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Writing Chicago

HUMANITIES, November/December 2000 | Volume 21, Number 6

"Find a writer who is indubitably an American in every pulse-beat, snort and adenoid, an American who has something new and peculiarly American to say and who says it in an unmistakable American way and nine times out of ten you will find that he has some sort of connection with that gargantuan and inordinate abattoir by Lake Michigan."

Borrowing a line from the acerbic H.L. Mencken, writer James Atlas sets the stage for the literary milieu in which novelist Saul Bellow would immerse himself. "Culture in Chicago was a marginal enterprise," Atlas writes. "Dominated by the brute forces of industry, by stockyards and farm-machinery works and automobile assembly lines, it was the city, in Sandburg's famous line, of 'big shoulders.' Yet it was also true that Chicago possessed an indigenous literature. In the decades just before and after 1900, novels by Chicago writers crowded the shelves: Frank Norris's The Pit (1903), about wheat speculators on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade; Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark (1915), about a young lady from Nebraska who came to study music in the city; Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), a raw description of the harsh existence of a Lithuanian immigrant family in the South Side stockyards; Theodore Dreiser's Frank Cowperwood triolgy, based on the career of Charles T. Yerkes, the Chicago railroad financier; the works of Sherwood Anderson. The Chicago Renaissance was a fact."

Here is a sampling from NEH-supported projects.

Theodore Dreiser

Sister Carrie

Carrie was not familiar with the appearance of her more fortunate sisters of the city. Neither had she before known the nature and appearance of the shop girls, with whom she now compared poorly. They were pretty in the main, some even handsome, with a certain independence and toss of indifference which added, in the case of the more favored, a certain piquancy. Their clothes were neat, in many instances fine, and whenever she encountered the eye of one, it was only to recognize in it a keen analysis of her own position---her individual shortcomings of dress and that shadow of manner which she thought must hang about her and make clear to all who and what she was. A flame of envy lighted in her heart. She realized in a dim way how much the city held---wealth, fashion, ease---every adornment for women, and she longed for dress and beauty with a whole and fulsome heart.

On the second floor were the managerial offices, to which after some inquiry she was now directed. There she found other girls ahead of her, applicants like herself, but with more of that self-satisfied and independent air which experience of the city lends---girls who scrutinized her in a painful manner. After a wait of perhaps three-quarters of an hour she was called in turn.

"Now," said a sharp, quick-mannered Jew who was sitting at a roll-top desk near the window---"have you ever worked in any other store?"

"No sir," said Carrie.

"Oh, you haven't," he said, eyeing her keenly.

"No sir," she replied.

"Well, we prefer young women just now with some experience. I guess we can't use you."

Since 1988, NEH has funded seven projects on the works of Theodore Dreiser, including a biography and a cataloging of his personal papers into a national bibliographic database.

Upton Sinclair

The Jungle

Perhaps the summer suggests to you thoughts of the country, visions of green fields and mountains and sparkling lakes. It had no such suggestion for the people in the yards. The great packing machine ground on remorselessly, without thinking of green fields; the men and woman and chidlren who were part of it never saw any green thing, not even a flower. Four or five miles to the east of them lay the blue waters of Lake Michigan; but for all the good it did them it might have been as far away as the Pacific Ocean. They had only Sundays, and then they were too tired to walk. They were tied to the great packing machine, and tied to it for life. The managers and super-intendents and clerks of Packingtown were all recruited from another class, and never from the workers; they scorned the workers, the very meanest of them. A poor devil of a bookkeeper who had been working in Durham's for twenty years at a salary of six dollars a week, and might work there for twenty more and do no better, would yet consider himself a gentleman, as far removed as the poles from the most skilled worker on the killing beds; he would dress differently, and live in another part of town, and come to work at a different hour of the day, and in every way make sure that he never rubbed elbows with a laboring man. Perhaps this was due to the repulsiveness of the work; at any rate, the people who worked with their hands were a class apart, and were made to feel it.

NEH has funded two research grants since 1988 on the writings and politics of Upton Sinclair.

Sherwood Anderson

Windy McPherson's Son

The story of Sam's life there in Chicago for the next several years ceases to be the story of a man and becomes the story of a type, a crowd, a gang. What he and the group of men surrounding him and making money with him did in Chicago, other men and other groups of men have done in New York, in Paris, in London. Coming into power with the great expansive wave of prosperity that attended the first McKinley administration, these men went mad of money making. They played with great industrial institutions and railroad systems like excited children, and a man of Chicago won the notice and something of the admiration of the world by his willingness to bet a million dollars on the turn of the weather. In the years of criticism and readjustment that have followed this period of sporadic growth, writers have told with great clearness how the thing was done, and some of the participants, captains of industry turned penmen, Caesers become ink-slingers, have bruited the story to an admiring world.

NEH funded Charles E. Modlin to study the personal letters of Sherwood Anderson. This work led to the 1989 publication of Sherwood Anderson's Love Letters to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson.

James T. Farrell

Studs Lonigan

The train whistle wah-wahed. It roared downtown, over the slums and filth of the black belt.

A drunk yelled that America had won the war. A long-faced bozo shrieked that the world was safe for democracy. A cabbaged-faced woman with a brogue a yard long hollered:

"Bully for Wilson and Ireland!"

"Six cheers for the Scandinavians," whooped a jag.

"Aw, quit your kiddn'," Kenny innocently shouted back at the jag, and people nearly busted their guts laughing.

They passed the Thirty-third Street station. It was crowded with happy, singing dinges.

A monkey-face mick blubbered tears, whining that Padraic Pearse was dead, whoever that guy was.

The trainwheels clattered with the friction of steel, rolling over steel rails. The whistle wah-wahed. The care grew more and more rancid with alcohol and tobacco breaths, stale perfume, perspiring human odors.

NEH has funded three resesarch projects on the writings of James T. Farrell, including an analysis of American Realism in Studs Lonigan.

Richard Wright

Native Son

He looked around the street and saw a sign on a building: THIS PROPERTY IS MANAGED BY THE SOUTH SIDE REAL ESTATE COMPANY. He had heard that Mr. Dalton owned the South Side Real Estate Company, and the South Side Real Estate Company owned the house in which he lived. He paid eight dollars a week for one rat-infested room. He had never seen Mr. Dalton until he had come to work for him; his mother always took the rent to the real estate office. Mr. Dalton was somewhere far away, high up distant, like a god. He owned property all over the Black Belt, and he owned property where white folks lived, too. But Bigger could not live in a building across the "line." Even though Mr. Dalton gave millions of dollars for Negro education, he would rent houses to Negroes only in this prescribed area, this corner of the city tumbling down from rot. In a sullen way Bigger was conscious of this. Yes; he would send the kidnap note. He would jar them out of their senses.

Since 1988, NEH has awarded nine grants for projects examining the life and work of Richard Wright, including the production of a documentary on the writer's life.