The Chicago Literary Renaissance

At the onset of the 20th century, Chicago had become the nation’s Second City, a Midwest Leviathan, a center of commerce and industry. The poet Carl Sandburg, born in downstate Galesburg, arrives in Chicago in 1912. He describes Chicago as “Hog Butcher for the World/Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, / Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler, / Stormy, husky, brawling/City of the Big Shoulders.”

Unbounded energies are released in Chicago in many different directions. One of which is the creative energies that result in the Chicago Literary Renaissance during the first quarter of the new century. The city’s Literary Renaissance is primarily fueled by two women publishers, Harriet Monroe and Margaret Anderson. A native Chicagoan, and a writer herself, Ms. Monroe established Poetry, a magazine totally dedicated to that particular literary form of expression, in 1912. Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay were frequent contributors, as well as countless others. Today, Poetry, in its 103th year, is going strong as ever.

Margaret Anderson, also a writer, leaves Indianapolis to come to the creative hub of Chicago. In 1914, she establishes a literary journal called The Little Review. Soon The Little Review publishes the early works of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Later on, excerpts from James Joyce’s Ulysses are published, for the first time in America, in the journal.

Chicago becomes a magnet drawing in creative geniuses to its bosom. Ben Hecht leaves his home in Racine, Wisconsin, and comes to town in 1910. Although making a living as a newspaper writer, Hecht begins his work as a playwright, teaming with Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, in several one-act plays performed at Jane Addams’ Hull House. Years later, Hecht and Charles MacArthur write what I believe to be the most entertaining of Chicago plays,The Front Page. While living in Chicago, Hecht wrote several novels and numerous short stories, but his greatest writing, by far, were the 500 fictive pieces that appeared every day on the back page of the Daily News, which he called 1001 Afternoons in Chicago.

Edna Ferber leaves her newspaper job in Appleton, Wisconsin, and arrives in Chicago in 1909, eventually settling in the Windermere Apartments in Hyde Park. From this base in Chicago, she writes novels of the like of So Big (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1924), Cimarron, and Show Boat that make her the most prominent woman novelist of her time.

Sherwood Anderson comes to Chicago in 1912, after failing horribly in business back in his home state of Ohio. Deserting his wife and children, Anderson’s creative juices are unleashed in our “stormy, brawling and husky” city, and eventually he completes Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of interrelated fiction vignettes that is considered one of the masterpieces of American writing.

The Chicago Literary Renaissance eventually fades away as both Andersons, Hecht, Ferber, Sandburg and Hecht leave the city in the mid to late1920s. Harriet Monroe remains and continues publishing Poetry here in Chicago.





Studs Fest 2014

This weekend there is a celebration of the life and legacy of Studs Terkel at the University of Chicago. The schedule of events can be found on Personally, I didn’t know Studs very well. I don’t think he knew my name. He acknowledged me at political events, concerts and plays that we both attended, and every now and then we would engage in some light conversation of never more than a minute or two.

I thought that Studs was the best radio interviewer that I ever listened to. His encyclopedic knowledge of a variety of subject matter never failed to astound me. He seemed equally versed on jazz, blues, musical theater and opera. Despite occasional outrageous remarks by interviewees, he never seemed fazed, always maintaining a calm demeanor.

I wonder if Saul Bellow’s criticism of Studs might surface during this coming adulatory weekend. Bellow, in a letter to the journalist Herbert Mitgang in 1996 writes “Stud’s Chicago certainly was not mine. His Chicago was mythical. His myth was common.” Bellow goes on to say that both Studs and Carl Sandburg had a stylized image of Chicago. “It was the People, Yes! Populism was the source of their mythology. It was not necessary for them to wonder how to describe any phenomenon because they had ideological ready-mades, cutouts, stereotypes, etc. Poets and street-corner orators can make use of slogans, but slogans will not do for writers.”

I’m sure that the Studs who so loved the cantankerous banter of Bughouse Square in its heyday, would appreciate some stimulating debate about his work, rather than accept unanimous appreciation by admirers.     

Greg Bellow Talks About His Dad

On Sunday evening, June 9, after the hustle and bustle of the Printers Row Lit Fest, enjoy a relaxing and fun event as Greg Bellow will read and discuss his new memoir, Saul Bellow’s Heart at the Haymarket Pub and Brewery, 737 W. Randolph. As part of the evening’s program, I will be discussing Saul Bellow’s importance in Chicago literary history. Also Steve Mosqueda and Sean Benjamin, of the Neo-Futurists, will stage a Bellow-themed dramatic reading. The program begins at 8:00 pm, although we will be gathering at the pub at 7:00 pm and staying awhile after the program. This free event is co-sponsored by the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame and the Friends of the Blackstone Library.

Saul Bellow honored by Chicago

From left to right, Alderman Roberto Maldonado, Jose Lopez, Executive Director of Puerto Rican Cultural Center, Maggie Martinez, Block Club Federation Executive Director and Oakton College Emeritus Instructor, Richard Reeder.

On June 11, 2012, a day after Saul Bellow’s 97th birthday, the 2600-hundred block of West Augusta Boulevard was designated “Honorary Saul Bellow Way,” to honor his great literary  contributions to the Humboldt Park community and all of Chicago. Alderman Roberto Maldonado, with whom I worked with many years ago in Chicago city government, was the city official that made this happen. I had the honor of speaking at the ceremony along with the Alderman and Chicago Library Commissioner Brian Bannon.  Alderman Maldonado represents the 26th ward, the area that Bellow spent many of his formative years in Chicago from 1924 to 1934, mainly at 2629 West Augusta.

Bellow attended Lafayette and Columbus elementary schools, Sabin Junior High and Tuley High School. The name of the protagonist in possibly his greatest novel, The Adventures of Augie March, was a nickname derived from Augusta Boulevard. Many of his other novels, novellas and short stories had Humboldt Park settings.

In 1976, Bellow became only the Chicago writer ever to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He is the only writer to win the National Book Award for fiction three times. He also was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.

After a short time at Crane Junior College (now Malcolm X College), Bellow studied at the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University majoring in anthropology. But writing fiction was his passion, and he soon abandoned his anthropological studies. He had a number of adjunct faculty positions including those at the University of Minnesota, Bard College and the University of Puerto Rico to supplement his income as he pursued his writing career. Eventually Bellow returned to Chicago where he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago’s Committee of Social Thought. At age eighty, he accepted a faculty position at Boston University. Bellow died in Brookline, Massachusetts April 5, 2005, two months shy of his ninetieth birthday.

Bellow never forgot his humble Humboldt Park neighborhood roots. Then it was a community of working class immigrants, mostly Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and Scandinavians who struggled to create better lives for their children in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Humboldt Park neighborhood was an emotional anchor for his writing. As Bellow wrote in a letter to a friend “Division Street seems to have made us of iron, and we survive it all.”

These words of Bellow ring as true today, as they did then.

The Adventures of Saul Bellow

The Adventures of Saul Bellow is the name of the course that I will be teaching this coming January and February in the Emeritus Program at Oakton College. There are four sessions on Thursdays, from 10:00 AM to 11:30 AM. The class begins on January 12th. We will explore Bellow’s short stories, examining parallels between the author’s life and his fictional works. I hope that you can join me, and don’t forget to tell your friends.