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Literary Cultures

 

 

 

Literary Cultures

Clippings on 20th Century Club
Between 1875 and 1893 Joseph Kirkland read 15 papers at meetings of the Chicago Literary Club. Not just a lone pioneer on Chicago's fledgling literary scene, Kirkland was one of several elite Chicagoans committed to “uplifting” the city so that it more closely resembled older, more established centers of learning and culture such as Boston and Philadelphia. The Contributors Club, the Little Room, the Cliff-Dwellers' Club, and the Society of Midland Authors, as well as literary journals like the Dial and America, strove in various ways to establish literature as a respectable civic art. Although some of these organizations remain active today, their mission to establish oases of learning and culture in Chicago's raw social climate belonged especially to the nineteenth century and paralleled the establishment of the city's great cultural institutions: the Art Institute, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Historical Society, and the John Crerar and Newberry Libraries. Yet after poet Harriet Monroe pressed for and received the commission to write the dedicatory poem at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, she discovered that belles lettres ranked low on the list of artistic forms that Chicago's elite were willing to support financially. At the high point in the city's cultural uplift, Monroe's “Columbian Ode” barely sold, and the poet used the unsold copies to fuel the stove in her bedroom. In a city dominated by economic interests and lacking in literary traditions, even the most genteel efforts to boost literature's cultural importance had limited influence.

Nevertheless, Chicago's literary societies offered writers, intellectuals, and artists a much-needed sense of community, and a vision of what an urban culture of letters could be. The most promising of these organizations was the Little Room. Founded in the early 1890s, the Little Room brought together the artistic and professional elite in a membership that included reformer Jane Addams, sculptor Lorado Taft, architects Allen B. and Irving K. Pond, dramatist Anna Morgan, painter Ralph Clarkson, illustrator and publisher Ralph Fletcher Seymour, and at least five writers of considerable note: George Ade, Henry Blake Fuller, Hamlin Garland, Harriet Monroe, and Edith Wyatt. Deriving their name from a short story by Madeline Wynne in which a room magically disappears and reappears, the Little Roomers gathered in the Auditorium Hotel and the Fine Arts Building for afternoon teas and midnight dramas, all the while fostering an atmosphere of aesthetic playfulness and serious intellectual engagement that lasted until the club's demise in 1931.

Hull House Dance Festival, c.1920s
During the first and most vital decade of its existence, the Little Room provided a forum for members to discuss social and aesthetic issues. Despite its trappings of privilege, the club did not simply promote art for art's sake. Chicago's expansive economy and commanding physical presence precluded aesthetic detachment and, like many other middle- and upper-class Chicagoans, some Little Roomers worried about the city's lack of social order, and expressed their concerns in writing. Henry Blake Fuller, who felt more at home in European capitals and regularly lamented Chicago's lack of cosmopolitan culture, criticized the city's economic culture in what many critics consider to be the first realistic Chicago novel, The Cliff-Dwellers (1893). In her role as cofounder of Hull House, Jane Addams wrote sympathetically of the need to Americanize Chicago's immigrants. Writing columns for News Record, Ade wondered about the place of small-town and rural migrants in the ethnic urban mix, while Wyatt, also reflecting on the relation between Chicago and its hinterland, dramatized middle-class family life in the city. Inasmuch as these writers endorsed the genteel notion that literature had a vital if not moral role to play in civic culture, their own writings evidence their affiliation with cultural worlds that existed apart from the leisured space of the Little Room.

For instance, by 1900, Hull House featured a theater and had become a center for less conventional literary work: lectures, workshops, and classes, which beginning in early 1890s were provided under the auspices of the University of Chicago extension program. Not only immigrants, or their children, but also a wide range of artists and intellectuals made Hull House a vital creative community. Women in particular dominated Chicago's settlements, and their vision of what Addams called the “civic family,” a culture of collaborative reform, pervaded Hull House. This perspective also informed novels about settlement work, like Elia Peattie's The Precipice (1914) and Clara Laughlin's “Just Folks” (1910). It also animated the 1912 establishment of the Little Theatre, an enterprise founded by English-born Maurice Browne, but guided by such women as Anna Morgan, Alice Gerstenberg, Mary Aldis, Lucy Monroe, and Browne's wife, Ellen Van Volkenburg. As home-focused novels like Edith Wyatt's True Love (1903) made explicit, Chicago literary women drew from their domestic experiences and imagined cultural alternatives to the models of individual accomplishment and economic success that male writers such as Theodore Dreiser typically emphasized in their writings about Chicago.

Ade, Artie, 1896 (cover)
The gritty realism that characterizes the work of Dreiser, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, and Studs Terkel, and which critics have dubbed the “Chicago School of Literature,” found its earliest expression not in literary societies, but in nineteenth-century newspapers. Beginning in the 1870s but especially in the 1890s, Chicago's large dailies nurtured a galaxy of talented reporters and promising writers. As part of the economic hurly-burly that was making the city internationally famous, Chicago's reporters attracted the recognition and readers that escaped Monroe's “Columbian Ode.” While engaged in the business of writing, Eugene Field, Finley Peter Dunne, Brand Whitlock, Ray Stannard Baker, William Payne, Opie Read, Theodore Dreiser, George Ade, and others assembled in newsrooms and saloons, creating a literary culture rooted in vernacular realism and shaped by the conventions of urban masculine subcultures. The Press Club grew out of these gendered work conditions, and its weekly lunch meetings enabled reporters to swap stories and build social relationships. The Whitechapel Club, a more hard-boiled version of the Press Club, made a ritual of iconoclasm, once cremating the body of one its members on the shores of Lake Michigan. Ribald and creative in ways that barely resembled the Little Room's sense of humor, shenanigans like these exemplify the street-savvy reporting of Chicago journalists. Women, too, wrote for Chicago dailies, but their contributions, typically to the arts and leisure sections, remained constrained by the conventional wisdom that reporting was essentially masculine work.

"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg, 1916
By 1910, a second generation of newspapermen was expanding the boundaries of what could go to press. Sometimes at odds with their publishers' tastes and opinions, editors such as Francis Hackett at the Evening Post, who directed the paper's influential supplement, the Friday Literary Review (founded 1908); Henry Justin Smith of the Daily News, who arrived in 1913; and Burton Rascoe, the literary editor at the Tribune in the late teens, lent a self-consciously literary element to newspaper writing. In succeeding Hackett at the Review, Floyd Dell encouraged contributors to write about themselves in their reviews.

As Finley Peter Dunne's popular Mr. Dooley columns of the 1890s suggest, the literary culture of the newsroom was often inseparable from politics. Exposed as youths to small-town skepticism, populism, and the home-grown radicalism of Robert Ingersoll, radicals like Dell or Carl Sandburg, who between 1900 and 1918 contributed poetry and prose to Charles Kerr's International Socialist Review, brought their politics with them to Chicago. There they discovered fellow travelers such as Edgar Lee Masters and Clarence Darrow.

St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, 1910s
Since the mid-nineteenth century, Chicago had been home to a robust foreign-language press, and as the city's immigrant population expanded and diversified, so did the foreign periodicals. Because most of the ethnic writing published in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Chicago was written in native languages for specific immigrant groups, its influence on the mainstream, native-born audiences was slight. Within immigrant communities themselves, however, literary culture played a crucial role, serving as a source of ethnic pride and a social unifier. Theater was an especially popular venue since plays brought people together. Ethnic Chicagoans gathered in churches, neighborhood associations, and literary clubs (not unlike the genteel literary societies) to watch or act in plays about their native homes. In 1892, thousands of Polish Chicagoans jammed the St. Stanislaus Kostka parish auditorium to see Helena Modjeska, a world-famous Polish actress, star in a drama written by a member of their own parish. Beginning in the 1860s and continuing until the 1950s, Norwegian Chicagoans staged plays in Norwegian in order to preserve cultural traditions and their native language. Indeed, the world premiere of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts took place in Chicago in 1882, and well into the twentieth century influential Norwegian social clubs made the production of Ibsen's work a touchstone of their ethnic identity.

Chicago's increasingly expansive array of literary cultures owed much to the ongoing arrival of internal as well as foreign migrants. Drawn to the city from the provinces, aspiring writers found a variety of professional opportunities and a small-town, Midwestern ambiance that encouraged cultural mobility and allowed writers such as George Ade to mix into a variety of urban milieus. This social fluidity also made it easier to leave the city. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, recent arrivals like Ade, Dell, Dreiser, Hamlin Garland, Ben Hecht, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, Maxwell Bodenheim, Susan Glaspell, Glenway Wescott, Margaret Anderson, and Ring Lardner took their literary careers elsewhere, usually to New York.

Dill Pickle Club Entrance, n.d.
Indeed, transience itself was an important creative ingredient of the literary renaissance that took place during the 1910s and early 1920s. The bohemian neighborhoods that developed on the South Side around the buildings left over from the fair, and on the Near North Side, among cheap rooming houses and restaurants near the Water Tower, encouraged social and artistic experimentation. In 1913 during their six-month residence in a makeshift studio on the South Side, Dell and his wife Margaret Curry hosted parties where Dell learned about Edgar Lee Masters from Theodore Dreiser. He in turn introduced Dreiser to Sherwood Anderson. Two years later, on the Near North Side, Schlogl's restaurant and Jack Jones's Dill Pickle Club became sites for readings, plays, debates, and literary conversations that included Anderson, Bodenheim, Hecht, Masters, Sandburg, and various writers on staff at the Daily News.

By the mid-1920s, many of these writers had left Chicago. After their departure, according to sociologist Harvey W. Zorbaugh, Towertown became a popular destination for “egocentric poseurs, neurotics, rebels against the conventions of Main Street or the gossip of the foreign community, seekers of atmosphere, dabblers in the occult, dilettantes in the arts, or parties to drab lapses from a moral code which the city had not yet destroyed.” Chicago's bohemia turned conventional, and its alternatives to traditional gender roles, sexual relations, and work habits became part of a broader transformation in social mores.

Chap-Book, 1895 (cover)
Yet the city's overlapping artistic circles had a positive impact on literary production itself. To the extent that the idea for the Little Review grew out of conversations editor Margaret Anderson had at Dell's soirees, or that submissions to Poetry were discussed over lunches at cheap North Side restaurants, these pathbreaking journals were the product of Chicago's decentralized literary cultures. While it may be true that literary modernism did not flourish in Chicago as it did in New York or in the salons of Paris, Poetry introduced readers to Ezra Pound's work, and the Little Review published work by Sherwood Anderson, William Butler Yeats, and Vachel Lindsay. The periodical Chap-Book and the exquisitely produced books that Herbert S. Stone and Ingalls Kimball published in the 1890s furnished a precedent for these artistic ventures, but the immediate impetus was the need to address the modernist revolution in literature and art. The diminutives shared in name by the Little Room, the Little Theatre, and the Little Review suggest that this search for expressive and social space, no matter how small, has been a crucial feature of Chicago literary history, as well as a manifestation of the Chicago writer's intense, sometimes embattled effort to make a home in the big city.

Studs Lonigan, 1935
Especially for ethnic writers, this creative home has been the neighborhood. In his Studs Lonigan novels, the first of which appeared in 1932, James T. Farrell returned to the poor, Irish-Catholic community of his youth. Deterministic and marked by a strong recognition of social inequity, Farrell's novels bear the imprint of his University of Chicago education. Yet 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. The connection serves as a reminder of the intimate, human scale that distinguishes even the grittiest urban fiction. For instance, in their novels of the 1940s and 1950s, Nelson Algren and Willard Motley give the streets an intimate cultural force while exploring the ethnic and class dynamics that distinguish one neighborhood from another. That radical politics often lay behind such renderings of ethnic and/or working-class landscapes is made vividly clear by Jack Conroy's participation in the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. Though already well known for writing proletarian fiction, Conroy was assigned to work in the folklore division, and went on to gather industrial folk narratives that documented methods of working-class resistance within the culture of factory work.

Cavalcade of the American Negro, 1940
Also a participant in the Federal Writers' Project, Richard Wright helped initiate what Arna Bontemps, his colleague on the project, believed was a reawakening of the Harlem Renaissance. While in Chicago, Wright wrote “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” and the stories that were published in his first book, Uncle Tom's Children (1938). Wright also laid the groundwork for the books that most explicitly engage his Chicago experience: Native Son (1940), Twelve Million Black Voices (1941), and American Hunger (1977), the continuation of his autobiography Black Boy (1945). Informed by Marxist politics and sociological theories developed at the University of Chicago, these books strongly express Wright's sense of being an outsider in white America. Though Wright had escaped the overtly racist South and found Chicago exhilarating, he struggled to find his place as an African American writer in an alienating urban culture. Nevertheless, Wright, Bontemps, and other writers associated with the project, such as William Attaway, Willard Motley, Margaret Walker, and Frank Yerby, invigorated the literary scene on the city's South Side. Gwendolyn Brooks, who grew up on the South Side, mixed with the WPA writers but drew from her own connections in the African American community in establishing herself as a preeminent Chicago poet and writer.

Whether or not this older Chicago, the city of neighborhoods and civic boosterism, will play a role in future literary cultures remains to be seen. Saul Bellow, perhaps the most distinguished contemporary writer to have emerged from this tradition, has remarked that American intellectual and cultural life has mostly migrated to the nation's universities. Where else is one more likely to find people talking about literature, or writing it? The list of Chicago writers, past and present, who at some point in their careers have found homes at academic institutions in the Chicago area is impressive: Maxine Chernoff, Leon Forrest, Robert Herrick, Robert Morss Lovett, Norman Maclean, Richard Stern, and even Saul Bellow. Moreover, universities and colleges have professionalized the culture of letters, making literary criticism an academic discipline and granting B.A.'s and M.F.A.'s to creative writers. In this regard, the quest to make literature a respectable civic art might well have succeeded.

Bibliography
Bremer, Sidney H. “Willa Cather's Lost Chicago Sisters.” In Women Writers and the City: Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism, ed. Susan Merrill Squier, 1984.
Cappetti, Carla. Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel. 1993.
Smith Carl S. Chicago and the American Literary Imagination. 1984.