This winter, the Reader has set a humble goal for itself: to determine the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written. We chose 16 books that reflected the wide range of books that have come out of Chicago and the wide range of people who live here and assembled them into an NCAA-style bracket. Then we recruited a crack team of writers, editors, booksellers, and scholars as well as a few Reader staffers to judge each bout. The results of each contest will be published every Monday, along with an essay by each judge explaining his or her choice. The Reader reader who best predicts the judges’ rulings will win a trip to Mexico.
This week, in round one, bout three, Bill Savage, a professor at Northwestern; coeditor of, among other books, Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker’s Guide to the Paris of America and the 50th anniversary critical edition of The Man With the Golden Arm; and bartender chooses between Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren. To see the results of previous bouts, look here.
OK, Chicago Reader readers: not to say the fix is in, but let’s be real.
As coeditor and annotator (with David Schmittgens) of the 50th anniversary edition of Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make, I’m as impartial as an 11th Ward Democrat deciding whether to vote for a Daley. This first-round match was in the bag before the editor pitching it hit “send” on her e-mail.
Pitting Algren’s nonfiction masterpiece against Erik Larson’s popular and deeply flawed Devil in the White City is a mismatch like unto the 1919 White Sox taking the field against the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars. However good those kids might be, they’re not major-leaguers.
But let’s give Devil its due. Like Republican political advertising, the book’s success demonstrates the power of narrative over history and style.
Larson structures his history in the form of a suspense novel, with build-ups to cliffhanger chapter endings. Will Daniel Burnham get the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition done on time? Will H. H. Holmes get caught for his dastardly deeds?
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Chicago history knows the answer to these questions, but the narrative shaping sweeps any generous reader along, and Larson has introduced many readers who knew none of this to some Chicago history.
Nonetheless, the events Larson retells, beyond happening in the same city at the same time, have only the most tenuous of thematic connections. But that lack of depth seems beside the point to legions of happy readers. I’ve taught the book twice, and it does a decent job of bringing its era to light. (Other writers have picked at its many factual errors, so I’ll let them go; that’s the rhetorical device apophasis, by the way.) My students did identify one interesting idea buried in the narrative: the story of Holmes and his victims shows that the freedom that Chicago offers inevitably comes with danger.
Devil in the White City says nothing about the Fair or Burnham or Holmes that others haven’t already better said elsewhere. Its retelling of history is more a rehash of old ingredients than a vital reimagining of history.
But the real reason that Devil in the White City loses to Chicago: City on the Make is more about poetry. Larson’s book does not have a single memorable, much less quotable, line.
This match ain’t Tunney-Dempsey, no need for a long count, but let’s go.
I here submit for your approval a sampling of the poetry of Algren’s creative nonfiction masterpiece, with brief comments to show how City on the Make endures, how its words resonate 60-plus years after Algren wrote them. (Page numbers refer to the current edition.)
Chicago is a city “that was to forge, out of steel and blood-red neon, its own peculiar wilderness” (11)
Ponder ongoing depictions of the urban landscape as inherently lawless, uncivilized, unnatural.
And since it’s a ninth-inning town, the ball game never being over till the last man is out, it remains Jane Addams’ town as well as Big Bill’s. The ball game isn’t over yet.
But it’s a rigged ball game. (14)
Ponder the election laws that favor incumbents, the “nonpartisan primary” that almost guarantees reelection for Rahm Emanuel, the way reform in this town is always one step forward, three steps back, one step sideways into Bubbly Creek, and then start over.
Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, 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. (23)
Ponder the inordinate affection people have for this town, a place that is so battered and beaten, yet so entrancingly beautiful, and how we are perhaps all complicit in the violence that mars its beauty.
Before you earn the right to rap any sort of joint, you have to love it a little while. You have to belong to Chicago like a crosstown transfer out of the Armitage Avenue barns first; and you can’t rap it then just because you’ve been crosstown. (42)
Ponder the proud parochialism of belonging to this place, how north-siders and south-siders scrap over bogus ideas of authenticity, and how the whole town unites whenever a New Yorker says anything less than flattering about our burg.
Chicago is “[a] town where the artist of class and the swifter-type thief approach their work with the same lofty hope of slipping a fast one over on everybody and making a fast buck to boot. ‘If he can get away with it I give the man credit,’ is said here of both bad poets and good safe-blowers.” (56)
Ponder Jerry Springer, Oprah Winfrey, any network TV show shot here, along with the open affection displayed for Al Capone and his Outfit descendants.
You can live in a natural home, with pictures on the walls, or you can live in a fort; but it’s a lead-pipe cinch you can’t live in both. You can’t make an arsenal of a nation and yet expect its great cities to produce artists. It’s in the nature of the overbraided brass to build walls about the minds of men–as it’s in the nature of the arts to tear those dark walls down. Today, under the name of “security,” the dark shades are being drawn. (55)
Ponder McCarthyism and the Bush doctrine, blacklists and red scares and the NSA’s do-not-fly List, the cold war and the global war on terror, the Red Squad infiltrating pacifist groups, and CPD units swabbing “randomly chosen” commuters at el stops for bomb residue on their bags.
Ponder how far we haven’t come.
“The slums take their revenge,” the white-haired poet warned us thirty-two American League seasons and Lord-Knows-How-Many-Swindles-Ago.” (67)
Ponder Ferguson and our own neighborhoods where life is defined by violence.
And as we regard the struggles of our fellow Chicagoans in 2014 to get along in life, to survive on minimum wage in our post-postindustrial economy, to avoid the gun violence endemic to America and Chicago, ponder these words:
Every day is D-Day under the El. (59-60)
Few books in the history of Chicago, or America, have ever expressed the fundamental reality of this town, and this nation, in words that sing the truth, and sing it in words that resonate for generations, like Chicago: City on the Make.
Only 28 percent of you voters made the connection between Savage the judge and Savage the Algren scholar and correctly predicted his ruling. Think more like a Chicago politician when you vote in round two, starting January 13.