Anyone who lives in Chicago who has any artistic ambition whatsoever has seriously considered, at least once, moving away. All the real action, it seems, is elsewhere, and if anyone outside the midwest is going to pay you any attention, you’re going to have to head to one of the coasts, where you can spend the rest of your life wallowing in nostalgia for how young and free you were in Chicago.
But it wasn’t always this way. Well, not entirely. Liesl Olson’s new book, Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis, attempts to capture a golden era in our city’s history, when Chicago was a place people wanted to stay because it had the most exciting writers and the most avant-garde art scene. By Olson’s reckoning, this period launched around 1912, when Harriet Monroe started Poetry magazine and sputtered to an end around 1968, when Gwendolyn Brooks published In the Mecca, her book-length poem about the Bronzeville apartment building that became a symbol of the neighborhood’s overcrowding and decline before it was torn down in 1952.
Still, Chicago’s history is full of the names of people who left, and Chicago Renaissance is filled with the ghosts of the departed, people like Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, and Margaret Anderson, who began their careers here and then went on to greater glory elsewhere. Olson argues that Chicago provided them with the sturdy foundations they would need to change the world. It was in Chicago that they chose their audiences—or, more specifically, which traditions they planned to destroy—and began developing their weapons.
The best parts of Chicago Renaissance, though, concentrate on those who stayed, particularly Monroe and Brooks, who were both solidly committed to building their city. Olson portrays them as two centers of a constellation of booksellers, teachers, publishers, gallerists, and philanthropists, most of whom are largely forgotten today but who, in their time, nurtured and supported the artists who were changing the world. As Monroe wrote in the first issue of Poetry, “To have great poets there must be great audiences, too.”
The cast of characters in Chicago Renaissance is enormous, and Olson doesn’t always resist the temptation to focus on the better-known figures—how many times do we need to hear about how much Hemingway hated his mother or what a charming goofball Gertrude Stein could be? Olson also has a tendency to repeat material, which is fine if you forget who Manierre Dawson was (a Chicago modernist painter who earned his living as an engineer), but less so when you read about how Monroe wrote the opening ode for the 1893 Columbian Exposition on page 45 and then again on page 50.
However, Olson does a tremendous service to the Chicagoans whose influence on the city was far greater than posterity has given them credit for. (Would they have been more celebrated if they were men instead of women?) Chief among them is Monroe, a mediocre poet but a receptive and curious editor who was among the first to publish some of the century’s greatest poets and who wasn’t too proud to tap the city’s vast commercial resources to finance her vision.
There are many others: Fanny Butcher, the Tribune book critic who also ran her own bookstore for eight years (Olson doesn’t seem to have figured out how she managed this, though she does note that Butcher had a breakdown shortly before the store closed); Bobsy Goodspeed and Alice Roullier, the president and exhibitions coordinator of the Arts Club of Chicago who amassed an impressive collection of modernist art and organized Stein’s visit here in 1934; Inez Cunningham Stark, a reader for Poetry who ran the poetry workshop at the South Side Community Art Center where Brooks shared some of her earliest poems; Vivian G. Harsh, the head librarian at the George Cleveland Hall Branch library in Bronzeville who curated a “Special Negro Collection” of materials by and for African- Americans, the first of its kind in the city; and Era Bell Thompson, the Ebony editor who in her memoir American Daughter tried to fight racism by pointing out its patent absurdities. (It must be said that not everyone appreciated this approach.)
What they all helped create and nurture, Olson writes, was a sense of freedom and possibility. In 1912 Chicago was still a relatively new city; an influx of immigrants kept parts of it, particularly Bronzeville, feeling new until well into the 1940s. Artistic experimentation hadn’t yet calcified into tradition. “Chicago was a place of self-creation,” Olson writes, “anything might happen.” And it was, for a while, the most exciting city in the world. v