If you want to fall wrackingly, despairingly in love with a place, here’s what you do: leave it. When I was young and wintering out my graduate years, marooned in the penitential bleakness of upstate New York, I grew fond of declaring that, once I turned 30, I was going to go ahead and start lying whenever someone asked where I was from. “I’m just gonna be like, fuck it,” I’d insist, typically under bar light diffuse or glaring. “Me? I’m from Chicago.”
You will perhaps harbor similarly counterfactual allegiances, wherein the dull facts of biography come unstuck for the more salient truths of your heart.
Chicago has been my heart’s home since I was old enough to want any such thing. I arrived in 1989, left four years later, pined for it over nearly a decade of insufficiently lengthy visits: for its density and its neighborhoodiness, its unhealed fractures and its fugitive moments of precarious repair, for its cheapness, its flatness, its day games and industrial canals, its colliding southernness and midwesternity, its lakeside vistas, hot dog stands, pierogis, taproom voices—its bars, sweet Jesus, its bars!—the people I loved, the people I almost loved, as the song goes. I spent the next 10 years punctuating my life with micro-moves to Chicago (a summer here, a semester there) until, at last, by the grace of some propitiated lakefront god, I got a gig there and returned, for real, for good, in 2014.
But nothing is simple. And so it has been my pleasure, in these last weeks, to read and savor and dwell inside Liesl Olson’s greatly rewarding Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis. I have done so from the midst of a fellowship year here in the woods of central New Jersey, in yearning exile once again.
Olson’s thesis is, like the city itself, multifaceted and straightforward. It is that Chicago has a central, underappreciated place in the high canon of Anglo-American modernism, which is legible in everything from Pound’s imagism and Stein’s famously elliptical prose to the fictions of Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, the new-fashioned realism of Richard Wright, the post-Sandburgian verse of Gwendolyn Brooks. Around all of these major figures and several of their major works, Olson builds a series of case studies, in each of which she traces out the impress made by Chicago, its industries, its institutions, and the persons living and working in them.
Olson’s local, especially fine-grained sort of literary historicism affords her a strong purchase on her objects.
So we are reminded that Pound’s indelible “In a Station of the Metro” appeared in Poetry magazine (“the most important ‘little magazine’ of literary modernism”), launched and nurtured by Chicagoan Harriet Monroe, who corresponded and wrangled and fought with Pound over many years (and who, like him, partook in what Olson calls a “surge of orientalism in Chicago,” in particular a fascination with Chinese aesthetic forms, if not local Chinese labor). We come to be reacquainted, too, with the story of Gertrude Stein’s early 1930s visits to Chicago, where she was both celebrated by the internationally minded Arts Club and quizzed, down on the South Side, by Mortimer Adler, the professor who would establish at the University of Chicago the now-famous “Great Books” curriculum. Alongside these Steinian details, we learn, too, that none other than Richard Wright would in the following decade declare himself to have been “powerfully influenced” (in Olson’s words) by Stein’s experimentation. (“All of my life I had been only half hearing,” Wright proclaimed in a 1945 review, “but Miss Stein’s struggling words made the speech of the people around me vivid.”) In each and all cases, and with a persuasive agility and uninsisting deftness of touch, Olson vivifies the many presences—patrons, editors, visitors, authors, as well as venues, places, entire demimondes—that speak through the artifacts of Chicago modernism.
That Chicago became a fomenting element in modernism, that the Great Migration and the Chicago Black Renaissance were crucial to that fomentation, and that its major texts give rich testament to the intricacy and multiplicity and genuine cultural vibrancy of even this heartland city, located so far from New York and Paris: these are some of the many facets of Olson’s thesis.
But the truth is you don’t come to Chicago Renaissance for the thesis as much as for the rendering, in exploratory and roving and aptly selected detail, of the history of Chicago arts across a remarkable slice of time: this is the period of its astonishing transformation, when a largish windswept American prairie town metamorphosed, with a shocking rapidity, into a global metropolis and, for some, “the exemplary modern metropolis.” (“Between 1870 and 1900,” Olson reminds us, “Chicago’s population quintupled from about 300,000 to more than 1.5 million.”) That story is what Olson is after here, and it is a story she tells with verve and fluency and a historian’s archival acuity.
What thus holds the book together, carrying us between passages of close reading, are a series of meticulous cultural micro-histories: accounts of self-created venues for aesthetic dispute and disquisition, like the Dill Pickle Club, the Arts Club, the George Cleveland Hall Branch library at 48th Street, the Radical Bookstore; of especially pivotal parties and dinners (such as the one in Hyde Park on November 27, 1934, that found Stein and Adler falling into vehement disagreement); of transatlantic trips (because this is a book about modernism, people are forever meeting up with one another in Paris) and generative meetings and oblique but consequential connections. Olson gives us, in all, a generous portrait of a world of interlinked scenes, and this local, especially fine-grained sort of literary historicism affords her a strong purchase on her objects, and on the subject of modernism more generally.
Olson’s approach pays out in a range of ways. We learn a good deal, for instance, about what we might call the imperial-nostalgic brand of racism that runs like a live current through the heart of these largely monied, variegatedly bohemian scenes, visible as much in the Orientalism of Poetry and the fixation on “vanishing” Native cultures among the “Cliff Dwellers Club” as in Stein’s primitivist fantasias of white renewal via black vitality in a text like “Melanctha.”1
Most crucially—and for this reader, most compellingly—Olson shows too that these scenes were made by, and sustained through, nothing so much as the labor of women. We do well, Olson argues,
to recognize the people who built the cultural infrastructure for modernism in Chicago. This was a particular kind of labor, mostly unpaid, and largely underacknowledged. Much of it was done by women. They ran bookstores, organized galleries, launched periodicals, and hosted salons. These are people who saw possibility in Chicago and knew how to build an audience for modernism.
And so we learn the story of the hugely influential Harriet Monroe, of Poetry fame; of Rue Carpenter and Alice Roullier, two of the “several women” at the center of the Arts Club and “responsible for the club’s vision and its remarkable success”; of Fanny Butcher, the journalist and critic and former bookstore owner, a woman “at once both Victorian and modern,” whose arguments about audience and literary aesthetics so prickled Ernest Hemingway; and of Era Bell Thompson, author of the “revelatory” autobiography American Daughter and editor at Ebony for over 40 years.
Olson’s book restores these women, and their immense labors of imagination, to the center of the story of modernism in Chicago, and what emerges is a kind of composite portrait of aesthetic achievement, wherein Chicago modernism, whatever the series of names we associate with it (still mostly male, still mostly white), appears as a complexly collective endeavor. For Olson, this is how we can best retell the story of the cultural life of a windblown middle-American city in its growth into an artistic center and global hub.
This is a fine and winning sort of story of Chicago, one long in the unearthing—it is a blessing to have the stories of Monroe and Butcher and Thompson and their allies so vividly told to us—and ought to be received as such. But I wish to conclude by remarking that there’s another story in Olson’s chronicle as well, winding through the interstices of its generous and multiplicitous narrative. That story is a good deal more cautionary.
The monied patronage that helped to birth Chicago modernism is inescapably interwoven with the very forces that have done so much to hollow out the city today.
As Olson figures it, Chicago modernism is an intensely coterie-ish sort of affair, and virtually all the members of that coterie come from, or are soon intimately linked up with, money. It is in this sense a story of the bracing work, aesthetic and civic both, done by the blessed of capital, an oligarchy of lawyers and industrialists and real estate barons and their circles, dented perhaps but not doomed by the Depression, and enjoying the comforts proper to the classes gifted with the plenty of expropriated labor.
None of this is lost on Olson. “If the Armory Show tested the Art Institute’s principles of democracy,” she writes of the scandalous exhibition of Duchamps and Cézannes and Gaugins and van Goghs in 1913, “it did so only through the most powerful men in Chicago.” She registers acutely the high gentility of so many of her subjects, while keeping an eye as well on what they helped produce. “Cultural uplift has its good,” Olson notes, and more than makes that case.
But to any Chicagoan living under the Reign of Rahm, all this has an unhappy familiarity. Mayor Emanuel, former ballet dancer that he is, after all loves the arts, and loves burnishing the golden gleam of the city’s many famed cultural institutions. He also loves cops, as well as privatization, school closures in nonwhite districts, and sweetheart land deals for billionaires. He is an especially vivid version of the liberalish ethos that celebrates diversity while sanctioning the state murder of black people, champions the arts while erecting an unrivaled regime of securitization, and sings the high virtues of culture such as they are available to the smaller and smaller cadres of the über-wealthy able actually to live in Chicago, and so take part in its many edifications. The monied patronage that helped to birth Chicago modernism is, in its current iterations, inescapably interwoven with the very forces that have done so much to hollow out what for many of us were the greatest, most cherishable things about the city. About those “forces”: ride the Red Line up from Englewood and through the Disneyfied grown-up frat party that is Wrigleyville, and the idea of neoliberalism will become for you, I promise, something other than abstract.
Not that I would wish you to believe Chicago has ceased to be Chicago. If you care to bask in the afterlives of the aesthetic achievements Olson details so capably, just go read Stuart Dybek. Or watch Go Fish again, perhaps while scrolling idly through images of students at the University of Illinois at Chicago shutting down a Trump rally in 2016. Or listen to Kanye West’s “Drive Slow,” or to Noname, or to Saba, or for that matter just gaze wonderstruck—with the rest of the world—at the righteous joyousness of Chance the Rapper, White Sox fan, child of Chatham, Chicago ambassador extraordinaire. Or maybe just go to 31st Street Beach on a warm summer Sunday. All of it will convince you of the ongoing vitality of this, our “beautiful, fucked up, unruined city,” as I recently had occasion to call it.
And then, when you hear some execrable politician rolling the word Chicago on his forked tongue, and making it a byword among racist concern trolls, I hope you will think instead—as I have found myself thinking, in this un-urban New Jersey fall, quite often—of a beautiful poem by Anthony Walton. It is called, simply, “Gwendolyn Brooks,” and I think Olson would concur that we can do worse than to give it, and them, the last word:
Sometimes I see in my mind’s eye a four- or five-
year-old boy, coatless and wandering
a windblown and vacant lot or street in Chicago
on the windblown South Side. He disappears
but stays with me, staring and pronouncing
me guilty of an indifference more callous
than neglect, condescension as self-pity.
Then I see him again, at ten or fifteen, on the corner,
say, 47th and Martin Luther King, or in a group
of men surrounding a burning barrel off Lawndale,
everything surrounding vacant or for sale.
Sometimes I trace him on the train to Joliet
or Menard, such towns quickly becoming native
ground to these boys who seem to be nobody’s
sons, these boys who are so hard to love, so hard
to see, except as case studies.
Poverty, pain, shame, one and a half million
dreams deemed fit only for the most internal
of exiles. That four-year-old wandering
the wind tunnels of Robert Taylor, of Cabrini
Green, wind chill of an as yet unplumbed degree—
a young boy she did not have to know to love.2
- Stein’s story greatly moved Richard Wright, who would go on, as Olson details, to offer her prescient counsel on the matter of black speech and “jive”: “Jive is a way of talking invented in the main by urban Negroes who see to have nothing much else to do but play with words … Jive now can be heard on the lips of white boys at Yale and Harvard.” ↩
- “Gwendolyn Brooks” first appeared in the New Yorker, December 18, 2000. ↩