Chicago literature

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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 born or living in Chicago, that reflects the culture of the city.

When Chicago was incorporated in 1837, it was a frontier outpost with about 4,000 people. The population rose rapidly to approximately 100,000 in 1860. By 1890, the city had over 1 million people.[1] Thus, Chicago writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries faced the challenge of how to depict this potentially disorienting new urban reality. Narrative fiction of that time, much of it in the style of "high-flown romance" and "genteel realism", needed a new approach to describe Chicago's social, political, and economic conditions.[2] Chicagoans worked hard to create a literary tradition that would stand the test of time,[3] and create a "city of feeling" out of concrete, steel, vast lake, and open prairie.[4]

In 1920, the critic H.L. Menken wrote in a London magazine, the Nation, that Chicago was the "Literary Capital of the United States."[5] Chicago's early twentieth-century writers and publishers were seen as producing new work that broke with the Victorian and Eastern United States establishment past and embraced new techniques and styles including "naturalism," "imagism," and "free verse."[6] Themes often centered on an exciting but dirty urbanism, as well as the quaint but dark and sometimes stultifying small town. Chicago's dynamic growth, as well as the manufacturing, economics, and politics that fueled this growth, could be seen in the works of writers like Sandburg, Dreiser, Anderson, Garland, Norris, Sinclair, Cather, and Ferber.[6]

While Chicago produced much realist and naturalist fiction,[7] its literary institutions also played a crucial role in promoting international modernism. The avant-garde Little Review (founded 1914 by Margaret Anderson) provided an important platform for experimental literature, famously serializing James Joyce's novel Ulysses until the magazine was forced to discontinue the novel due to obscenity charges.[8] Similarly, the publication that became Poetry Magazine (founded 1912 by Harriet Monroe) was instrumental in launching the Imagist and Objectivist poetic movements.[9] T. S. Eliot's first professionally published poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," appeared in Poetry. Contributors have included Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg, among others.[relevant? ] The magazine also discovered such poets as Gwendolyn Brooks, James Merrill, and John Ashbery.[10] Poetry and the 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.[11]

According to Bill Savage in The Encyclopedia of Chicago, today's Chicago writers are still interested in the same social themes and urban landscapes that compelled earlier Chicago writers: "the fundamental dilemmas presented by city life in general and by the specifics of Chicago's urban spaces, history, and relentless change."[12]


The Encyclopedia of Chicago identifies three periods of works from Chicago which had a major influence on American Literature:[13]

Literature scholar Robert Bone argues for the existence of a fourth period:

  • A second "Chicago Renaissance," this time lasting approximately 1935 to 1950 and referring to a wave of creativity from Chicago's African-American writers. Bone suggests that this Chicago Renaissance was comparable in influence and importance to the earlier Harlem Renaissance. Bone's list of Chicago Renaissance writers includes fiction writers like Richard Wright, William Attaway, and Willard Motley along with poets like Frank Marshall Davis and Margaret Walker. [14] It is worth noting that the term "Chicago Black Renaissance" is often used to denote creativity in all the arts, not just in literature, during the 1930s-50s.[15]

Works about Chicago or set in Chicago[edit]

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

Fiction and Poetry[edit]


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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. ^ Nugent, Walter. Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Demography."
  2. ^ Savage, Bill. Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Fiction."
  3. ^ Spears, Timothy B. Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Literary Cultures."
  4. ^ Rotella, Carlo. Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Literary Images of Chicago"
  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 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. ^ Savage, Bill. Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Fiction."
  8. ^ The Modernist Journals Project (searchable database). Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing.
  9. ^ Curdy, Averill. "Poetry: A History of the Magazine". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 2013-05-12. 
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ Starkey, David and Bill Savage Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Poetry"
  12. ^ Savage, Bill. The Encyclopedia of Chicago, Fiction.
  13. ^ Rotella, Carlo. Encyclopedia of Chicago History, "Chicago Literary Renaissance."
  14. ^ Bone, Robert. "Richard Wright and the Chicago Renaissance." Callaloo 28 (1986): 448. JSTOR (behind paywall) Accessed 30 Nov 2014.
  15. ^ Hine, Darlene Clark. Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Chicago Black Renaissance."
  16. ^ Williams, Kenny Jackson. "Gwendolyn Brooks' Life and Career." 1997.
  • Duffey, Bernard, The Chicago Renaissance in American Letters, Greenwood Press, Westport CT (1972)


Chicago Literary Hall of Fame