From the Print Journal

Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis by Liesl Olson

Chicago Renaissance Cover
Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis. Liesl Olson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017. Pp. 400. $35.00 (cloth)

© 2019 Johns Hopkins University Press

The endpapers of Liesl Olson’s new book are disorienting. We see a map of a city bisected by lines and organized into grids. Heavier lines punctuated by circles indicate public transportation routes and their stops. A jagged shoreline appears at the bottom, cutting off the geometric exactness of the lines. But the lines grow less dense toward the top of the papers, indicating where the suburbs begin (or end) on the map. In the lower nook of the binding, close to the shore, we see an irregular shape: a large, heavily lined rectangle from which all the transportation routes appear to radiate. Just underneath the shape, nestled in what looks like a port, is this pointer: “For detailed map of loop see insert.”

The copyright page tells us that we are looking at a map of the Chicago Rapid Transit System, the “Elevated,” or, as it’s colloquially known, the “L,” from 1938. The map’s details confirm this identification, if you know what to look for. The suburbs of Cicero and Oak Park will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the city, and the L stops—with names like Cottage Grove, Halsted, Diversey, and Grand—are unmistakably Chicago. What’s disorienting, then, is the map itself. Organized horizontally, it presents an image of the city that is rare in the popular imagination. Rather than show Chicago vertically, flanked to the east by Lake Michigan and to the west by the suburbs, the map reorients our perspective around the Loop, the geographic nexus of the L system itself. In this rendering, the predominantly African American South Side appears to our left, while the predominantly white North Side shows up on our right. This reorientation scrambles our cognitive map of the city. It frees up our imagination from entrenched social and cultural associations, and it presents Chicago as more interlocking and connected than some scholars would allow. The map is an apt illustration and metaphor of the undertaking that is Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis.

Olson reorients our perspective on modernism by making the case for Chicago as a hub of early twentieth-century aesthetic innovation. Here the Loop’s radiating lines are scaled up to reflect what made the city distinctly modern: miles of railroad tracks that connected different parts of the country to each other. As America’s great industrial thoroughfare, Chicago facilitated the constant movement of people and goods, hopes and fortunes, culture and commerce. As such, the modernism that developed there reveled in “being in the middle”—not in the sense of being at the center of the art world’s attention but in the sense of being receptive to whatever ideas, fashions, and styles passed through the city (xviii). Chicago, the Midwestern crossroads, was an unmatched conductor of modernist impulses. The city may have been on the periphery of the New York-London-Paris axis, but its geographic centrality in the United States is, for Olson, the key to appreciating its rich history of artistic experimentation.

As both a literal and metaphoric vehicle, the train lends Chicago modernism its “multispoked” character (xviii). But an equally strong descriptor is suggested by the flatness of the land on which Chicago’s railroad tracks were laid. The practices of modernism that Olson at once describes and theorizes are profoundly horizontal. For starters, the Introduction to the book confounds distinctions between literary movements and periods and offers up the promise of a new democracy of letters. Olson shows Theodore Dreiser and Willa Cather in Sister Carrie (1900) and The Song of the Lark (1915), respectively, to have imagined distinct yet mutually reinforcing arrivals (by train) of young women seeking a new life in the city. Olson also introduces us to Harriet Monroe and Katharine Kuh, unassuming women who became, respectively, the publisher of the most daring poetry and the curator of the most challenging art exhibitions of their day. Olson then traces affinities between Richard Wright and Nelson Algren, Edgar Lee Masters and Gwendolyn Brooks—writers who, though separated by race and the city’s segregated neighborhoods, held a “Chicago style” in common, honing a literary language that could “reach the common reader” (20).

These unexpected connections are refreshing. They defy conventional oppositions between low and high, realism and modernism, the accessible and the difficult. Perhaps most important, they refuse the periodization of the turn-of-the-century Chicago Renaissance of white literary experimentation and the midcentury Chicago Black Renaissance of African American cultural production. For Olson, recasting Chicago as a hub of aesthetic innovation brings these disparate figures, works, and movements together in a shared project of imagining urban modernity. Again, by reorienting our perspective toward the city—its infrastructure, its institutions, its networks—Olson gives us a fuller, more detailed picture of aesthetic innovation as it was produced and disseminated in its time.

Olson takes that method of drawing connections through the city and applies it to five different concatenations of artistic energy. These constitute the main chapters of Chicago Renaissance. Each chapter is preceded by an evocative interlude that introduces the personalities and projects to come. As tableaux of particular moments in Chicago modernism’s history, the interludes, taken together, reveal the chronological scope of the study.

The first interlude takes place on October 21, 1892. On that day, thirty-two-year-old Harriet Monroe read selections of her poem The Columbian Ode at the dedicatory celebration of the World’s Columbian Exposition. As an occasional piece, the poem plunged into obscurity fairly quickly. Yet, as Olson shows in chapter 1, Monroe’s disappointment in not being recognized for her own verse turned into a commitment to editing the work of others in her little magazine Poetry. Monroe, in other words, learned to embrace being “in the middle of things: an editor, a hinge figure, and a dreamer with a pragmatic economic sense” (50). Olson’s analysis of Monroe’s care for the “typographical mechanics” of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (1913) is nothing short of revelatory; we cannot read the poem in quite the same way after it. And her assessment of Charles H. Swift, the pork magnate who had underwritten the magazine, opens up the tonal complexity of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” (1914). For Olson, the poem’s famous opening lines—“Hog Butcher for the World / Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat / Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler”—sound admiring of a city whose industrial ambitions allowed it to embrace the new. By the end of the chapter, Poetry emerges as an incubator of modernist experimentation. It does so not because Monroe was some aggrandizing doyenne but because she was the opposite: an editor who channeled her creative eye and practical nous into making others’ work appear cutting-edge.

In the second set piece, which commences in November 1912, Sherwood Anderson, heir to a mail-order roof paint business, walks out on his job and doesn’t stop walking for four days. After being committed to a hospital, Anderson leaves Elyria, Ohio, for good, heading west to Chicago where he hopes to pursue a career in writing. Anderson penned his classic short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (1919) in the city, but as chapter 2 shows, his artistic journey started off at the Art Institute’s hosting of the International Exhibit of Modern Art, also known as the Armory Show (1913). The only public museum in America to host the exhibit, the Art Institute relied on two men in the middle—real estate baron Arthur Aldis (for funding) and art critic Arthur Jerome Eddy (for promotion)—to bring landmark modernist art like Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) to the Midwest. The Armory Show not only inspired the creation of modernist cultural institutions like the Arts Club and the Renaissance Society; it also spurred its adopted son, Anderson, to take up the brush. Here a modernist writer we thought we knew turns out to have been a painter at heart.

The third and fourth interludes zoom in on women in the middle who facilitated the reception of famous modernist writers in the city. Oak Park native Ernest Hemingway was already famous when Chicago Tribune writer and literary critic Fanny Butcher visited him in Paris in the summer of 1929. Butcher’s cool reception of The Sun Also Rises (1926) did not bode well for their meeting, and yet somehow, in talking with the young tough at a café on the Left Bank, she decided, “[R]eaders would see the golden glow within him, corn and wheat fields, the heartland” (148). This bit of speculative history bears fruit in chapter 3 as Olson shows how Butcher became Hemingway’s biggest champion, highlighting the sophistication behind his famously lean style.

The other middlewoman is Bobsy Goodspeed. Born Elizabeth Fuller, Goodspeed went by her childhood nickname and brought to her leadership of the Arts Club a taste for the irreverent. On November 7, 1934, she greeted Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Carl Van Vechten at the Municipal Airport (today Midway). At Goodspeed’s urging, the trio arrived for the city’s premiere of Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts. It was Stein’s first trip to the city, but it proved so agreeable that she came back three more times in 1934 and 1935. Goodspeed (and Butcher) met her at the airport each time. Over those visits, Stein delivered lectures that helped the Chicago style find its uncanny double in the writer’s contortions of language. Spareness that in fact contains multitudes: the prose of Chicago modernism and that of Stein suggested that “she was what the middle of America wanted an avant-garde artist to be” (212).

The fifth interlude is the most moving. We inhabit the perspective of Gwendolyn Brooks at a fall 1941 meeting of the South Side Community Art Center’s poetry class. Olson writes sympathetically but inquisitively of the white woman leader of the group, Inez Cunningham Stark, a reader for Poetry and critic for the Tribune. Brooks learned a lot about poetics from the Gold Coast socialite. Ultimately, though, it’s what she did with those lessons that earned her hearty applause from Langston Hughes when made a surprise visit to the workshop and heard Brooks read. Chapter 5 takes its cue from this warm affirmation to show how African Americans, while participating in the networks of Chicago modernism, sought to build their own receptive publics. Olson describes how Bronzeville’s public library, the George Cleveland Hall Branch, became a thoroughfare for budding African American writers and artists. Its head librarian, Vivian G. Harsh, started a “‘Special Negro Collection’ of books, manuscripts, photographs, pamphlets, and other materials by and about African Americans” that helped patrons see themselves in history, letters, and the arts (251). Olson identifies other incubators for black Chicago’s take on modernism: the South Side Writers Group, which helped Richard Wright work through ideas that went into his bestselling Native Son (1940); the School of the Art Institute, which introduced painter Eldzier Cortor to the grammars of modernist abstraction; and the Johnson Publishing Company, whose Ebony magazine gave North Dakota-born journalist Era Bell Thompson a figure-it-out-as-you-go platform to address a black readership. White editors and patrons are not completely absent from this section, but they certainly take a backseat to Olson’s focus on how black writers and artists made Chicago modernism their own.

As this tour of the main chapters of Chicago Renaissance suggests, the movement between interlude and chapter is enthralling. Olson gives us a morsel to chew on, writing speculative history with the verve of a novelist. She then widens the scope of the tableaux and presents capsule histories that reflect the major shifts of artistic innovation in the city. The sheer joy of reading this book comes out of recognizing that there’s as much attention paid to style and narrative structure in Olson’s method as there is intellectual heft. Trains and tracks may be her preferred figures for that method, but, in truth, Olson’s writing evinces the elegance of a classically trained dancer.

“On some level,” Olson writes at the beginning of Chicago Renaissance, “I am performing an ekphrasis, that is, I am enacting the very thing that I am trying to describe” (xviii). From the endpapers to the interludes to her prose, Olson makes good on this wager and thereby achieves a rare feat in academic scholarship: she honors her objects of study by making them come alive on the page. There is no greater testament to the fact that Chicago had to earn its modernism, had to buy, build, and make its modernism, than for Olson to make that history happen as well.