More Chicago Is Needed in “One Book, One Chicago”

I have only one gripe about Chicago’s otherwise meritorious city-wide literary program, “One Book, One Chicago.” It is that not enough of Chicago’s great authors, with their Chicago-based settings are selected. Of the twenty selections thus far over the last ten years, only four have been written by Chicago authors, and only two, The House on Mango Street  by Sandra Cisneros and the current pick, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March happen to be novels.

Missing is an American classic such as Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, depicting a young woman’s loss of innocence in late nineteenth century Chicago. What about the scathing muckraking novels of Upton Sinclair and Frank Norris? Sinclair’s The Jungle is internationally acclaimed, but still it hasn’t made it to the “One Book, One Chicago” selection list.

Who better depicts, in fictive form, the rampant raciam tearing Chicago asunder in the Depression era than James T. Farrell and Richard Wright? The three novels in Farrell’s Studs Lonigan Trilogy comprise a panoramic tale of a young Irish Chicagoan coming of age. He leaves the narrow-minded ethnic enclave of Washington Park, and finds himself metaphorically transported to a new world, Hyde Park, diverse and open, yet only a mile long trip in distance from his boyhood home.

Richard Wright’s Native Son is a brilliant, yet agonizing portrayal of Bigger Thomas, a tormented young black man trapped in a hostile world. The story is hard hitting, resonating with the rhythms pulsating from the underbelly of Chicago’s Black Metropolis.

And finally what about Nelson Algren, the chronicler of Chicago’s down and out, whose nitty-gritty characters in such works as Neon Wilderness and The Man with the Golden Arm remain legend in Chicago’s urban literary mosaic? 

 

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Saul Bellow Way

Thanks to the efforts of Alderman Roberto Maldonado of Chicago’s 26th Ward, an ordinance was passed this month by the Chicago City Council designating the 2600-2700 block of Augusta Boulevard as “Saul Bellow Way.” The Noble Prize winning author lived on this Humboldt Park street with his family during his youth. This much overdue honor adds to Chicago’s celebration of Bellow, whose novel, The Adventures of Augie March, is the current “One Book, One Chicago” selection.      

Are No American Writers Worthy of a Nobel Prize?

Tomas Transtromer, a Swedish poet, has won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2011. At least he doesn’t have far to travel to the award ceremony in Stockholm. One wonders, once again, why American writers have been ignored. The last American to win the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993. Interestingly, the three Americans who won before Ms. Morrison were all naturalized citizens who immigrated to the U.S. as adults, and whose main literary outputs were in languages other than English. These were the Russian-born Joseph Brodsky in 1987; the Polish-born poet Czeslaw Milosz in 1980; and the Polish-born Yiddish fiction writer Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978. Another immigrant, Candian-born Saul Bellow, arrived in Chicago as a child and wrote prolifically in English for seven decades, winning the Nobel in 1976.

In total, only eleven American citizens have won the literature prize since competition began in 1901. Others include John Steinbeck (1962), Ernest Hemingway (1954), William Faulkner (1949), Pearl Buck (1938), Eugene O’Neill (1936) and Sinclair Lewis (1930).

American Philip Roth received this year’s Man Booker International Prize. Hasn’t his distinguished contribution to literature been worthy of a Nobel? Although the English playwright Harold Pinter won the prize in 2005, his great American contemporary, Edward Albee has not. One has to speculate that perhaps the Nobel Prize in literature is being awarded with political considerations, given the U.S. unpopular foreign policy in Europe and the rest of the world. Just a thought.   

 

The Importance of Being Barry

A sound argument can be made that Sebastian Barry is the most versatile Irish writer since Oscar Wilde. Barry, as was Wilde, is a playwright, novelist and poet. My wife Anne and I had the privilege of seeing Mr. Barry last weekend at our local Barnes & Noble as part of his American promotional tour of On Canaan’s Side, his most recent and Booker longlisted novel.

A good chunk of the novel takes place in Chicago, and he read with great dramatic flair two passages with Chicago settings. Later on, in the autograph queue, I asked if had read Saul Bellow, and he mentioned that he read Herzog.

The actor Larry McCauley happened to be part of the audience, and Mr. Barry acknowledged him as an actor in the Chicago debut of his play The Steward of Christendom. McCauley, who I had seen reading from Ulysses at the Bloomsday celebration at the Cliff Dwellers Club, recreated a powerful scene from the play entirely from memory. It was a beautiful way to conclude a most satisfying literary evening. The only thing missing from the evening was a poem.

Half Blood Blues

Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues depicts a tale of a sextet of musicians living, loving and playing hot jazz in Berlin and Paris at the onset of the second World War. In those trying times, this musical group, the Hot-Time Swingers, is remarkably diverse with four Germans and two Americans; three blacks; three whites. Sid, the bassist, and Chip, the drummer, are the Americans. They are boyhood friends from Baltimore. They are joined by the Germans: Friitz, the alto sax player; Ernst, the clarinetist; the pianist Paul; and the amazing wunderkind, Hiero, on the trumpet. Paul is Jewish, and  Hiero  is a Mischling, German for a half-blood, whose mother was a white German and whose father was Senegalese.

As the story unfolds, the mysterious jazz-singer Delilah, who represents the great Louis Armstrong, arrives in Berlin in 1939. She meets the group and lets them know that Satchmo is aware of them and likes their sound and would like to play with them and cut a record in Paris. The resourceful Delilah works hard to obtain forged travel documents for the Germans to get out of Nazi Germany. However fate intervenes with tragic consequences for Paul, Fritz and Ernst, and only Sid, Chip and Hiero manage to make it to Paris.

Armstrong is determined to record with the remnant of the Hot-Time Swingers, as he sees immense talent in Hiero, someone he sees as a possible protege. Satchmo puts together a new ensemble, excluding Sid, to play and make a record together. However soon Paris is occupied by the Nazis, and the final cut of the record is never made. Hiero is arrested by the Gestapo, ostensibly to be sent to a concentration camp, while Sid and Chip return home to Baltimore.

As the years go by, Chip has a career as an accomplished jazz drummer, still playing and touring the world well into his eighties. Sid, unable to get over his rejection by Armstrong, gives up playing, and turns to a career as a medical transcriber. Then, surprisingly, Chip recieves a letter from the assumed-dead Hiero, inviting him to visit him in his home in Poland.

In the meantime, a documentary film has been made by a young German-Finnish director about the life and times of the Hot-Time Swingers and it features interviews with Sid and Chip. The debut of the film will be at a jazz festival in homage to Hiero in reunified Berlin,  as Hiero has become a cult figure among German jazz aficionados. The two octogenarians, Sid and Chip, are asked to participate in the festival, all expenses paid. While in Berlin, Chip decides to take up Hiero’s invitation and Sid comes along for the ride, concluding in a dramatic reunion in Poland.     

Ms. Edugyan makes Sid the narrator of the entire story. The narrative and the dialogue are delievered in a rich patois that flows naturally and comfortably for the reader. The author has taken fascinating historical material and wove it into a creative piece of literature.

The depiction of the long, strong, yet strained, friendship between Sid and Chip is masterfully done. Yet Sid and Delilah’s romance comes across as artificially constructed. Otherwise the novel as a whole is strong and a compelling read.

Half Blood Blues has been selected for this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. This has catapulted Ms. Edugyan into the world’s literary spotlight. She herself has an interesting background as a Canadian-born daughter of immigrant parents from Ghana. Her writing reflects her strong Canadian, American, African and European cultural influences. This novel has set the bar high for all her future work.