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When Chicago Was the Real Literary Capital of the United States

Chicago

In 1920, America’s leading literary critic, H. L. Mencken, took up the case of Chicago. In a piece for the London edition of the Nation, Mencken explains that the search for authentic American literature leads to the stockyards:

Find a writer who is indubitably an American in every pulse-beat, an American who has something new and peculiarly American to say and who says it in an unmistakably American way, and nine times out of ten you will find that he has some sort of connection with the gargantuan abattoir by Lake Michigan—that he was bred there, or got his start there, or passed through there in the days when he was young and tender.

It is, indeed, amazing how steadily a Chicago influence shows itself when the literary ancestry and training of present-day American writers are investigated. The brand of the sugar-cured ham seems to be upon all of them.

With characteristic hyperbole, Mencken claims that most American writers have had some formative experience in Chicago. “The Literary Capital of the United States,” he designates the city with the title of his essay. The piece is essentially a backhanded critique of New York, which Mencken calls a “second-hand European” city, rife with cosmopolitan judgment. Acid-tongued yet safe in Baltimore, Mencken kept his distance. “The gargantuan abattoir” and “the brand of the sugar-cured ham” refer to Chicago’s meatpacking operations. If American writers are a herd of cows awaiting slaughter—an attitude Mencken sometimes assumed—then almost all have been branded by Chicago.

The big question is what this brand might look like. Is there a dominant style, or guiding aesthetic, that characterizes Chicago literature? Mencken suggests that the brand has something to do with the newness of Chicago and its money. “The town is colossally rich; it is ever-changing; it yearns for distinction,” he writes. “The new-comers who pour in from the wheatlands want more than mere money; they want free play for their prairie energy; they seek more imaginative equivalent for the stupendous activity that they were bred to. It is thus a superb market for merchants of the new.” Arrivals into the city are like a posse of precocious originators, insisting that their literature equal the “stupendous activity” of their city. Chicago did not need to “make it new” because it was “the new.” Perhaps it simply needed to depict itself. This is one way of thinking about modernism in Chicago: rebellion is less evident in the literary styles of Chicago because it is more palpable through the ways that writers often uphold  a mirror as a means of social protest. The revolution was to speak straight.

Take a famous case to which Mencken’s language alludes: Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago,” a poem that decries the city for its industrial brutality, corruption, and filth—in blunt language that has no truck with decorum. “Hog Butcher for the World,” the poem opens, setting the city as the place where the bloodiest business gets done. “City of the Big Shoulders” is all strength, not intellect or conscience. Chicago is a list of occupations, a place of work: “Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” The poem was wildly controversial in 1916 when Monroe published it in Poetry—Sandburg himself was still unknown but for his reporting on labor and politics in the Chicago newspapers and the socialist press. Yet more than one hundred years later, these lines have become repurposed to describe almost anything related to Chicago, especially if you can sell it.

The poem seems to revel in the city’s reckless power, but revel it does. Once a means of critique, Sandburg’s language unwittingly has become great stuff for civic and commercial boosters. No doubt Sandburg’s larger influence has been eclipsed by his high modernist peers and by the formalist standards that dominated literary criticism in midcentury America. The severe judgment of Sandburg’s compatriot William Carlos Williams did not help. Reviewing Sandburg’s 1951 Complete Poems, Williams criticizes Sandburg for breaking down language to utter “formlessness” without building it back up. Sandburg’s seeming lack of discipline, his undoing of poetic form, lacked coherence of thought.

Williams himself was on a search for poetic structure, imagining new models to replace what he and other modernist poets had demolished. Formlessness hit close to home. It was the very risk that Williams took with his epic experiment Paterson, still unfinished, a poem that drew on distinctly local topographies and American vernaculars and included large sections of prose. Of course, there is a grain of truth to Williams’s critique, though it might be more sympathetically understood: Sandburg wrote for the disenfranchised masses, in a plainspoken language that people would understand. Sandburg forged an accessible modernism that was partly informed by his leftist political impulses. He not only wanted to write about the working classes but also wanted to be read by them.

With this intention, Sandburg had passionate followers—then and now. Consider Sherwood Anderson’s 1918 “Song of Industrial America,” also first published in Poetry. Like Sandburg’s “Chicago,” Anderson’s poem is powerful for its social critique, not for its formal sophistication or its new poetic technique. It is a poem that eerily anticipates themes of T. S. Eliot’s watershed poem The Waste Land (1922) but without Eliot’s masterful play with voice, allusion, and pastiche. A disembodied speaker wanders through an urban pastoral, seeking spiritual fulfillment. Near despair, he declaims: “You know my city, Chicago triumphant—factories and marts and the roar of machines—horrible, terrible, ugly and brutal.”” The city threatens the spirit and the cohesion of self and song: “Can a singer arise and sing in this smoke and grime? Can he keep his throat clear? Can his courage survive?” These questions may have been relevant to any artist struggling in a big city, but Chicago made them urgent: industrialism was everywhere, visible and oppressive.

In New York, capitalism was to some extent cleaner. When Wright first visited New York, in 1935, he was startled by what he didn’t see: “We came in along the Hudson River and I stared at the sweep of clean-kept homes and grounds. But where was the smoke pall? The soot? Grain elevators? Factories? Stack-pipes?”55 It was not Chicago, where the only way to succeed was to rise above the industrial din, creating an insistent song or “chant,” to use Anderson’s word. Often, the ease with which readers understood this song was crucial to its purpose. To this end, the Chicago brand—or what we might call a “Chicago style”—is not a coherent aesthetic category but rather the result of a shared desire among writers to reach the common reader.

Journalism was a good training ground, a daily discourse of words composed under deadline. Nearly every writer in Chicago had some experience with newspapers. In the early twentieth century, Chicago was dominated by the Chicago Tribune, Sun, and Times and Daily News, as well as the weekly Defender. Neighborhood presses produced numerous smaller newspapers, weeklies, and publications. Paradoxically, the ephemeral work of writing for the newspapers may have been the most stable element of Chicago’s literary scene, in a city where many venues—bookstores, writing groups, galleries, salons—sometimes lasted only a few years and rarely more than a decade. Other modernist metropoles like New York, London, and Paris were also centers of journalistic culture, but Chicago’s newspapers functioned as an incubator for the literary when there were not always other sites. A few Chicago writers perfected journalism as a durable art, including the turn-of-the-century columns of humorist George Ade and also Finley Peter Dunne, whose “Mr. Dooley” column dished political satire in Irish American vernacular. Perhaps the best material came from Ben Hecht, who captured Chicago’s multitudinous array like a young urban flaneur—from jazz age corruption to back-alley slums—in his 1921 vignettes for the Chicago Daily News, published in a collection titled A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago. To put it another way, journalism was not always modernism’s obvious fall guy: newspapers were not the commercial sell-out against which so-called real literary pursuits were measured.

Clear-eyed prose for a wide readership, with a touch of the journalistic: this is one trend amid the heterogeneity of Chicago’s modernist styles. By the 1930s, Richard Wright theorized that the ability to fashion language for a broad audience—not just a “talented tenth” affiliated with Harlem’s intellectual elite—was part of what made Chicago writing distinct. But Wright hardly meant that writers should be slaves to mercantile taste. Championing the idea that a writer must maintain “the autonomy of craft,” Wright also claimed a right to aesthetic sophistication. His work might be as finely worked as that of the modernist writers whom he most admired, from Marcel Proust to James Joyce to Gertrude Stein. Wright experimented with the formal dimensions of language while yet, in Native Son, committing himself to prose that would make plain Chicago’s material conditions. He wanted his readers to be shocked by the stark clarity of what they read but also to be dazzled by it. Wright’s social realism, as many critics would call his style, was essentially part of his modernism.

To identify realism as a dominant literary mode in Chicago is certainly to take writers on their own terms. It is also to understand the term as a form of praise, a sense of communal commitment to a style that they felt was distinctive to their city. In an envelope of letters that Gwendolyn Brooks saved from other writers, she appended a retrospective note to one that she received from Nelson Algren. Brooks writes: “I respected Nelson Algren as a Chicago pioneer. His realism was clear and exhaustive. He empathized with the poor and put-upon. The Algren eye was straight, sharp: compassionate but cannily assessing. So was the Algren heart.” Realism is thus loosely defined: “clear,” “exhaustive,” “straight,” “sharp.” It is a style with an ethics, a commitment to representing the poor without distorting or romanticizing their lives. Brooks could have been describing her own aesthetic sense. Longtime Chicago Tribune book critic Fanny Butcher praised the “unconventional, staccato” style of Brooks’s only work of prose, Maud Martha (1953), which aimed for a directness so severe that its sentences were “verbless or subjectless.” Brooks’s writing “is a real shock to parse-proud prose writers,” Butcher claims. “But it has an undeniable sparseness, a sharpness, and gives an effect not to be forgotten.” Butcher-on-Brooks is conspicuously similar to Brooks-on-Algren, though Algren and Brooks are very different kinds of writers. What is being described seems to be the relationship that a writer takes toward his or her subject and the effect of the work on a reader—not an actual literary style.

In 1941, Algren wrote to Wright, who had left in 1937, about the value of what he called “local realism.” Algren cast a gimlet eye on the literary culture of New York, including editors at Harper and Brothers, who were mulling over Wright’s recent work following the massive success of Native Son. 

It’s not difficult to understand the Harper mystification at local realism, distant as they are. It would be difficult to write any other way while living in Chicago, of course. Which is why I wouldn’t want to leave here so long as I have writing plans. I’d be afraid to become as mystified as Harper’s—or at least encounter difficulty in achieving realism. So when you feel yourself looking at the world through the veil of sophistication common to N.Y. writers, you’d better slip back here for six months or a year to recapture the actuality of Native Son.

More authentic, Chicago literature is not occluded by New York’s “veil of sophistication,” which presumably for Algren beautifies the real face of things. (Loving Chicago is “like loving a woman with a broken nose,” Algren writes in Chicago: City on the Make.) But Algren’s defense of Chicago is both charming and dubious. A work of literary realism is neither more real nor closer to reality than other literary styles. Realism may itself be a mode of mystification—to use Algren’s word—through which an imagined world sharpens a reader’s awareness of the world in which he or she lives. The great realists of the nineteenth century often set their stories in completely fictionalized worlds: Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester. Realism is not just fidelity to fact.

Of course, Algren was writing a letter, not defining literary categories. The frank tone that he takes with Wright—so full of machismo—is probably the best register of his realism, which is bound up in his idea of what it means to be a man. Men talk straight. Men are not ornate and flowery. Men get to the point. The claim to Chicago realism is also a claim to a masculine style, from Algren back through Wright, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and Carl Sandburg. In his next letter to Wright, Algren agrees that to write in Chicago is to engage in some sort of prizefight: “Everything in Chicago remains raw and bleeding, as you put it. I still have the feeling that it’s a more vital place to write than in N.Y. I like it better to live in too. However, I’d like to visit your effete Babylon for a week or two next winter.” If New York is an “effete Babylon”— rampant with Ivy League–educated intellectuals and editors at powerful publishing houses—then Chicago is the truer, more American city. It’s a familiar motif (remember Mencken), though not entirely accurate. After all, no place rivaled the University of Chicago for its love of all things highbrow and European.

But the “reality” of Chicago was a powerful idea for many writers, and an aesthetic cri de coeur to write with directness and immediacy. “Write one true sentence,” Hemingway would remind himself during bouts of writer’s block. “If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something,” Hemingway explains, “I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.” It would be going too far to say that Hemingway’s famously spare prose style proves him to be a Chicago writer. But certain affinities for unadorned clarity become evident when we cast Hemingway’s work in the context of other Chicago writers—especially the male writers, like Sandburg and Anderson, whom Hemingway met when he fled Oak Park in 1920 to live in Chicago. It is perhaps not surprising that Hemingway later became Algren’s great champion. Or rather, Hemingway imagined himself a boxing coach, standing in the corner.

Hemingway’s blurb for The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) was never used by Doubleday, though Algren apparently stuck Hemingway’s letter of congratulations to the door of his refrigerator. “This is a man writing and you should not read it if you cannot take a punch,” Hemingway wrote. “Mr. Algren can hit with both hands and move around and he will kill you if you are not awfully careful.” The myth created by these men was that Chicago writers went for the direct hit. “You”—the reader—had to be ready for it.

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From Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest MetropolisUsed with permission of Yale University Press. Copyright 2017 by Liesl Olson.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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