by Charlie Pritchard
A Week in Chicago
While possessing a literary heritage that rivals the literary meccas of New York, Dublin and Paris, Chicago wears its talent with a modesty that makes it all the more charming. The city saw the blossoming of talents in the early twentieth century in Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Upton Sinclair, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Wright and Ernest Hemingway. In later years the University of Chicago became the breeding ground for postmodern literature with Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth and Robert Coover with Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow and Studs Terkel crafting a new aesthetic for Chicago literature. Writers of Chicago are famed for a democratic openness imbued with social criticism of racial and economic oppression. Within this one-time industrial powerhouse of America, the cultural intersections of immigrants and African-Americans from the South in workplaces and in public daily life conceived a fertile space for writers to explore the complexity of their nation’s present. The embracing demeanour of Chicago’s writers can be equally found in its citizens. As one student aptly put it, ‘it has the hustle and bustle of New York, but the people are a lot nicer’.
But there is no shortage of literary sites in the city. Inconspicuously located on the second floor of a block on N. Michigan Avenue in the middle of the Loop, the American Writers Museum showcases the extensive timeline of local Chicago literature and its context within American literature as a whole. It only takes about half an hour’s walk around, and fully deserves a look for only $8. Even the more avid American literature scholar will find some surprises here amongst the array of material and knowledge, detailing the influences of individual authors (going as personal as drinking habits – for instance, that Ernest Hemingway’s favoured cocktail was not the mojito, but a dry martini).
American Writers Museum
The Poetry Foundation, which was relocated in 2011 on the Near North Side, is open to the public and displays the legacy of Chicago’s Poetry magazine which has been running since 1912, and continues to ignite the fame of some of America’s leading poets. The building hosts regular exhibitions and holds a volume of up to 30,000 books of poetry. As long as this institution exists, the future of American poetry is in safe hands. The building also hosts workshops, discussion and reading events – which feature both rising stars and established names. I only wish I could have spent more time there.
The Newberry Library across from Washington Park features an impressive selection within an equally impressive architectural design and has been famed for its creative writing workshops since the 1920s. It contains rare manuscripts and maps of the city’s history, but also features a well curated Center for American Indian Studies programs, with a considerable array of historical literature on Native cultures available for public perusal.
However, in keeping with the spirit of the city, literary projects in Chicago are more often than not directed towards sociopolitical empowerment. The Westside Writing Project provides an outlet for the black communities within the West Side of Chicago to master the new digital media of journalism through podcasts and videos. Participants focus upon the social and economic concerns facing their neighbourhoods along with police brutality. Today, Chicago remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the realm of urban planning. The ‘white flight’ from the West Side during the 1950s left black residents to occupy substandard housing particularly around the East Garfield Park area and the Near West Side with the establishment of housing projects by the Chicago Housing Authority, where violent raids from police forces are still common occurrences. This project allows the practice not only of creativity but the critical engagement amongst the new generation of black Chicagoans.
And of course, a visit to a city famed for its literary heritage deserves a tour of its bookshops. I’ve noticed that second-hand bookstores in American cities generally tend to charge higher prices for their stock than in British bookshops. A fiction paperback will on average cost around $7-$8.50 (around £5.25 to £6.40, excluding tax). But in Chicago, exquisite bookshops abound in multitudes. On North Milwaukee Ave., one of the more hipsterish streets in Chicago, you will find Myopia Books. This bookstore contains a dizzying selection of fiction spanning across two floors. The third floor deals in sociology, philosophy, drama and theology, where you will hear intellectuals in intense discussions about semiotics and ontology. At the other end of the spectrum, you have Bookman’s Corner on North Clark Avenue up towards Lake View on the far North side, a small, unpretentious hovel whose owner prices books at a reasonable rate – you can find some rare gems on sociology, politics and poetry for around $2.
Powell’s is certainly the bookshop with the most eclectic range you’ll find in Chicago. For anyone especially interested in political and cultural theory as well as poetry, this is a place to check out (for any leftie, their designated Marxist section is well worth a look over).
Unabridged Books located in Logan Square houses a decent range of fiction, with an intriguing smattering of good selections at the back, which are priced a few dollars lower than the main stock. But a word of warning: the owner keeps a cheeky husky by the front window who nibbled at my provisions for the flight home. Rascal.
The city’s literary achievements by both writers and community organisers provide a fascinating glimpse into how Chicago will navigate its position at the crossroads of America. While gentrification gathers pace on the West Side, uncertainty prevails over the future of urban life for African-Americans, migrants and working class whites alike. Whether the future transpires as better or worse than our expectations, it is a city worth revisiting to examine the contemporary dilemmas of urban America. I certainly wouldn’t rule out returning.