two dozen novels, books that, perhaps inevitably, deal with the adventures of men who, as critic William R. Higgins put it, “have ventured into a moral wilderness of urban society after a strict upbringing.” In his prime was compared to Wilde, Wodehouse, and the early, funny Waugh. DeVries set some of his stories in his home state—the hero, more or less, of Consenting Adults is Ted Peachum of the fictional Pocock, Illinois—but the real setting for his stories was the treacherous landscape of the suburban mind. His persistent themes were the difficulties of marriage and of religion, which pose similar dilemmas to the faithful.
If the novel of the down-and-outs is the staple of Chicago fiction, Chicagoland’s suburban literature tends to chronicle the lives of the rich, the nearly rich, and the would-be rich. The travails of life on the North Shore—usually bored housewives, frustrated, slightly confused men, and alienated youths—has sustained many novels, some of them worth reading. Hidden Fire, by Sherman Baker is one, as is The Past and Present of Solomon Sorge by Judith Barnard Papier. The country club set comes in for a good scolding in Country Club People, by Margaret Culkin Banning.
Oak Park never was mentioned in Hemingway’s work, but lesser writers have used it. Chicagoan Meyer Levin, who took up the story of preteen geniuses in Compulsion, turned to a real one in 1981 in The Architect, a fictionalized life of the young Frank Lloyd Wright in which Oak Park figures rather as a disapproving auntie. Ordinary People, the 1976 surprise best-seller on which the Oscar-winning film of 1980 was based, was set in Lake Forest by author Judith Guest, although she is from the Detroit equivalent, and indeed the real locale of the story is class, not place. (Many Lake Forest residents no doubt were irked to have it suggested that any Lake Forestan might be described as ordinary people.) Ralph Mcinerny’s Father Dowling of St. Hilary's Church in Fox River is the hero of thirteen detective novels and four novellas from the 1970s and ‘80s that make life in that part of Chicagoland sound much more exciting than it is.
Such works are usually interesting to the extent the one is interested in the towns in which they are set, but collectively they are constitute a fascinating, of not always reliable social history. Stories about suburbs in the 1890s for example recall the time when the suburbs still shone with the promise of the ideal. One such books is Temperamental Henry: An Episodic History of the Early Life and the Young Loves of Henry Calverly, 3rd, by Samuel Merwin, set in the extremely made-up Chicago suburb of Sunbury in the days before the Pullman strike, before during the early 1890s.
The suburban life has not often inspired poetry of quality—no “city of padded shoulders” here. Typical is “A Grayslake Poem,” in which Adolphus Chard gave the world what is perhaps the quintessential paean to suburban life. It was published in the Grayslake Times in 1911, from which we will offer only this tantalizing fragment:
Everything is up to date,
Electric lights and things to mate
Surrounded by lakes and fields so fair,
Better go and locate there.
One of the rare happy exceptions is the work of Dave Etter, such as his “The 7:23 To Chicago:”
Another train from the bedroom towns
crams through iron jaws of the shed.
Stooped commuters with paper hearts
jiggle their dull and dollar eyes.
Stone-fisted towers wear smoke hats
and cough in the faces of bank clerks.
And I, nagged into a reg-u-lar job,
hear pool balls clicking in my head.
In his 20s, Etter began to make a living as an editor for various Chicagoland publishing houses, but his life was made in what is today the far western suburb of Elburn, in Kane County. (Scholar James T. Jones once noted perceptively that Etter settled into Elburn as a convert settles into a new religion.) Etter's chef d'oeuvre is Alliance, Illinois. This popular work appeared first in 1978 and was expanded in 1983; the work consists of approximately two hundred monologues spoken by townspeople a la Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Etter has often been praised as the successor to Masters, Lindsay, and Sandburg as the pre-eminent poet of Illinois, although it may be more accurate (and scarcely less complimentary) to compare him to “Prairie Home Companion’s” Garrison Keillor.
A Talent for Minor Forms
The term “writer” is usually taken to mean the more exalted forms of literary expression—the poem, the play, the novel. But while Chicago has spawned writers adept at each, most of its best writing is the work of artisans rather than artists who work in not-quite-respectable literary forms: the newspaper column (Royko, Dooley), the sports page (Lardner), the screenplay (Hecht and David Mamet), the casual essay (Joseph Epstein), the oral history (Terkel), letters (Hecht again), the reformist screed (Thorstein Veblen), memoirs (Margaret Anderson’s My Thirty Years’ War), even the advice column (the Lederer sisters, “Dear Abby” and “Ann Landers,” are the Brontes of the advice columnists).
Autobiography is a form of fiction in the view of most historians (and the more honest of autobiographers). Chicagoans have given the world several good ones. John Hallwas, in A Readers Guide, calls Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910) a classic of what might be called the coming-of-age biography which traces the evolution of the social conscience of her era. The city figures as a central character in the life stories of many other Chicagoans who led interesting lives; among the better accounts are Floyd Dell’s Homecoming (1933), Harriet Monroe’s A Poet’s Life (1938), and Ben Hecht’s A Child of the Century (1954).Two of the city’s most famous architects, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, also authored autobiographies when the building business was slow. Sullivan’s The Autobiography of an Idea (1924) and Wright’s An Autobiography (1932) are full of nonsense, but are vividly written claims on behalf of the Artist against the vulgar and the stupid.
A test of the comprehensiveness of any literary guide is whether it lists among the great Chicago books The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). The author was Thorstein Veblen, who from 1892 to 1906 taught political economy at the University of Chicago. The city has produced many a classic of social criticism, but few have much literary merit. Veblen’s book is a classic of American economics that turned the phrase “conspicuous consumption” into a sociological commonplace. It is a measure of the peculiar personality of the book that to this day no one is quite certain whether it was in reality a social satire in the guise of economic analysis. (Quite sane critics liken the book to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.) That Leisure Class is funny—and more important, clearly meant to be funny—is the more remarkable considering that social scientists manage to amuse only inadvertently.
Another comic sociologist of a very different kind was Leo Rosten, author of The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, a memoir of his time as a teacher of English, published under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross. Rosten was the son of Polish emigrants who came to the West Side when he was three. He would write, "Chicago must bear the responsibility for my misguided childhood; it was there I spent my grammar school days reading Frank Merriwell and Rabelais.”
Chicagoland would not seem to offer much opportunity for the would-be nature writer, but what there was exploited beautifully by Donald Culross Peattie, son of the novelist and Tribune literary critic Elia Peattie. Born in 1898, Peattie grew up in Windsor Park, then a Chicago suburb on the South Shore, and was schooled at University High School and the University of Chicago. After sojourns on the East Coast and in the south of France, he wed Louise Redfield, herself a successful writer of light fiction, and the pair settled for three years at her family’s estate, Kennicott’s Grove in Glenview. Together they wrote an account of the sojourn, An Almanac for Moderns (1935). This minor classic of its kind offered short philosophic essays on nature for each day of the year. (Redfield also wrote a book about The Grove—a novel titled American Acres, which came out in 1936.) The Almanac did not exhaust what Peattie knew about the Grove. In 1938 he published A Prairie Grove, which he called "the biography of an American acre," and which was in fact a fictionalized account of human life at The Grove. (The Grove is today a National Historic Landmark.) Peattie was one of those rare nature writers with the soul of a poet and the trained mind of a scientist (he trained as a botanist at Harvard) which keeps work grounded in every sense so that lyricism does not float off the page.
Nature writing is one of the few genres not attempted by Evanston’s Garry Wills. Some writers excite envy in colleagues. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, social critic, and Catholic commentator Garry Wills inspires admiration. Borrowing from recent reviews, one learns that the “seemingly inexhaustible” “word warrior“ Wills is “erudite but never starchy,” and writes so well about such a range of topics that he deserves to be called a “Renaissance man.”
The real home of the city best writers has been not the literary salon, the café, or the garret but the newsroom. Most of its good novelists and poets apprenticed as newspaper reporters and editors, an experience that informed their world view and put steel in their writing muscles. (The commute between the worlds of journalism and bohemia was much shorter than it is today, when journalists are expected to have college degrees and show up for work on time and sober.) In the golden years of the Chicago press, there were a lot of papers and they fought for readers, which circumstances for a happy few years resulted in talented people trying to outdo each other for the attention of readers. The city itself, then in its bumptious youth, offered a great story.
Of Chicago’s eight dailies in the early years of the 20th century, the Tribune was already the largest. At one point that paper’s staff included Ring Lardner, city editor Walter Howey (model for Walter Burns in Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page), Finley Peter Dunne (contributing a Sunday “Mr. Dooley” piece) and art columnist Harriet Monroe. Henry Regnery, in his 1993 memoir, Creative Chicago, recalled that Henry Justin Smith of The Daily News used to instruct his reporters to read Balzac in order to master their craft. (Publishers, then as now, are another matter; in Homecoming, Floyd Dell remembered. “All of us were going to write novels. It was to us a way of escape from the essentially humiliating situation of being, as newspapermen, the hired hands of ignorant, mean and base employers.”)
So intimate was the relation between the local literary and journalistic communities that some historians (David Lowe is one) suggest that the Chicago renaissance died in part because of changes in the newspaper business. “The cut-throat competition brought on by the ‘yellow journalism’ of William Randolph Hearst’s Evening American and Herald & Examiner,” wrote Lowe in Lost Chicago, “ultimately absorbed many of the fine old papers.”
While it lasted, journalism’s literary spring produced many a flower. Of the 35 Chicago writers whose names grace the State Library in Springfield, for example, six of them spent time as reporters, editors, and/or columnists for the papers—Ade, Lardner, Field, Sandburg, Hecht, and Dunne. Nor are these eminences the only literary achievers to do time in Chicago’s press corps. Bloomingtonian Paul Scott Mowrer was a creditable poet; having moved to Chicago with his family when he in the sixth grade, in 1905, Mowrer began a long career at the Chicago Daily News as reporter, diplomatic correspondent (work that that earned him a Pulitzer Prize), political analyst, and editor. Kurt Vonnegut studied anthropology at the University of Chicago after World War II while he worked as a police reporter for the Chicago News Bureau. It was excellent training for a novelist-to-be. “I could do at City News what I can’t do now,” Vonnegut recalled in 1995, “ which is walk into any part of town anywhere and start talking to people about their lives.”
The late nineteenth century, that last era before the advent of the popular radio comics, people got their humor from newspaper humorists. The Midwest had many adepts in the art but Chicago—a city with the most papers, the most readers, and, arguably, the most things to make fun of—had three of the best. The first was Eugene Field, author in the 1880s of the “Sharps and Flats” column in the Chicago Daily News (later the Record) and the city’s first nationally famous newspaper humorist. His work is merely amusing and little read today. Not so Finley Peter Dunne, whose columns made him the most famous newspaper humorist in America by the end of the nineteenth century. His immortal Mr. Dooley was born in 1893. Never was a bartender more generous than Dooley was to Dunne; the former’s monologues filled several books from 1898 to 1919.
Field and Dunne drew on the news of the day. George Ade made his up—the distinction was often slight, admittedly. His genially satiric “Stories of the Streets and Town” took various forms, from the short story and the fable to the dialogue, that were used to reveal the lives of a gallery of characters—types, really—that became as familiar to Chicagoans of the day as sitcom characters are today. (Ade’s Pink Marsh is considered—by white people anyway—the first successful literary treatment of what was then known as the Northern Negro.) Ade also authored a series of “fables in slang,” loose adaptations of Aesop’s fables as told in the Midwestern slang of the day; collected and published in book form beginning in 1899, they made Ade famous and rich. The originator of the Ade-ian humorous vignette may no longer be read, but Ade’s ghost hovers over the keyboards of subsequent generations of newspaper humorists and fabulists; Mike Royko’s Slats Grobnik, for example, was a Polish Pink Marsh.
Much unites the Indianan Ade and the Irish American Dunne. For one thing (as the Cambridge History of English and American Literature put it), Ade’s humor “bears the same relation toward social things that Mr. Dooley’s political vein bears toward national politics.” The two authors both took vernacular speech (rural Midwest in Ade’s case, Chicago Irish in Dunne’s) and gave it literary form. They thus served as translators of their people for a wider world, much the way comics who came out of the Yiddish clubs of the 1950s translated the world of the Catskills and the synagogue for white-bread Americans sitting at home watching TV.
Unlike Ade and Dunne, Ring Lardner gave readers imagined characters, not only types. Like them, he drew on his experience of Chicago as a newspaperman, specifically as a sports reporter on the Chicago Inter-Ocean. Lardner’s collection of short stories published in 1916, You Know Me, Al, revealed him as a maser of the form; such works as Haircut and Alibi Ike are staples of the anthologies even today.
Rallying Points for Authors: The Literary Magazine in Chicago
The mere presence of writers does not make for a literary culture. One must have readers and publishers, critics and journals. The first literary journal published in Chicago came out in 1844, and since then literally hundreds have been published. They were (and are) more popular among editors and publishers than readers. A few lingered—The Chicago Ledger began in 1873 and lasted until the middle 1930s—but few lasted more than a few issues.
In 1880, book publisher McClurg & Co. began the Dial. The firm meant the sheet to promote books (not excluding their books, of course) as products, not literature as Art, but to give it credibility among the literati of the day, they hired Francis Fisher Browne as editor. The original The Dial had been the literary organ of the Transcendental Movement under such editors as Margaret fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson; the adoption of the name was not the only way in which Chicago literateurs of the genteel sort imitated their betters from back East. The Dial proved a rallying point for authors for more than 30 years. In its heyday around the turn of the century—it was set free of McClurg’s in 1892—it was the New York Review of Books of its day.
The Chicago literary renaissance gave people something to read about, and the acme of the literary journal in Chicago was reached in those days when Poetry magazine, the Friday Literary supplement, and the Little Review were in print. Poetry, a Magazine of Verse appeared in 1912—a date that ought to be as familiar in the history of the city as the Great Fire or the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. The young Robert Fitzgerald, reared in Springfield and destined for career as a translator and teacher of national renown, had been encouraged by his fellow townsman Vachel Lindsay to send some poems to Poetry. A letter of acceptance led to an invitation to lunch at Poetry’s office at 232 East Erie Street; there he met a “tiny and cordial but rather grim lady in dark garments.” That was the proprietor, Harriet Monroe. Convent-schooled, her real education was in her father’s library. Like so many women of generation, she had ambitions — beyond the possibilities open to her. Her bookish training led her to a resolve to become a great writer. In Chicago she had to freelance as a journalist to make ends meet; her frustration at trying to live on what a poet could make spurred her to do well by this much-abused minority.
The 50-ish Monroe had in mind to put “poems of modern significance” before Chicago readers. By the second issue Monroe was offering to readers William Butler Yeats, an anti-social poem by the radical-minded John Reed, and Vachel Lindsay’s “General William Booth Enters Heaven.” Later, Carl Sandburg introduced himself to the world as poet with the publication in Poetry of Chicago Poems. By the time she died in 1936 Monroe would also publish Ezra Pound, John Masefield, Richard Aldington, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Amy Lowell, and William Carlos Williams; the fact that T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” first saw print, in 1915, in Chicago still astounds.
Accounts from the time suggests her magazine’s atmosphere was rather like the prim Hull House, and Monroe indeed, took an attitude toward her ragged, sometimes unhinged charges that the Addamses took toward unwashed immigrants who were scarcely less informed about big city ways. (Monroe, as it happened, lived briefly at Hull House.) No theme, no verse form, no metaphor was as daring as her promise to pay contributors what their work was worth. (She herself worked for no salary for at first, and for token pay thereafter.)
It was, perforce, a philanthropic enterprise, sustained by donations solicited by Monroe from her comfortably fixed friends. She asked one hundred prominent Chicago business leaders to pony up fifty dollars a year in advance for a five-year subscription—to get capital needed to start a new poetry mag. Bertha Palmer and Mrs. Samuel Insull, Kate Sturges Buckingham, and Edith Rockefeller McCormick were among the rich Chicagoans who financially guaranteed Monroe’s Poetry. (Some of their names live on in several annual prizes for poets such as the Helen Haire Levinson Prize.)
No poetry magazine is going to make money, and it relied on patrons to the end. In the 1950s for example negotiate the (one reason why verse is, in effect, subsidized by George Starbuck, recalling the magazine when Henry Rago ran it [1955–69]:
One . . . saw what it took out of a man to be constantly cosseting patrons. In those days, Ellen Borden Stevenson was Poetry’s big, difficult patron. She was Mrs. Adlai Stevenson, and was one of the heirs and heiresses of Borden’s milk. She would insist on being at the center of poetry reading evenings, and she was always promising more subvention—little paychecks, and things like that—which she would never get around to making good on. It was very definitely an old-fashioned kind of social lionizing that she wanted to do. Henry Rago had to praise her at every turn; we [contributing] twerps didn’t.
The fact of a serious magazine devoted to verse was astonishing in turn-of-the-century Chicago; to expect it to be good as well would have been mean. It is universally praised in local histories of the Renaissance, but outsiders are occasionally more skeptical. Alfred Kazin for example has observed that “It was really quite timid.” Many complained (among them Ezra Pound, her European editor) that Monroe was less receptive to the new modernist poets such as Eliot, whose work would eclipse that of the Illinois triumvirate of Sandburg, Masters, and Lindsay.
Poetry has been described as the house organ of the Chicago Renaissance. Like the Dial and the Little Review, Poetry did not leave Chicago when the Renaissance faded but like its fellow magazines it became national in its focus, there no longer being enough going on in Chicago to fill it. Virtually none of the Chicago poets were native Chicagoans, and only Sandburg really made the city his subject. (That is not to say that Chicagoans did not aspire to the ranks of Wordsworth and Coleridge. First Ward alderman Bathhouse John Coughlin thought being a poet was so elevating that he surreptitiously hired a reporter to write up verse that he performed in the City Council; such titles as "She Sleeps by the Drainage Canal" and "They’re Tearing Up Clark Street Again" attest to the range if not the flavor of the work.)
By 1926, American Mercury was complaining that the magazine “was not the Poetry of old.” By then all the city’s finer poets had left or no longer were creating great work. Come the Depression, it was kept from going under only when the Carnegie Foundation threw Monroe a $100,000 life raft.
Unlike most such artifacts of the era, however, Poetry survives, indeed has never missed an issue in 90 years. (Perhaps just as remarkable, it never left Chicago.) Under a succession of editors—Karl Shapiro, John Frederick Nims, and Daryl Hine, George Dillon—who were fine poets themselves, what had been a radical new voice became the organ for what has been called "official verse culture" in the U.S.
Monroe’s Poetry contrasted interesting with another literary journal of the Renaissance: The Little Review which Margaret Anderson started up in Chicago in 1914, two years after Poetry. The Dial also continued to publish during the Renaissance years, but its day had passed. Margaret Anderson for example worked for the publisher of The Dial but found it prudish for her tastes—Browne decried Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as immoral, while Anderson thought it was swell—and it was her frustration with its staid ways that inspired her to start her own literary magazine, The Little Review. (The Dial, out of step with the times, moved to New York in 1918, where it was home to stellar editors and contributors until 1929.)
It might be noted here that History makes movements seem much tidier than they really were. The artistic community of Chicago was never large, and inevitably the two factions—genteel and bohemian—mingled, each abetting the other against the common foe, the philistines. In 1912, for example, Fuller helped his old childhood acquaintance Harriet Monroe launch Poetry, serving as an astute editor and proofreader. There were many such accommodations.
The Little Review was altogether more experimental than Poetry, more committed to the new in Art, Monroe started her magazine to educate public taste, Anderson to flout it. The talents she attracted included (to list only the best known) Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Wyndham Lewis, Edgar Lee Masters, Gertrude Stein, Maxwell Bodenheim, T. S. Eliot, Djuna Barnes, Jane Heap, Amy Lowell, Theodore Dreiser, Jean Cocteau.
Anderson was the opposite of the prim Monroe; a dangerously “modern” woman and a flamboyant lesbian. (Some regard a 1915 article by Anderson to have been the first defense of same-sex love published by an American lesbian.) Anderson would later be prosecuted in 1921 under obscenity statutes for publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses—not something that Miss Monroe, a generation older, is likely to have done.
Bohemians then as now tend to come from that class that can afford poverty, and Anderson was a cosseted Indianan. As someone once described her, affectionately but astutely, Margaret was only another flighty society girl who was showing off but she showed off in irresistible style. Ben Hecht was a colleague, contributor, and admirer. (“First there was Mrs O’Leary’s Cow,” he noted about her impact on arrival, ‘and then there was Margaret.”) He was to recall the magazine as “fifty pages of partly comprehensible prose and unrhymed poetry brave with dots, in which the bourgeoisie took the count every month. Who were the bourgeoisie? Anybody who didn’t read the Little Review.”
Anderson came to Chicago in 1908 because it was exciting, and left it, in 1916, when it no longer was. "I went to a symphony concert. Coming back to the Fine Arts Building I met Ben Hecht. After you have gone, he announced, I'm going to have an electric sign put across this building: 'Where is Athens now?'" In 1917 Anderson took herself and the magazine to New York’s Greenwich village, then Paris’s Left Bank.
Poetry was to become famous for offering a platform for new voices in verse, the Little Review for its uncompromising advocacy of the aggressively new. But there was a third journal published in Chicago that predated these that had more influence, and did more to persuade a larger nation that Chicago was more to it than high buildings and low morals. Friday Literary Review was started in 1905 as a supplement to the tony Chicago Journal, probably the only such supplement published outside New York and certainly the most influential. Edited at first by Frank and then by Floyd Dell, The Review was in such demand that it was soon being sold separately, and was the model for literary magazines to this day. (Readers may consider the absence today of anything like the FLR in deciding whether history is progressive.)
Since those halcyon days, only one literary journal out of Chicago has attracted the attention of cognoscenti nationwide. TriQuarterly , founded at Northwestern University in 1964, is widely admired by such august authorities as the New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement of London, and has introduced such talents as Joyce Carol Oates and Amy Hempel.
While the city produced writers and works, and a bit of a buzz, did not produce readers enough to sustain local publishing, and locals not compete with New York and Boston. It has always had respectable houses of middling size committed to general trade but its publishing houses, like most of writers, exist on the margins of the industry. One such is the University of Chicago Press which since its founding in 1891 has grown to be the largest university press in the U.S.
Chicago As Literary Town
Chicago plainly values its reputation as a literary town. If one knew it only from books, as millions did, Chicago’s population in the late 1800s consisted wholly of plucky newsboys, private dicks, dishonored small town girls, and corrupt factory owners and crusading reformers—just as millions of later generation who knew it only from newsreels and film consisted wholly of gangsters and cigar-stomping pols, and those who knew it from TV knew it as brick-throwing bigots, baton-wielding cops, and rioting poor. None of these Chicagos is inaccurate, only incomplete. The real city was duller and dumber, and it is no wonder that even its residents prefer the pretend one.
Just as capitalists found that it was almost impossible to not make money in Chicago between the civil War and World War I, so novelists found it almost impossible to not write compelling tales of greed, conflict, injustice, power. “The social conflicts of the 1880s and ‘90s,” wrote critic Robert Bray, “excruciating though they were to the country, were literary godsends to writers who were thus spared the labor, unnatural to realists, of inventing their subjects.”
Saul Bellow in a 9177 lecture, recalled the city of his youth:
Chicago, a city of Italians, Hungarians, Poles, blacks just up from the South, Irish stockyard workers and politicians, German mechanics, Swedish cabinetmakers, Jewish garment workers, Greek cooks, Iowa dirt farmers, and Hoosier small-town storekeepers, a city of foreigners, roughnecks, and working stiffs. Anyone might become a prospector and strike it rich, find the gold of art under the el tracks.
But that moment, when both the city and the literature were being invented, was a long time ago. Many factors explain why Chicago never developed a permanent literary culture remains as ill-adapted to the city by the lake a palm trees. It is a Midwestern city, much of its population of every is ill at ease with English, and with the traditions of English-language literature as a place to live for editors, agents, and publishers it offers not the excitement of New York or the pleasures of the West Coast.
Then there is the city’s reflexive prudishness. Only because so few Chicagoans read books were attempts to censor the printed word were not as diligent as the fight to control stage and screen. Many of the people who did read were influential, however, and while there was no official mechanism for approving books, as there was for movies, these unofficial guardians of the public had ways to make their views known. Theodore Dreiser may have been hailed as a major literary artist at the turn of the 20th century by the likes of Mencken for his Sister Carrie, but his adopted city did not agree. Margaret Anderson was fired as a book reviewer for a small Presbyterian magazine published in Chicago called Interior when she reviewed a Dreiser book without once mentioning the word “immoral.” (To be fair, it should be noted that Chicago was not alone in its disapproval of the Indiana bard; Dreiser's New York publisher tried to cancel the contract to publish the book in 1900; forced to print it, the publisher did not advertise or distribute it.)
A generation later, Nelson Algren 1942 novel, Never Come Morning was rather franker about the city’s first and second generation Polish immigrants than they liked; the Polish Roman Catholic Union declared it immoral and persuaded city officials to ban the book from the Chicago Public Library.
Much has been made of the Chicago Renaissance, indeed too much by local boosters. The era in which Chicagoland’s most fabled writers thrived is now distant, their lives and careers historical data, their books more honored than read, but their work gives the city’s a cachet that still matters, at least to Chicagoans. However, there has been only one serious writer of national consequence based in Chicago for 80 years, Saul Bellow, and as the new century dawned he was soon to be dead. These days, Illinois’s exciting new writers are people like Richard Powers and David Foster Wallace who are Downstaters—Downstaters who, unlike Lindsay and Masters and Sandburg and even Maxwell, have nothing to do with Chicago.
Anyone who has known one will attest that the idea of a writer posing as the model for a heroic statue of the traditional kind is absurd, which may explain why in Chicago, whose parks seem to have more statues that drinking fountains, so few honor writers. Most of the monuments to the literati it does have recall other cities’ writers, although Robert Burns (Garfield Park), Fritz Reuter (Humboldt Park), Hans Christian Andersen, Goethe, Schiller, and Shakespeare (Lincoln) are memorialized less as literary achievers than as heroes of this or that ethnic group. The Chicago scribblers memorialized in bronze can be counted on one finger—Eugene Field, in Lincoln Park.
The city has named various public facilities after writers of note, but even some of these are half-hearted compliments. In 1976, for instance, a Chicago park on Lincoln Avenue between Webster and Larabee was named to honor Frank Baum’s mythical land of Oz, the man who created it. The apartment at 1958 W. Evergreen in Wicker Park where Nelson Algren lived from 1959 to 1975 still stands; the street has been given the honorary name of Nelson Algren Avenue.
With more than 600 schools in its system, a few Chicago public schools were bound to be named after writers, if only by chance. As is the case with statues, most school naming commemorate non-Chicago writers. (Among them: Louisa May Alcott; Hans Christian Andersen, J. W. Von Goethe, Bret Harte, Langston Hughes, Washington Irving, Rudyard Kipling, Friedrick Von Schiller Mark Twain, and John Greenleaf Whittier.) Of the recognized Chicago writers, the name of only four have been put on Chicago public school facilities—Gwendolyn Brooks (College Prep. Academy),Willa Cather (2908 West Washington Boulevard), Eugene Field (Elementary, 7019 North Ashland Boulevard) and Lorraine Hansberry CPC, 4055 West Arthington Street. More local schools have been named for sports stars and industrialists than for writers. Writers tend to have awkward views on politics and social matters—one thinks of Sinclair, Hecht, Sandburg, Algren, Bellow—or live lives not thought to be good examples, such as Floyd Dell.
It is doubtful whether any city can sustain a thriving literary culture writing just for export. For Chicago to have great writers it needs great readers. Generally speaking, if Oprah didn’t like it, Chicago doesn’t want to read it unless it was written by such local lights as Scott Turow or Sara Paretsky—one reason why Chicago is on publishers’ ”C” tour for book pluggers.
Literature here succeeds to the extent it mimics other, more popular arts. One of the Poetry crowd, Mrs. William Vaughn Moody, opened a restaurant on Michigan Avenue called “The Petit Gourmet,” and here on certain “Poetry Nights,” the poets would come and recite their verses to diners who paid $1 for the privilege of hearing them. The money thus accrued would go to the poet who read. Those poetry nights morphed into today’s poetry slams, which owe as much to professional wrestling as it does to Calliope.
The Daleys, father and son, are representative of their city insofar as literary tastes. In 1975 Saul Bellow was awarded an award by the Midland Authors’ Society for my novel Herzog in a ceremony at City Hall. One of the reporters present impishly asked the mayor if he’d read the book. “I’ve looked into it,” said Daley, thick-skinned and staunch,” recalled Bellow. “Art is not the mayor’s dish.”
Richard Daley the Younger, for all his image as a Bridgeport tough guy, is imposing his own version of Chicago genteelism—all those flower boxes, and proclamations protecting songbirds, and the like. Typical is Daley’s enthusiasm for civic reading programs in which the whole population was invited to read, and talk about, a single work. In 2001 the first choice for the city’s One Book, One Chicago program was Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The city’s Library Commissioner explained that the hope was to bring people from many different backgrounds together—precisely the rationale, in the too-diverse 1890s, for the public museum.
The project was met with the same kind of scorn that has met most attempts to impose culture on Chicagoans. (One prominent New York City intellectual likened what he called “mass reading bees” to Chicken McNuggets.) Less remarked was the fact that the book chosen for the One Book, One Chicago program was not by a Chicagoan or about Chicago. ●