Chicago literature

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
State Street around the turn of the 20th century, the period of one of the major waves of Chicago literature.

Chicago literature is writing, primarily by writers living in or from Chicago, that reflects culture of the city. In the Encyclopedia of Chicago, Northwestern University Professor Bill Savage describes Chicago fiction as prose which tries to "capture the essence of the city, its spaces and its people." The challenge for early writers was that Chicago was a frontier outpost that transformed into a global metropolis in the span of two generations. Narrative fiction of that time, much of it in the style of "high-flown romance" and "genteel realism", needed a new approach to describe the urban social, political, and economic conditions of Chicago.[1] Nonetheless, Chicagoans worked hard to create a literary tradition that would stand the test of time,[2] and create a "city of feeling" out of concrete, steel, vast lake, and open prairie.[3]

The Encyclopedia of Chicago identifies three periods of works from Chicago which had a major influence on American Literature:[4]

In 1920, H.L. Menken wrote in a London magazine, the Nation, that Chicago is the "Literary Capital of the United States."[5] Although this period was later termed a "Renaissance," it was a "birth " of a "new city."[6] Its writers and publishers, were seen to have produced new work that broke with the Victorian and Eastern United States establishment past and embraced a new "naturalism" and a new "imagism," and "free verse."[6] Its themes often centered on an exciting but dirty urbanism, as well as the quaint but dark and sometimes stultifying small town. The later theme was to be called "revolt from the village" literature.[6] In addition, its publishers identified and brought to a new audience some of the best of "international modernism." Chicago's dynamic growth, as well as its radical manufacturing economics and politics fueled this growth, especially, in the literature of Sandburg, Drieser, Anderson, Garland, Norris, Sinclair, Cather, and Ferber.[6]

The publication that became Poetry magazine was founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, who was working as an art critic for the Chicago Tribune. The magazine discovered such poets as Gwendolyn Brooks, James Merrill, and John Ashbery.[7] T. S. Eliot's first professionally published poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," was first published by 'Poetry'. Contributors have included Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg, among others.[relevant? ] The magazine was instrumental in launching the Imagist and Objectivist poetic movements.[8] Poetry magazine, along with Chicago's Little Review were "daring" in their editorial championship of the modernist movement. Later editors also made substantial contributions in poetry, as did Chicago's university and performance venues.[9]

Works about Chicago or set in Chicago[edit]

Much notable Chicago fiction focuses on the city itself, with social criticism keeping exultation in check. Here is a selection of Chicago's most famous works about itself:

  • Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City is about Chicago's vice district, the Levee, and some of the personalities involved: gangsters, corrupt politicians, and two sisters who ran the most elite brothel in town.
  • Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make is a prose poem about the alleys, the El tracks, the neon and the dive bars, the beauty and cruelty of Chicago.
  • Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March charts the long drifting life of a Jewish Chicagoan and his myriad eccentric acquaintances throughout the early 20th century: growing up in the then Polish neighborhood of Humboldt Park, cavorting with heiresses on Chicago's Gold Coast, studying at the University of Chicago, fleeing union thugs in the Loop, and taking the odd detour to hang out with Trotsky in Mexico while eagle-hunting giant iguanas on horseback. This book has legitimate claim to be the Chicago epic.
  • Gwendolyn Brooks's A Street in Bronzeville is the collection of poems that launched the career of the famous Chicago poet, focusing on the aspirations, disappointments, and daily life of those who lived in 1940s Bronzeville.
  • Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street is a Mexican-American coming-of-age novel, dealing with a young Latina girl, Esperanza Cordero, growing up in the Chicago Chicano ghetto.
  • Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie is a cornerstone of the turn of the 20th century Chicago Literary Renaissance, a tale of a country girl in the big immoral city, rags-to-riches and back again.
  • Stuart Dybek's The Coast of Chicago is a collection of fourteen short stories about growing up in Chicago (largely in Pilsen and Little Village) in a style blending the gritty with the dreamlike.
  • James T. Farrell's most famous novels, including Studs Lonigan, focused on the often bitter lives of Chicago's Irish-Americans around the time of the Great Depression.
  • John Guzlowski's Lightning and Ashes chronicles the author's experiences growing up in the immigrant and displaced persons' neighborhoods in Chicago's old Polish Downtown, in the context of Jewish hardware store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish Cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead horses, and women who walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russians.
  • Loraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun tells of the struggles faced by a middle class black family in Chicago's Washington Park Subdivision.
  • Erik Larson's Devil in the White City is a best-selling popular history about the 1893 Colombian Exposition; it's also about the serial killer who was stalking the city at the same time. Straight history of the Exposition and also the workers' paradise in Pullman is found in James Gilbert's Perfect Cities: Chicago's Utopias of 1893.
  • Audrey Niffenegger's The Time-Traveler's Wife is a recent love story set in Chicago nightclubs, museums, and libraries.
  • Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files is a series set in Chicago about Harry Dresden, Chicago's first (and only) Wizard PI, who protects the city from supernatural attack.
  • Frank Norris's The Pit is a novel of greed and life on the early 20th century trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade.
  • Mike Royko's Boss is the definitive biography of Mayor Richard J. Daley and politics in Chicago, written by the Tribune columnist. American Pharaoh (Cohen and Taylor) is a scholarly treatment of the same subject.
  • Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems the most famous collection of poems about Chicago by its "bard of the working class."
  • Upton Sinclair's The Jungle sits among the canon of both Chicago literature and US labor history for its muckraking-style depiction of the desolation experienced by Lithuanian immigrants working in the Union Stockyards on Chicago's Southwest Side.
  • Richard Wright's Native Son is a Chicago neighborhood novel set in Bronzeville and Hyde Park about a young, doomed, black boy hopelessly warped by the racism and poverty that defined his surroundings.

Other noted[vague] writers, who were from Chicago or who spent a significant amount of their careers in Chicago include, David Mamet, Ernest Hemingway, Ben Hecht, John Dos Passos, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene Field, Studs Terkel and Hamlin Garland.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Savage, Bill. Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Fiction."
  2. ^ Spears, Timothy B. Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Literary Cultures."
  3. ^ Rotella, Carlo. Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Literary Images of Chicago"
  4. ^ Rotella, Carlo. Encyclopedia of Chicago History, "Chicago Literary Renaissance."
  5. ^ Pinkerton, Jan and Hudson, Randolph H. (2004). "Introduction". Library of American Literature. Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. New York: Facts on File, Inc. pp. 1–426, iv. ISBN 0-8160-4898-3. 
  6. ^ a b c d Pinkerton, Jan and Hudson, Randolph H. (2004). "Introduction". Library of American Literature. Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. New York: Facts on File, Inc. pp. 1–426, iv–v. ISBN 0-8160-4898-3. 
  7. ^ Goodyear, Dana, "The Moneyed Muse: What can two hundred million dollars do for poetry?", article, The New Yorker, February 19 and February 26 double issue, 2007
  8. ^ Curdy, Averill. "Poetry: A History of the Magazine". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 2013-05-12. 
  9. ^ Starkey, David and Bill Savage Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Poetry"
  • Duffey, Bernard, The Chicago Renaissance in American Letters, Greenwood Press, Westport CT (1972)


Chicago Literary Hall of Fame