How was it, asks Henry Regnery in his new book, Creative Chicago, that a city of such varied and remarkable accomplishments failed to become a literary center? The book is a collection of essays about several of the writers and publishers who did good work here–and then for one reason or another moved on.

Regnery himself was one of those publishers, bringing out between the late 1940s and the mid-70s several books of considerable distinction if conservative mind-set, offering revisionist thinking on politics and religion, particularly the origins of the two world wars. His authors, who included historian Russell Kirk, English writer (and former socialist) Freda Utley, journalist William Henry Chamberlin, and German theologian Romano Guardini, wouldn’t appear on a politically correct reading list, but they were like their publisher–articulate, intellectually respectable, and admired by readers in the United States and Europe. His growing reputation brought to him in 1951 the manuscript by an undergraduate named William F. Buckley Jr. that became God and Man at Yale–likely the only title Regnery ever published that most college graduates have at least heard of, if not actually read.

A strong reputation, plus a few other books that managed to sell enough copies to make money, did not, however, lead to a growing bank account; and Regnery, like many other publishers, was beset by financial struggles throughout much of his career. His firm was later taken over by his then son-in-law Harvey Plotnick, who turned it into Contemporary Books, whose fortunes have grown as its intellectual respectability has declined. The firm was purchased last summer by the Tribune Company for $40 million. Some years back, Regnery’s notion of publishing had reappeared in Washington, D.C., as Regnery Gateway, run by his son Alfred.

Which means that Regnery, like so many others whose careers he chronicles in Creative Chicago, moved on: if not he himself–he was at the time old enough to retire–his publishing ideas. Now 81, Regnery is still intellectually lively, and he commutes between a lakefront apartment here and a house in Michigan. A few years ago, his friend Kenan Heise persuaded him to collect some of his essays and perhaps write a few more, the result of which is the present book, published by Heise’s Chicago Historical Bookworks.

Beginning with an intriguing introduction by Joseph Epstein–a gifted and perceptive writer who fortunately has not moved away–Creative Chicago includes Regnery’s contemplations about the city’s first publisher, Robert Fergus; the publishing firm of Stone & Kimball; the Dial and Chap-Book (with the exception of TriQuarterly the only nationally visible literary periodicals the city has produced to date); the Chicago publishers who brought us Oz and Tarzan; Harriet Monroe and her still-extant (and highly regarded) Poetry; plus three Chicago writers: Henry Blake Fuller, Hamlin Garland, and Theodore Dreiser. Though not intrinsic to his study of literature in Chicago, the book includes essays on William Rainey Harper and Robert Maynard Hutchins–both presidents of the University of Chicago–and Louis Sullivan, who like some of Chicago’s early literary figures died forgotten by the city that he helped define and place in the world’s imagination.

Epstein, a professor at Northwestern University and editor of the American Scholar, poses Regnery’s question thusly: “Why has literary culture–with culture now understood as a network of institutions and relationships surrounding the creation of literature–not taken permanent hold in Chicago?” Philistinism, both agree, is insufficient as an answer, and beyond that, they can only suggest reasons. Interestingly enough, Regnery seems more positive about the future of such a culture than Epstein.

Just how far we have to go might best be indicated by a meeting held recently under the auspices of the Illinois Center for the Book (a meeting that I–full disclosure here–was somewhat responsible for bringing about). Several dozen writers organizations and trade publishers from around the state (mainly Chicago, as this is where most of them are), had been invited to a morning gathering to discuss what the center might do for them. Only a fraction of those invited bothered to attend, but those who did were articulate in expressing many of the frustrations–lack of recognition and a sense of community being chief among them–Regnery discusses in his book.

But most telling of the problem, perhaps, is this: here is a brand-new book written by a Chicago publisher about Chicago publishers and writers and published by a Chicago house, and not one of the two dozen people at this meeting had ever heard of it.

Chicago, Epstein tells us, “continues somehow to be a city that is, if not particularly good for writers, then somehow good for writing . . . something intrinsic to Chicago . . . that keeps writers on the main job.” With that comment Regnery would agree. But, as Regnery notes in his foreword, “Such writers as George Ade, Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser, Hamlin Garland, and Sherwood Anderson were all attracted to Chicago, wrote in Chicago, were influenced by Chicago and took something with them when they left, but leave they all did.”

Regnery goes on to say, “The question reasonably follows: If the means to establish such institutions [the Art Institute, other museums and libraries, the CSO, and the University of Chicago] were available, why not the far more modest support for the enterprises that would have made it possible for Chicago to keep its authors and become a literary center?”

And modest is what Regnery had in mind. He says of the demise of Chicago’s first publishing firm, one that published its first title in 1839: “In the rich, prosperous city that Chicago had become during the sixty years Robert Fergus had devoted to serving it and recording its history, there was no one willing to rescue his old firm, and all that it had represented for the city, from an ignominious end.” In his 83rd year, Fergus had been killed in a blinding rainstorm at a railroad crossing, and his sons and heirs could not keep the firm running. In 1900 the firm was evicted from its offices, its stock and furnishings put out on the street.

Regnery makes a similar observation about a firm that was thriving in Chicago about the same time Fergus’s was failing: Stone & Kimball, founded during the Columbian Exposition when Herbert Stuart Stone and Hannibal Ingalls Kimball were undergraduates at Harvard. During its brief Chicago existence–from 1893 to 1897–it published, Regnery tells us, a complete edition of Edgar Allan Poe, plus books by Yeats, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Hamlin Garland, and Ibsen’s last play. And it began the Chap-Book, which carried articles by Eugene Field, Henry James, H. G. Wells, and George Santayana, and art from Toulouse-Lautrec and Aubrey Beardsley.

These enterprising and talented young men–their books were noted for the excellence of their design as well as their contents–soon parted company, with Kimball taking the firm to New York and Stone remaining here with the Chap-Book. A year later, Stone and his brother started another firm, Herbert S. Stone & Company, and reacquired most of Kimball’s titles. In 1899 the young firm published 50 titles, placing it–Regnery says–among the nation’s larger publishers.

Its life, while brilliant, was short. Herbert Stone retired from book publishing in 1906 and became a magazine editor. He hadn’t the money, said one of his editors–a woman, incidentally–to continue publishing books of the highest quality, and apparent compromises for commercial reasons subdued his enthusiasm. Regnery wonders why, aesthetic considerations aside, the firm was always short of capital, and also why Stone’s father Melville–founder of the Chicago Daily News and later the Associated Press–didn’t offer the young publishers more support. Stone’s parents “apparently decided that a book publishing firm was not a prudent place for the family’s assets . . . . As members of the commercial elite they did not think it appropriate to be involved in such a business venture as book publishing, however significant it may have been as a cultural influence.”

Regnery’s own father, a successful textile manufacturer who, the reader assumes, offered young Henry more support than Melville Stone had granted his son, advised him, “If you ever start making money in that business you are going into, you’ll probably be publishing the wrong sort of books.”

Regnery also offers a highly sympathetic portrait of a far less known Chicago literary figure–Francis Browne, editor and later publisher of the Dial, which had been established in 1880 with assistance from bookseller A.C. McClurg. It was from the start aimed at a national audience, and soon was regarded, Regnery tells us, as one of the nation’s foremost magazines of literary criticism–perhaps a New York Review of Books of its day.

In 1919, a few years after Browne’s death, the magazine was moved to New York with little local fanfare: “The Dial, it would seem, was regarded not as a cultural asset, but just another small business,” Regnery ruefully observes. And later he comments: “It has even been said that while people from Chicago were inclined to boast about the fact that the most distinguished literary magazine in the country was published in their city, the publication had far more subscribers in New York than in Chicago.”

Regnery briefly discusses Reilly & Lee, publisher of the Oz books and popular poet Edgar A. Guest, and A.C. McClurg’s venture into publishing with nearly a dozen Tarzan books; both were active in the first two decades of the century. He mentions Pascal Covici, who published Ben Hecht’s inimitable 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, and has a chapter on Harriet Monroe and the founding of Poetry in 1912. He doesn’t, however, mention the P.F. Volland Company, which first did the Raggedy Ann and Andy books, or Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, which she published here briefly in the 1920s, or any of the textbook and reference publishers that did proliferate and grow here, and his history since the 1920s consists mainly of a few paragraphs on the University of Chicago Press–the largest and most solvent, as well as most distinguished, such press in the nation.

Missing, too, are the more typical Chicago publishers like Compton’s Encyclopedia, the World Book, Marquis Who’s Who, Encyclopaedia Britannica (brought here from England), Rand McNally, which once had active trade and text lists, and ScottForesman, still here though in truncated form and no longer locally owned.

Publishers such as those, however, are not really part of the story Regnery wants to tell–they are publishers of information, not ideas; Regnery’s firm, and the New York publishers who spirited away some of the Chicago writers once published here (Epstein comments that success here seemed, to many, bush-league success at best), published ideas. A publisher of textbooks doesn’t need the “apparatus on which a publisher depends,” in Regnery’s words–the literary agents, book clubs, review media, influential magazines. He simply needs compositors and printers to manufacture his books and trains on which to ship them, and in those Chicago abounded.

Ideas are something Chicago became short on about the same time the publishers Regnery writes of moved away. A few years ago, Kenan Heise wrote and published a slim volume called The Chicagoization of America. In it he contended that several of the ideas and institutions upon which 20th-century urban democracy in America rests were first developed in Chicago around the time of the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Among them he lists penny journalism and newspapers’ use of the vernacular, the haves’ responsibility for the have-nots through social welfare programs, the populism of the Democratic Party, urban reform through nonprofit organizations, the poor’s right to a fair trial, trade unionism, racial equality, progressive education, mass-produced goods at prices most could afford–and the skyscraper.

Then, Heise says, between 1915 and 1920 the innovation and energy that had defined Chicago for its first four score years dissipated, leaving a city bereft of ideas for decades to come. It’s an intriguing thesis, but Heise’s book caused nary a blip on Chicago’s cultural consciousness–it was reviewed practically nowhere, discussed hardly at all, and sold barely enough copies to pay for the paper it was printed on. Heise, who toils daily and quietly writing obituaries for the Tribune (and writes other books about Chicago), likely anticipated such a nonreception. Yet when he published Regnery’s book, Heise invested something in design and production, indicating that he hoped for a more enthusiastic welcome.

Why? Regnery surely knew–as it’s his subject–that Chicago would take little note of what he had to say. His book, like Heise’s, was about ideas, and predictably would matter to practically no one.

But is it that these books matter to practically no one or that practically no one to whom they would matter has any good way of finding out about them? Heise, for all his virtues as a writer and publisher, observes few of the conventions of bookmaking or publicity–and as the legion of small publishers sprouting up across the country know well, publicity is all. Books may once have sold simply by being on bookstore shelves, but no longer.

One might think that in a city the size of Chicago–a city that is currently hosting some of the nation’s most brazen bookstore battles–there would be some print forum for considering recent books that take the city as its subject, or are written or published locally. But this is not the case. Our two best-known local bookstores–Stuart Brent’s and Kroch’s & Brentano’s–have never been much noted for supporting local literary efforts (the Barnes & Noble stores, however, are), nor have our major newspapers. Sure, fancy friends of some authors will turn out for publication parties, but the invitation lists make no effort at community building. The Tribune can command a nice audience for its announcement of the Heartland Prizes (as well as give them a lot of ink), but Friends of the Chicago Public Library finds selling tables for its Carl Sandburg Awards ball arduous at best.

Thus the problem that Regnery describes is still with us. The national environment in which it manifests itself, however, has changed rapidly since he got out of the business. While New York once was the only place that mattered among trade book publishers–trade books being the general interest titles, fiction and non-, we all buy in bookstores–that’s been altered markedly in the last decade and a half. Changes in technology, most notably desktop publishing, and changes in how books are sold–the mall stores, though currently struggling, have democratized book buying–have brought thousands of new publishers into the fray.

And these publishers are located all over the country. San Francisco, and to a lesser extent Los Angeles, have become trend-setting publishing centers; vibrant independent publishers are scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest, in Texas and Florida, Nashville, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, and up the east coast. The midwest hasn’t sprouted quite so many of its own, but Minneapolis-Saint Paul, with nearby parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, has been developing its own distinctive kinds of book publishing, establishing itself in the process as the off-coast publishing capital. And there are pockets of energy in places like Kansas City and Indianapolis.

If the Twin Cities offer an example for Chicago, what constitutes it and how has it evolved? “Money” is an answer some give, and there’s considerable truth to that. Twelve or 15 years ago, Minnesota arts officials got together with corporate funders and private donors to contemplate what they could do for the state’s struggling writers and publishers. The result over the next several years was the establishment of the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts, which celebrates hand-set type and similar aspects of fine design, and the Loft: A Place for Writers and Literature, which now draws enthusiasts young and old to a variety of readings and classes rather the way the Cubby Bear draws its audience here.

“This is a town that wants me,” concluded New York-born publisher Allan Kornblum upon visiting Minneapolis from Iowa City a dozen years ago. He brought with him his fledgling Coffee House Press, which with neighbors Graywolf Press and Milkweed Editions were three of six literary presses whose distinction–and contributions to literature–were honored with awards of $50,000 each by the Mellon Foundation two years ago. (Illinois’ Dalkey Archive Press was another, and the other two were on the east and west coasts.)

In addition to contributing ideas about bookselling to heavies like Barnes & Noble (which borrowed from him many of its popular ideas like late hours and bookstore as social center), proprietor David Unowsky of the Hungry Mind Bookstore in Saint Paul also financed the start-up of the Hungry Mind Review two years ago. It’s become one of six or so independent book reviews scattered around the country, and it’s regional only in a certain sensibility (Jane Smiley’s recent “Reflections on a Wedge of Lettuce” is the most brilliant send-up of midwestern cuisine yet written) and in giving national visibility to regional writers.

There are now hundreds of trade publishers in Minnesota, some doing one book–like the phenomenal Art of Rubber Stamping, which sold tens of thousands of copies through the author’s aggressive radio campaign–others hundreds of titles. A couple of these are the new-age Llewellyn Publications and the Hazelden Foundation, whose tony center for well-off addicts spawned much of the recovery book fad of a few years back. In between are lively Free Spirit Publishing, doing self-help for kids, and Voyageur, specializing in God’s-country titles.

Book publishing in the Twin Cities and environs, with not inconsiderable assistance from Garrison Keillor, has helped define a “Minnesotan” mind-set–good health, good kids, the good life, and the great outdoors–that likely has contributed more than a little to the region’s growing economy. Books start trends, change habits of thought, and amuse and entertain–and they’ve done all three for Minnesota, as well as made some local authors famous and local publishers more prosperous than Henry Regnery ever managed to be.

So though it cost some money to get going, publishing in Minnesota is now a genuine job-creation activity. In Illinois, during the same period of time, book publishing shrank from about 15 percent of the national total to a mere 9 percent (while the business doubled in volume nationally). But developments in neither state have gotten much notice in Chicago. Publishers in Minnesota and Kansas City commend the coverage they’ve received from writers assigned the book beat for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and the Kansas City Star. And in Minneapolis/Saint Paul the Hungry Mind and other innovative independent booksellers have been credited with encouraging not just local writers but local publishers, efforts that helped them maintain a place among the new superstores. Had it done the same, Kroch’s might not be in such difficulty today.

Neither Chicago’s book business nor its writers have enjoyed the kind of spiritual and financial support found in Minnesota. Nor is there much recognition that either we’re missing out on something here or something’s happening but no one’s paying it much mind. For example, when it was mentioned to a few of our local book beat people that the winners of this year’s Carl Sandburg Awards might make an interesting statement about where the vitality is today in Chicago literature, no one picked up on it. The winners, for all of you who’ve not yet heard, were Luis Rodriguez (Always Running), Ana Castillo (So Far From God), Patricia Smith (Big Towns, Big Talk), and Barbara Polikoff (Life’s a Funny Proposition, Horatio)–two of them Hispanics and one an African American, representatives of communities that currently are responsible for some of the city’s liveliest and most relevant (if not necessarily lucrative) writing. (The Children’s Reading Round Table, of which Barbara Polikoff is somewhat a product, is another active part of the book business in Chicago, but not intrinsic to the point being made here.)

Should such a book beat person have done so, he or she would have discovered that Rodriguez and Castillo both have links with the Guild Complex and that Smith is a product of the city’s performance poetry scene–milieus that perhaps more than any others are offering the critical support an artist needs to develop. In other words, these writers are part of a “community,” of a sort the book publishers wish they had among themselves.

Through the generosity of a Friends of the Chicago Public Library board member, directors of several writing and poetry programs in Chicago were given tickets to this month’s ball honoring the Sandburg winners, an acknowledgment at least from one member of the city’s social and business establishment that their efforts matter. The good feeling generated by this gesture led to discussion of greater involvement by the library in the city’s literary life. One might imagine Chicago writers (and publishers, too) making regular appearances in the downtown library’s Chicago Authors Room, the way architects, their critics, and preservationists make regular noontime appearances at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Those talks before an appreciative audience of colleagues and aficionados helped develop a local cheering section for Chicago architecture, and this was in part responsible for bringing the world’s architects to Chicago last summer.

Three years from now the American Booksellers Association will begin holding its annual meeting here on a permanent basis, a decision not based on the liveliness of the Chicago literary scene. But wouldn’t the city’s image among these media heavies benefit if by that time Chicago had a functioning association of publishers to host this huge trade show? Imagine one whose members were publishing the sort of titles the international deal makers would want to do business over.

When Pat Monaghan, founding director of the Taste of Chicago Writing Conference sponsored by Saint Xavier University, arrived here four years ago from Minnesota via Alaska, her first thought was to connect with the local literary community, as she had in Fairbanks and Minneapolis. To her dismay and amazement, she found no such thing existed–there was no network to connect with, no structured way to find out what was going on, and paltry support for writers wanting to establish themselves.

In Chicago, alas, some writers’ groups are so busy vying for what little money and attention they can get that they are more given to undercutting each other than to collaborating. And those that aren’t competing know too little of the others’ existence. A case in point: the Chicago Book Clinic, Society of Midland Authors, Independent Writers of Chicago, and Merry Gangsters’ Literary Society all meet on the second Tuesday of the month. They have so little to do with each other that few members notice a conflict.

Another modest undertaking in the spirit of Monaghan’s conference is taking shape. Underwritten by the Follett Corporation, the Illinois Center for the Book (upon whose board this writer sits) and the Society of Midland Authors are currently studying the feasibility (mainly financial) of a newsletter that would cover what’s going on among writers and publishers in Illinois. Modest this might be–hardly the literary “apparatus upon which a publisher depends” that Regnery mentioned–but were it to exist it might not be necessary to explain to writers and publishers in Chicago just who Joseph Epstein and Henry Regnery are.

Though Regnery doesn’t say so directly, it’s probably occurred to him that trade books have hardly flourished here because few publishers began in the business with his intentions. Despite his father’s advice, Regnery’s aim was to publish books worth publishing; his notion was to use books to develop, disseminate, and promote certain ideas–the central purpose books have in any society.

Regnery’s publishing began with an idea, and he built a company around it. Most other publishers in Chicago’s past began either with information, in the case of encyclopedia publishers, or a market, in the case of textbook publishers. In the best tradition of Chicago, they began their firms with the intention of making money off one or another resource. As Henry Blake Fuller, Chicago’s first nationally recognized novelist, said of his hometown: “It is the only great city in the world to which all its citizens have come for the one common, avowed object of making money.”

Trade book publishing hasn’t thrived here for reasons Regnery’s father and Henry Fuller well understood–it’s not something that can be done well if one’s first purpose is to make money from it. But that surely ought to be a second purpose if one is to survive, and Regnery never quite mastered the process. As he explains at the end of his 1979 autobiography, Memoirs of a Dissident Publisher: “Although I like to think that a publisher will be judged by the quality of his books rather than his financial success, he must operate at a profit if he is to stay in business, and this I was never able to do, which is the reason my old firm is now known as Contemporary Books, and publishes auto-repair manuals and sports books rather than Russell Kirk and Thomas Aquinas . . . . I regret only that I was not granted the tough-mindedness and sense of realism that might have made the venture financially successful.”

But can there be no happy and profitable mean between what Regnery’s firm was and what it has become? Can the nation’s third largest city not support enough vibrant trade book publishers to rival the 14th (San Francisco), 21st (Seattle), and 42nd (Minneapolis) largest cities? Book publishing is growing all over the country, and though Chicago hasn’t yet joined the trend, there are vague stirrings in that general direction. Some of the city’s more interesting trade publishers have taken the Illinois Center for the Book’s support to heart and begun to form a publishers association.

Perhaps hearteningly for this nascent group, New York City’s hegemony is declining, though more as a center for writing than for publishing. As Epstein comments in his introduction to Regnery’s book: “Where once New York was indisputably the center of literary culture in this country, it is now so chiefly in the institutional sense: the publishers, slick magazines, agents, and engines of publicity remain in New York. But increasingly writers are finding jobs in universities–and in universities all over the country.”

Though Epstein sees little chance that the literary energy that seemed to characterize Chicago a century ago will regenerate itself, he is aware that literary centers are now scattered around the country–and there’s no reason why Chicago couldn’t become one of them. Regnery apparently has some vague hope this may indeed happen. “Perhaps Chicago,” he says in his afterword, “is undergoing some significant alteration in the interplay between commercial and artistic impulses in the drive that carries its citizens forward; Caliban a bit subdued, it may well be. If that is true, then Chicago, a city that has taken the lead in many fields, might of a sudden see a true flowering of talent, a greater gathering of creative writers and imaginative publishers, and become at last a true literary center.”

Creative Chicago by Henry Regnery, Chicago Historical Bookworks, $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.