Neil Steinberg

There is a tradition of iconic Chicago writers making books out of their romances with the city. Nelson Algren gave Chicago City on the Make, Studs Terkel Studs Terkel’s Chicago, Ben Hecht Gaily, Gaily. Saul Bellow began The Adventures of Augie March on this note: “I am an American, Chicago born.”

As Neil Steinberg observes in his own new book, Bellow was actually a Canadian, Montreal born—but whatever. Bellow came from Canada at age nine, Steinberg from Ohio as a Northwestern freshman. In You Were Never in Chicago, Steinberg concerns himself with authenticity among Chicagoans whenever and however they arrived. It’s a matter of spirit and perspective. An authentic Chicagoan lives here—and not as an outsider. Also, not as a sucker.

Steinberg’s book is about his romance, and although it holds its own with the others as a piece of writing, it varies from them in the nature of the self-image projected by the writer. Steinberg has serious doubts about himself as an icon—he broods that his many years as a Sun-Times columnist have made him at best marginally notable—or even as a writer who deserves the reader’s respect. During most of the time I was reading You Were Never in Chicago I wondered what Steinberg thought he was doing: how could an author seriously celebrate Chicago while feeling so equivocal about himself? I suspected Steinberg of playing a subtle psychological game I hadn’t figured out yet. Maybe his plan was to ultimately repudiate the city he pretended to embrace by giving it to us straight—There’s nothing lovely about a lady with a broken nose. And that’s why I moved to the suburbs!