- Sue Kwong
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.
In this week’s contest, Reader editor Mara Shalhoup kicks off round two by choosing between the first two winners of round one: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. To see the results of previous bouts, look here.
For four years I’d been searching for an excuse to return to the Warmth of Other Suns, which I started reading a few months before moving from Atlanta to Chicago. And for four years its gifts and insights eluded me—until Warmth beat out Native Son in the first round of our Greatest Ever Chicago Book contest.
As excited as I was about having the opportunity to finally finish Isabel Wilkerson’s 550-page opus, I was less enthusiastic about having to judge it against another first-round winner, The Jungle. I knew from the outset that I favored Warmth, but I wanted to at least feign a willingness to be open-minded. And things got a little tricky when I realized how much weight my fellow judges were placing on each book’s inherent Chicago-ness.
As I read Jake Austen’s perfectly reasonable round-one essay that elevated Studs Terkel’s Working above Chris Ware’s Building Stories, I panicked. Austen recalled that as a teenager he once had the pleasure of witnessing Terkel in the act of eating a Chicago hot dog, a sensation he likened to “freebasing Chicago-ism.” He then gave Terkel the nod—despite his admission that “Building Stories is certainly a better book than Working.”
“Chris Ware may be the more gifted artist,” Austen wrote, “but Studs Terkel’s talents as a celebrator of Chicago’s everymen and everywomen is unmatched.”
Things were not looking good for Warmth, which I must admit is not nearly so Chicago as The Jungle: it traces the separate paths of three southerners not just to Chicago but also New York and Los Angeles.
To make things worse, my Reader colleague Aimee Levitt deemed The Jungle to be superior to Jane Addams’s Twenty Years at Hull-House even though “the last few chapters of the book, which are full of inspiring socialist speeches, are ridiculous.” So how did she reach the conclusion the The Jungle should win? “The Jungle is a better Chicago book,” she wrote. “It is Chicago.”
Austen and Levitt might have felt a certain compulsion to name a Greatest Ever Chicago Book (both were born and raised in Chicagoland, after all) while I’m more inclined to name a Greatest Ever Chicago Book (perhaps because I spent 20 years in the south before moving here four years ago). And thoughThe Jungle might be the former, The Warmth of Other Suns most certainly is the latter. So how can I—a journalist raised not on Terkel and machine politics and labor movements but on Ralph McGill and the New South—rationalize a win for Warmth?
Both books are the result of prodigious research. (UPDATE: Or, in the case of The Jungle, maybe not so prodigious.) Wilkerson spent 15 years conducting interviews with 1,000 of the estimated six million African-Americans who, from the 1910s to the 1970s, fled the horrors of the south for the opportunities of the north and west. On the other hand, Sinclair went behind the scenes to witness firsthand the disgusting and deplorable conditions low-wage workers endured in Chicago’s meatpacking industry; out of those observations, he fashioned his muckraking novel.
The Jungle tells the story of a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, and his family who endure all—and I mean all—the cruelties that early twentieth century Chicago has to offer: grossly substandard pay, swindling landlords, grueling work conditions, and gruesome deaths. The story is crushing and revolting.
But wait! Warmth chronicles similarly heinous conditions: grossly substandard pay, swindling landlords, grueling work conditions, and gruesome deaths. And rather than cause revulsion, the book manages to draw attention to Chicago’s most systemic problem of the past 50 years—its “hypersegregation”—while instilling a small but genuine sense of hope.
Furthermore, it is by design that Warmth is less “Chicago” than The Jungle. The three narratives are artfully conjoined, but you could ignore the New York and LA passages entirely if you want, focusing instead on the portions about Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife who took flight from Chickasaw County, Mississippi, and landed on Chicago’s south side. And if you did that you would still gather a deep and meaningful understanding not only of Ida Mae’s experience but the experience of so many millions of persecuted African-Americans.
Wilkerson writes of the Great Migration: “It was, if nothing else, an affirmation of the power of an individual decision, however powerless the individual might appear on the surface.” In Ida Mae, Wilkerson found the ideal individual to embody that larger message. Sinclair, on the other hand, couldn’t effectively conjure with the fictional Jurgis a character one-tenth as convincing or endearing as the real-life Ida Mae.
“She had lived the hardest life, been given the least education, seen the worst the South could hurl at her people, and did not let it break her,” Wilkerson writes. “She took the best of what she saw in the North and the South and interwove them in the way she saw fit. . . . Her success was spiritual, perhaps the hardest of all to achieve.”
How does that success translate today, 40 years after the Great Migration ended—and after Chicago’s decades of entrenched, destructive segregation have diminished the city’s reputation as a Promised Land for African-Americans?
Warmth doesn’t delve too deeply into the irony that the backwards-ass south abandoned by Ida Mae and millions of others has, by some accounts, begun to outpace the north when it comes to transcending racial tensions. But in a recent op-ed Wilkerson wrote for the New York Times, “When Will the North Face Its Racism?”, she picks up where Warmth left off:
Notably, however, high profile-cases of police brutality have recently come to be associated with the North rather than the South. And it is in the South that two recent cases of police shootings of unarmed black people resulted in more vigorous prosecution. . . . The nation still has far to go, but this, at least, seems cause for hope. It suggests that the South, after decades of wrestling with its history, is now willing to face injustice head on. And it suggests that the North, after decades of insisting that it was fairer and more free, could eventually do the same.
By the book’s end, Ida Mae has spent 67 years in Chicago. That’s not quite Terkel territory, but it’s enough to impart a rare and invaluable lesson about this city—and leave me wanting more.
“She was a Chicagoan now,” Wilkerson writes of Ida Mae, “but had seen and heard so much, so many wondrous, sad, and unspeakable things in her life, that there still wasn’t time enough to tell all that she had witnessed.
“‘The half ain’t been told,’ she said.”
I wish that twice as much of it could have been. I’d have been more than willing to read 1,000 more pages about Ida Mae’s plight—and 200 or so fewer about Jurgis’s.
It was close, but the bare majority of voters predicted that The Warmth of Other Suns would advance to the Final Four. Voting for round three begins February 10.