Despite the continentally-correct judgment of the Olympicrats in Copenhagen, Chicago is an Olympian city when it comes to literature and the arts. And what better time than now to remind us? Here’s a sampling of some of those triumphs of the sedentary, each of which required sweat, struggle, and, of course, the building of stadiums of the mind.
The Adventures of Augie March Saul Bellow
With its fire-breathing opening sentence – “I am an American Chicago born-Chicago, that somber city-and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style…” – Bellow declares he has arrived to create the alpha and omega (or, perhaps, the alepth-bet) of the American post-war novel.
And when — in that same paragraph — the street-tutored Augie, Bellow’s first-person instigator, writes “But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus,” we’re smacked with the joyous high/low collision that has wandered forward into the culture and become an aesthetic norm, influencing everyone from Jeff Koons to Quentin Tarrantino. Augie dominates, but Chicago itself is an omnipresent character, its unpredictable urban rumble a propulsive force for fate’s caprice.
Despite, or more likely because of, its invocation of urban inferiority — borrowed from the title of a New Yorker article about Chicago by A.J. Liebling — Second City has become an ongoing Manhattan Project for developing devastating comic weaponry since it was opened in 1959.
Issuing forth from its laboratory, it seems, has been everyone who mocks anything: John Belushi, Chris Farley, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert. The author of this graceful new book, a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer, had the painful research task of interviews with Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Carl Reiner, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, and Jon Stewart.
Indemnity Only Sara Paretsky
Sara Paretsky, who writes the V.I Warshawski detective stories, could be the love child of Raymond Chandler and Dorothy Parker — if they were also scholars. Paretsky has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago; her dissertation was entitled “The Breakdown of Moral Philosophy in New England Before the Civil War” — and an MBA.
But she writes with a visceral, back-alley fluency. Indeed, there is something Mametian (David Mamet, another unmistakable Chicago voice, shows up later on our list) about the way this classic academic was drawn to the noir side of the tracks. If you haven’t read her, start with her first novel, Indemnity Only, which introduces V.I. Populated with Chicago characters, ithas more local color than you’d fine at Pantone headquarters.
Rules for Radicals Saul Alinsky
Saul Alinksy is known as the founder of community organizing, which is an easy honor because there’s not even a close second. Alinsky organized Chicago’s “Back of the Yards” neighborhood in the 1930s, and never lost his fire or focus. He wrote and worked tirelessly to shift the power equation in the true progressive Chicago tradition that goes back to Clarence Darrow (who appears next.)
In 1968, Alinsky personally offered Hillary Rodham Clinton a job, and after he died, his followers offered a position to a dreamer named Barack Obama. Discover Alinksy with his last book, Rules for Radicals, in the introduction to which he captures his life’s work with a single sentence: “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”
The Story of My Life Clarence Darrow
Most people probably think he looked like Spencer Tracy; such is the cultural imprint of Inherit the Wind (which is, incidentally, now in a muscular revival in London starring Kevin Spacey and David Troughton.) Clarence Darrow made his reputation in Chicago — where he once shared an office with Edgar Lee Masters — and this book may be the first of what is now an established genre: the legal memoir. Insufficiently attended to, The Story of My Life includes the Woodworker’s Conspiracy Case (which established the legal right of a union to strike), the Leopold and Loeb case, the Scottsboro civil rights case, and of course, the Scopes Circus…er, trial.
Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions Gloria Steinem
What is Chicago without Hugh Marston Heffner, and what is Hef without the feminist backlash? In 1963, Gloria Steinem went undercover and worked at a Playboy Club on assignment for Show magazine. This collection includes the classic reportage piece that emerged from that deception, “I Was A Playboy Bunny.” For a long time Steinem regretted the piece and the defining envelope it became. But in the introduction she writes, “Eventually, dawning feminism made me understand that reporting about the phony glamour and exploitative employment policies of the Playboy Club was a useful thing to do.”
One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko Mike Royko
Bloggers, be afraid, be very afraid. Over thirty years, the legendary Mike Royko cranked out over 7,500 daily columns for three Chicago papers, the Tribune, the Daily News, and Sun-Times. His voice was pure Chicago, wickedly demotic, taking on elites with glee and joust. He freely created fictitious characters — the most famous was Slats Grobnik — as his doppelgangers.
Royko made things happen. He once wrote a column, “A Faceless Man’s Plea,” that blasted the Veteran’s Administration when it wouldn’t pay for reconstructive surgery that would let a Vietnam vet chew his food. Soon after the column ran, the VA got out its checkbook.
Steppenwolf Herman Hesse
Hesse was never in Chicago. But his 1927 counterculture favorite — a novel of alienation, transcendence, and garden-variety spiritual crisis — made it there.
In 1974, Rich Argosh, a high-school senior in Highland Park, was reading Steppenwolf when he approached Gary Sinise and Leslie Wilson about mounting a production of Paul Zindel’s And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little.
Out of the novelistic coincidence was born the name one of the nation’s premier regional theaters, the birthing ground of John Malvokich, Joan Allen, Martha Plimpton, and, of course, August, Osage County.
Glengarry Glen Ross David Mamet
David Mamet’s Gatling dialogue and sympathy-challenged characters are — do you hear me, are you listening to the words I’m saying about these people, these people who don’t giving a flying fucking broad jump about the Olympics — worlds away from the pretty picture of lakeside Chicago that President Obama sketched in Copenhagen..
Or not. After all, the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross are in a primal struggle to close a lead. Just like Chicago was.
Chicago, City on the Make Nelson Algren
Manhattan has E.B.White’s elegiac “This is New York”; Chicago has this thorned valentine from the less lyrical Nelson Algren. Algren, most famous for The Man With The Golden Arm, wrote this unblinking 12,000 word essay in 1951. “Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch…” he murmurs and growls “…you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.”
Algren locates the city’s heart in the “nobodies nobody knows”; he drags himself to his half-busted Underwood “For all the poolroom tigers in checkered caps who’ve never seen a cow.”
A Steady Rain Keith Huff
Managing editor of Orthopaedic Knowledge Online and unpaid resident playwright at the Chicago Dramatist’s theater, Huff has been huffing along for the last quarter century. He’s written more than 50 plays, but A Steady Rain makes up for all of them. It’s about the friendship between two cops and a screwed-up police investigation. And it’s rooted in the streets. The Wall Street Journal writes, “In a note at the start of the play, Huff specifies that the men should speak with Chicago accents.” A Steady Rain just opened on Broadway with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, making this the kind of story that feeds the fantasy furnace of writers everywhere.
Actor, playwright, jazz columnist, host of a groundbreaking TV show, Studs Place, host of a radio program from 1952 through 1997, and Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian, Terkel, who died at 2008 at 96, was an irreplaceable piece of Chicago’s sense of itself.
Rather than any single book, this well-crafted website lets you enter his extraordinary life, a pretense-free celebration of American possibility.
(Chicago lovers, what books are we missing? Tell us in the comments below.)
Adam Hanft is a nationally known authority on consumer marketing, business strategy, and social trends, and the founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited. He blogs for the Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and Fast Company and is a frequent commentator on National Public Radio’s Marketplace. He is the co-writer, with Faith Popcorn, of The Dictionary of the Future. You can follow him at twitter.com/hanft.