Review: Chicago Renaissance by Liesl Olson

Ask someone what comes to mind when they think of Chicago literature and they are bound to resurrect the usual suspects such as Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, and Nelson Algren. They might throw in Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright for good measure if they know anything about the city’s tortured racial past. But modernism? Probably not.

How many readers, let alone residents of Chicago, for instance, know that that the 1913 Armory Show (often viewed as the debut moment of modern art) made a stop at the Art Institute of Chicago or that Gertrude Stein’s 1934 tour brought her to Marshall Field’s on State Street for a book signing where crowds waiting to meet her forced the temporary closure of part of the store?

These are just a few of the pleasant discoveries one makes in reading Liesl Olson’s new book Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis (Yale University Press 2017).

Dr. Olson is currently Director of Chicago Studies at the Newberry Library of Chicago and has written extensively on modernism. That knowledge comes through in the writing and endnotes. Her book shows how Chicago’s perceived status as “second city” in terms of cultural influence actually served it well allowing local patrons of the arts (many of them women) to promote new trends in the arts rather than feeling pressure to preserve the venerable aesthetics of an earlier age.

Dr. Olson introduces readers, probably for the first time, to such figures as Harriet Monroe (founder of Poetry magazine), Fanny Butcher (literary editor for the Chicago Tribune), and Bobsy Goodspeed (President of the Arts Club from 1932-1940).

Even though the book is about the artists who created their own brand of modernism in relation to Chicago, these patrons of the arts steal the show. They serve as a reminder of how literary history is shaped by those who promote various artists and that many of those promoters are not faculty at colleges and universities. It is also a sad reminder of how women’s role in literary history (then and now) is too often overshadowed by that of men.

In fact, a recurring theme in Olson’s book seems to be the resistance of institutional repositories of culture (such as the male dominated universities) to changes in the arts taking place in the early 20th century and the contrasting attitude of the non-academic reader (many of them women) to such difficult writers as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Non specialist readers in Chicago seemed to welcome modernist fiction as a movement that better reflected the changes they felt were occurring (good and ill) in their world.

The book is structured in a manner that will be familiar to any reader of academic studies with an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. What makes this book unique, however, are the “interludes” between each chapter that present a scene connected in some way to the previous chapter as well as the one to follow. These bridges between chapters (rather than distracting from the analytical and narrative trajectory of the book) bring the moments Dr. Olson describes to life.

Chicago Renaissance is a delight to read as well as a revelation for anyone who thinks they understand the literary history of Chicago. It could not have come at a better time for me as I’m teaching a course on Chicago Literature this spring at UIC, but it is a book with something of interest for more than teachers and scholars.

Chicago Renaissance is a fitting homage to the readers, patrons, publishers, and distributers that make literature possible in the first place. A nuanced examination of the complicated relationships between artists and the marketplace. What better place to examine that relationship than in Chicago, once referred to as “the heart of American Materialism.”

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