The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream

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A critically acclaimed history of Chicago at mid-century, featuring many of the incredible personalities that shaped American culture
Before air travel overtook trains, nearly every coast-to-coast journey included a stop in Chicago, and this flow of people and commodities made it the crucible for American culture and innovation. In luminous prose, Chicago native Thomas Dyja re-creates the story of the city in its postwar prime and ...

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The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream

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A critically acclaimed history of Chicago at mid-century, featuring many of the incredible personalities that shaped American culture
Before air travel overtook trains, nearly every coast-to-coast journey included a stop in Chicago, and this flow of people and commodities made it the crucible for American culture and innovation. In luminous prose, Chicago native Thomas Dyja re-creates the story of the city in its postwar prime and explains its profound impact on modern America—from Chess Records to Playboy, McDonald’s to the University of Chicago. Populated with an incredible cast of characters, including Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Sun Ra, Simone de Beauvoir, Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Turkel, and Mayor Richard J. Daley, The Third Coast recalls the prominence of the Windy City in all its grandeur.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Rachel Shteir
Thomas Dyja's robust cultural history, The Third Coast, weaves together the stories of the American artists, styles and ideas that developed in Chicago before and after World War II—the blues, Mies van der Rohe's Modernist architecture, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, and "Kukla, Fran and Ollie"…Dyja zooms in on the qualities Chicagoans value and does it better than anyone else I've read: informality; the desire to be "regular"; the conviction among artists that "the process was as important as the product."
The New York Times - Scott Turow
…Thomas Dyja's engrossing, wide-angled cultural history of Chicago in the middle of the 20th century…makes for an intensely engaging book, notable for its intellectual breadth, arms-wide research and high-octane prose that keeps it riding high over the mass of details…Like all good histories, the book is crammed with tasty morsels…More important, Mr. Dyja repeatedly presents a nuanced understanding that counterbalances many of today's convenient preconceptions.
Publishers Weekly
Novelist and Chicago native Dyja (Play for a Kingdom) delivers a magisterial narrative of mid-20th century Chicago, once America’s “primary meeting place, market, workshop and lab.” Dyja covers the period from the 1930s through the 1950s, when Chicago produced much of what became postwar America’s way of life: Mies van der Rohe’s glass and steel skyscrapers; TV’s soap operas; Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s franchise; Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire; and the Chess Brothers’ recording studio that unleashed Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, urban blues, and rock ’n’ roll. Though the book focuses on Chicago’s pivotal role in producing America’s mass-market culture, Dyja highlights how Chicago was also wrestling with the counterculture—the improvisational theater of Second City, the urban poor in Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry and Nelson Algren’s novels, Moholy’s experimental Institute of Design, and new styles in television and music aimed at people, not markets. As Dyja notes, racial strife pervaded all aspects of life in the city, which was home to the National Baptist Convention; the Harlem Globetrotters; major black press outlets (Ebony and Jet, among others); and Emmett Till, whose murder sparked the Civil Rights movement. Dyja explores Chicago’s politics, and how the city’s leadership attempted to address the “racial wound,” caused, in part, by placing all public housing in black neighborhoods. What emerges is a luminous, empathetic, and engrossing portrait of a city. Agent: Lisa Bankoff, ICM. (Apr.)
New York Times Book Review
Thomas Dyja's robust cultural history...weaves together the stories of the artists, styles and ideas that developed in Chicago before and after WWII. [It is] written with greater wit than the insider accounts. Some of this is familiar, but Dyja zooms in on the qualities Chicagoans value and does it better than anyone else I've read.
Chicago Tribune
It also has an elegant, unflinching, non-nostalgic clarity about Chicago that you rarely see in books about Chicago. It gave me a dizzying rush, the impression that I had come across a new touchstone in Chicago literature, an ambitious history lesson no one had written: The story of how, from 1945 to 1960, Chicago created the culture that shaped American culture, delivering, in that brief window, Studs Terkel, McDonald's, Hugh Hefner, the atom bomb, modernist architecture, Chess Records, The Second City, the Chicago School of Television and "Kukla, Fran and Ollie."
Kirkus Reviews
A readable, richly detailed history of America's second city--which, laments novelist/historian and Chicagoan Dyja (Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America, 2008, etc.), has become a third city, perhaps even less. One reason: Until the very end of the 1950s, most people traveling from coast to coast did so by way of Chicago, where they changed trains and often spent a little layover time. On January 25, 1959, all that changed when transcontinental air service was inaugurated between New York and Los Angeles, making Chicago and the rest of the land "flyover country"; as Dyja laments, "the newly minted ‘jet set' would never need to change trains in Chicago again." Nevertheless, Chicago remained an innovator on several cultural and commercial fronts, the home of Playboy magazine and Chess Records, even as it settled into the strange boss politics of Richard Daley, whose rise to power Dyja carefully records. Daley wielded that power in ways that a modern tyrant might envy, using what came to be known as "The Machine" to capture the minority vote that had become important by the 1950s after the explosive growth of the nonwhite population as a result of immigration and internal migration. However, writes Dyja, it was just one node of power, the other two central ones being the Catholic Church and organized crime, all working against each other as they "protected their power above the needs of the people they served." In the end, Los Angeles and other cities stole much of Chicago's thunder, and Chicago "never became the city it could have been, the city it should have been." A valuable contribution to the history of Chicago, worthy of a place alongside William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis (1991).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143125099
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/25/2014
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 179,767
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Dyja

Thomas Dyja is the author of three novels and two works of nonfiction. A native of Chicago’s Northwest Side, he was once called “a real Chicago boy” by Studs Turkel. He now lives in New York City.


Thomas Dyja, has worked as a book editor and literary agent. He is the author of the award-winning novel Play for a Kingdom, as well as Meet John Trow and The Moon in Our Hand. Dyja presently lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 31, 1962
    2. Place of Birth:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A in English, Columbia University

Read an Excerpt

Under the light of a single bulb, the old drunk slipped into a coma. Louis Sullivan, the greatest architect in a city of great architecture, lay dying of kidney disease at the Warner Hotel on 33rd and Cottage Grove, five years after the White Sox had met there to fix the 1919 World Series. His last designs had been a series of extravagant little banks in midwestern hamlets, jewel boxes cascading with his glorious ornament, but they’d paid nothing, so old friends like his former protégé Frank Lloyd Wright had chipped in for this dingy room. As the bulb swung and his breathing shallowed, Chicagoans went on shopping in his department stores, cooking dinner in his homes, shuffling papers in his offices, dozing off in his theaters, and praying in the churches he’d created. Few had any clue how Sullivan had given form to the functions of their lives.


He’d come to Chicago in 1873, chased west by the year’s financial panic to a city whose purpose was to be in the middle. Before Marquette and Joliet came through in the late 1600s, centuries of Potawatomi Indians had portaged here between Lake Michigan and the Des Plaines River, paddling on to the Mississippi. French fur traders set up shop in the 1700s, and as the railroads pushed west in the next century, the frontier outpost named Fort Dearborn grew into Chicago, hub of the expanding nation. From every direction, people, resources, and products moved through its muddy plains, soon the site of the world’s biggest, wildest boomtown, and when the fire of 1871 scoured most of the city away, America willed it back into existence, this time even bigger and wilder. Between 1870 and 1890, the city’s population grew from just under 300,000 to more than a million souls densely packed and separate, every person there to do, to make, to somehow get theirs. Grain and livestock mattered as much as pig iron; labor confronted capital; new sciences were explored amid back- alley violence. “Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again,” said an uncharacteristically prim Rudyard Kipling after an 1890 visit. “It is inhabited by savages.” Historian William Cronon has called it “the grandest, most spectacular country fair the world has ever seen.” You could probably find fifty just like it now in China, but Chicago was the first of its kind, and Louis Sullivan had loved it at first sight. “Here . . . was power,” he wrote, “naked power, naked as the prairies, greater than the mountains.”


After a short stint at the École des Beaux- Arts in Paris, Sullivan teamed up with Dankmar Adler to design scores of buildings that expressed the extremes of the city that gave America its meat, steel, and the Wizard of Oz. Together Sullivan and Adler refined the idea of what a skyscraper should be. They pushed the limits of technology in buildings such as the Auditorium and the Schiller Theater, while Sullivan developed his distinctive ornamentation, an intricate, organic system that wound around the straight lines of modern industry, exploring the aesthetic possibilities of a grain of wheat the way Bach explored music. Sullivan’s florid yet rational ornament mediated between Chicagoans and their buildings. It captured the creative tension between rural and urban, past and present, the individual man and the democratic nation that fueled the city. Sullivan gave form to the idea of Chicago as a crossroads, where all of America’s impulses met to converse and trade, battle and build, each structure a message about how technology and man could thrive together. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 ended all that, though. Grand as Daniel Burnham’s fair was, it pushed the first generation of Chicago skyscraper builders out of fashion, and the city’s progress stumbled. Adler and Sullivan split, and as Sullivan took to the bottle, he warned— or cursed— that it would be fifty years before American architecture recovered. He was off by only five or so.


When Sullivan died that night in 1924, he died forgotten. Chicago was no longer his city, as much as it ever had been. In the 1920s virtually everyone went on the take— not just Al Capone but union bosses and corporate heads, aldermen and corner cops; even a few priests were mobsters under the Roman collar. Five years later the stock market crash would drag the city to the brink of collapse.


Out of those ashes, Chicago did rise again. It was a slow, often painful progress infused with creativity and greed, overshadowed by the two glamorous cities on the other coasts, but central in all ways to the massmarket America we know today. Beginning in the late 1930s and rolling on through the 1950s, Chicagoans produced much of what the world now calls “American”: the liberated, leering sexuality of Playboy; glass and steel modern architecture; rock and roll and the urban blues; McDonald’s and the spread of the fast- food nation; the improvisational sketch comedy that’s trained everyone from Joan Rivers and John Belushi to Steve Carell and Tina Fey; Ebony magazine and Emmett Till, whose murder catalyzed the civil rights movement; geodesic domes; avant-garde jazz and gospel music; the Nation of Islam; modern photography; the atom bomb and the Great Books; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; and the last great political machine.


The Third Coast is the history of Chicago’s greatest— and final— period as the nation’s primary meeting place, market, workshop, and lab, but it is also the story of how America’s uniform culture came to be. As New York positioned itself on the global stage and Hollywood polished the nation’s fantasies, the most profound aspects of American modernity grew up out of the flat, prairie land next to Lake Michigan. The real struggle for America’s future— whether it would be directed by its people or its institutions— took place in postwar Chicago.

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