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October CitiesRedevelopment of Urban Literature
By Carlo Rotella
University of California PressCopyright © 1998 Carlo Rotella
All right reserved.
Exposition: The Story of Decline
When Nelson Algren got back to the Near Northwest Side of Chicago in 1945 after two years of military service, he got back to work. He was a writer, and his job as he understood it was to write about Chicago. If the city seemed to have changed in his absence"The last of Chicago's gaslamps had gone out," and "Fluorescent neon lit brands of beer never named before"1 he still could pick up where he had left off before the war. After making a name for himself with a first novel, Somebody in Boots (1935), and short stories in the 1930s, he had begun to win significant acclaim for his novel Never Come Morning ( 942). In 1945, he was poised to make his mark on the literary world. Working from observation of postwar Chicago, his wartime experience, and a base of stories and poetry he had written in the 1930 and 1940s, Algren produced three Chicago books in relatively short order: a collection of short stories entitled The Neon Wilderness (1947) set the stage for two longer works, the novel The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) and the book-length prose poem Chicago: City on the Make (1951). Golden Arm, which was awarded the first National Book Award forfiction in 1950, was Algren's best and best-received work. It sold well, and influential writers and critics like Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, and Malcolm Cowley identified Algren as a major postwar novelist on the rise. They, and the publicists at Doubleday whose ad copy for Golden Arm urged readers to "add the name NELSON ALGREN to the honor roll of Chicago authors . . . who have entertained you and inspired you with novels that have made American literary history," agreed that Algren was the next big Chicago writer: one in a line that extended back through Wright and James T. Farrell toCarl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, and other masters who had explored the literary implications of industrial urbanism as exemplified by Chicago.2
In retrospect, though, the fanfare accompanying Algren's arrival as a Chicago writer marks the end of his most productive period, and he never wrote another sustained, original treatment of the city with which he was so closely identified. Golden Arm and City on the Make were his last Chicago books, and together they drew a portrait of midcentury Chicago as a city in steep declineif not in ruinsabout which Algren would not have much else to say. The two books are a literary epitaph for the city Algren knew and the city he wrote.
The October City
Algren was identified as a Chicago writer, but he had never been a civic booster. From the very beginning of his writing career, he marked out the sphere of the desperately dispossessed as his literary territory, and his body of work advanced a critique of the arrangements of power and meaning in the industrial city. The workers and drifters who populate his books always play hopeless hands against a house that stacks the political, economic, and cultural deck against them. Like the Chicago novels of Farrell and Wright, who shared with Algren the project of representing the industrial city's neighborhoods, Algren's Chicago novels and stories are overhung with a sense of the inevitable: people without access to wealth and power will be ground up by urban business as usualthe production and consumption of goods, services, and the status quo.
If Algren's postwar writing sustained the terms of critique he had developed before the war, it put them to a new purpose. Golden Arm and City on the Make, refitting the language and imagery of his earlier work and of the Chicago tradition in which he placed himself, move from the urgent contemporaneity of social critique toward the retrospective, elegiac mood of the decline narrative. Midcentury Chicago was in many ways a boom town, beginning to flower into new, postindustrial shape under pressure from suburbanization on the periphery and redevelopment in the center, but for Algren it was an aging industrial city that was rapidly exhausting both its productive vigor and its cultural importance. At midcentury, Algren looked back upon high-industrial Chicago, which had been the subject of his starkest renderings of urban modernity, as the capital of a golden age populated by outsize heroic figures: not just the working men and women who made the industrial city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but also great reformers like Jane Addams, literary icons like Carl Sandburg, larger-than-life victims like Shoeless Joe Jackson, and even the fantastically villainous industrialists, owners, and politicians who exploited and opposed them. Golden Arm and City on the Make narrate a decline from this golden age to a debased, reduced present. They do not so much advance acritique of industrial urbanism as imagineand nostalgically mournits passing.
In Golden Arm, something has gone obscurely and finally wrong in midcentury Chicago. The novel's characters, operating within the tightly circumscribed limits of neighborhood life in the Polish urban village around Division Street and Milwaukee Avenue (see figs. 1 and 2 for locations referred to in part 1), can sense the local effects of massive change without being able to specify its dimensions or causes. The invalid Sophie Majcinek, sitting at her window in a wheelchair late at night, reads intimations of apocalypse in the crowded, lowrise landscape of walk-up apartment buildings, rooming houses, factories, churches, and elevated train tracks:
Moonlight that had once revealed so many stars now showed her only how the city was bound, from southeast to the unknown west, steel upon steel upon steel; how all its rails held the city too tightly to the thousand-girdered El.
Some nights she could barely breathe for seeing the flat and unerring line of cable and crosslight and lever, of signal tower and switch. For the endless humming of telephone wires murmuring insanely from street to street without ever really saying a single word above a whisper that a really sensible person might understand.
For the city too was somehow crippled of late. The city too seemed a little insane. Crippled and caught and done for with everyone in it. No one else was really any better off than herself, she reflected with a child's satisfaction, they had all been twisted about whether they sat in a wheelchair or not . . .
She grew tense to see how the nameless people were bound, as they went, to the streets as the streets seemed bound to the night and the night to the nameless day. And all the days to a nameless remorse.3
The news is bad but incompletely articulated: the vista murmurs to Sophie of nameless remorse and an imminent but unspecified disaster. All she knows for certain is that things were better in the old days, when "some happier, some might-have-been, some used-to-be or never-was Sophie" lived in a world that had not yet "gone wrong, all wrong." If that receding golden age of the 1920s and 1930s was like spring, then at midcentury Chicago has reached October, when the year begins its steep decline into Chicago's famously brutal winter:
sultry September had come and gone and the wind was blowing the flies away. "God has forgotten us all," Sophie told herself quietly. . . . The wind was blowing the flies away. God was forgetting His own. (99)
The year's decline and fall seem to resonate with a larger, parallel decline and fall of the world she knows.
The world she knows is the industrial city, and more precisely the industrial neighborhood order, that flourished between the Chicago fire of 1871 andWorld War II. Chicago was the paradigmatic American city of that period, the model of industrial modernity and the kinds of urbanism associated with it. Migrations from Chicago's various hinterlandsnot only the small-town and rural Midwest and South but also Germany and Ireland, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Mexico, the Philippinesbrought people of modest means to Chicago to work in its factories and the service industries they engendered. For foreign immigrants, the urban villages that grew around factory workplaces, streetcar lines, and local institutions were staging grounds in which they came to terms with the transition between the Old Country and America. European immigrants and their descendants dominated the urban villages of industrial Chicago, which ringed the downtown core in a vast patchwork. The urban villages, and the ways of life they housed, were the heartland of the industrial city's social landscape, formed on an armature of rail lines, port facilities, factories, and other infrastructure dedicated to circulating raw materials, manufactured goods, and the people who processed and bought them. Sophie sees this world from her windowthe old neighborhood bound to the rail lines, "steel upon steel upon steel"and obscurely mourns its passing as she reviews her own hard luck and the intimations of personal disaster still to come.
Golden Arm tells the decline as neighborhood tragedy, so claustrophobically local in scope that the decline seems ungraspable, mysterious, inchoate; Algren's prose poem City on the Make, published two years after Golden Arm, extends the decline into new registerspoetry, history, cultural criticism, sociologyand to a metropolitan scale. City on the Make surveys the landscape from a more omniscient and informed remove; it commands spatial and temporal perspectives beyond the imaginative reach of Golden Arm and its characters, like Sophie, who are hemmed in by the near horizon of the El and the limits of the urban village. In City on the Make, the decline plays out on a grand scale:
Wheeling around the loop of the lake, coming at Chicago from east and south, the land by night lies under a battle-colored sky. Above the half-muffled beat of the monstrous forges between Gary and East Chicago, the ceaseless signal-fires of the great refineries wave an all-night alarm.
Until, moving with the breaking light, we touch the green pennant of the morning boulevards running the dark-blue boundary of the lake. Where the fortress-like towers of The Loop guard the welter of industrial towns that were once a prairie portage.4
City on the Make reads in the metropolitan landscape a myth of creation in which factories make the city of Chicago and the way of life housed in its neighborhood order. The first paragraph is all color and sound in the darkness: the monstrous forges beating like artillery or a gigantic heart, signal firesagainst the night sky. The stuff of the city is being forged, refined, destroyed, remade in bursts of heroic activity. The second paragraph maps the results, a landscape coalescing like a newly forged creation at daybreak: parks and skyscrapers along the lake, neighborhoods like "industrial towns" clustering around the Loop and stretching away across the flat prairie. The creation myth informs a familiar historical narrative in which the people who live in the industrial towns and work in the factories have, while fighting a constant battle against the people who own the factories, produced a mature industrial metropolis from the kernel of a frontier outpost in barely a century's time. This is the generic Chicago of the period between the Great Fire and the mid-twentieth century: a capital of industrial modernity, shaped by manufacturing and peopled by urban villagers.
The moment of creation passes, and the momentum built up by the initial swing from the southeast carries the reader onward in space and time, north up the lakefront as the day begins. The point of view drops down to a motorist's perspective from Lake Shore Drive as we pass Lincoln Park and eventually into the suburbs beyond, where the narrator launches into a standard, uninspired version of the midcentury critique of suburbia: "the people are stuffed with kapok," "the homes so complacent, and the churches so smug, leave an airlessness like a microscopic dust over the immaculate pews and the self-important bookshelves," and so on. This suburban landscape is a "spiritual Sahara": "the beat of the city's enormous heart, at the forge in the forest behind the towers" (26-27), cannot be heard at this remove.
The narrator finds himself, at the end of this journey up the lakefront, deeply out of place. The story of the industrial city seems to have ended in the suburbs, about which he has nothing of interest to say, and his grand aerial perspective on the cityscape seems to have collapsed into that of a cultural hobgoblin of the postwar period, the suburban commuter tooling along Lake Shore Drive. Deposited in what he regards as alien territory, the narrator ends up far from the industrial neighborhoods that form the city's heart and his principal inspiration. It is an apt figure for the historical moment City on the Make addresses: the poem's great project is to show how and why the narrator's Chicago is disappearing, to bring to a close the generic narrative of prairie portage grown into manufacturing capital. The industrial city of downtown and neighborhoods gives way to the postindustrial metropolis of inner city and suburbs, and the old neighborhood order shows signs of breaking up. The narrator finds himself growing estranged from Chicago itself, increasingly adrift even when he is within the once-familiar landscape of the neighborhood order. These changes come slowlythe monstrous forges still beat all night, and from the air the old neighborhoods look just as they did a generation beforebut a final transformation appears inevitable. At midcentury, industrial Chicago has entered the late autumn of its years.
City on the Make's autumnal mood derives in part from the poem's abrupt telescoping of time: "An October sort of city even in spring. With somebody's washing always whipping, in smoky October colors off the third-floor rear by that same wind that drives the yellowing comic strips down all the gutters that lead away from home" (72). The comic strips yellow with age even as they blow down the gutters; spring collapses into October; the newly forged city of daybreak ages to a grim seediness by nightfall, when emerge "the pavement-colored thousands of the great city's nighttime streets, a separate race with no place to go and the whole night to kill" (60). In the course of the narrator's lifetime (he was still a boy in 1919), Chicago has fallen vertiginously from youthful promise to early dotage, spring prospects turning to October regrets. The martial imagery of industrial creationthe "battle-colored sky" and "signalflares"takes on new meaning when the reader enters the streets of the pristine city seen from on high at daybreak: the narrowed, annihilating landscape of midcentury Chicago resembles a battlefield after a great defeat. In the workingclass neighborhoods, where in Algren's account all the casualties fall, laundry whips from the line off the third-floor rear like off-white flags of surrender.
That surrender indicates the end of the battle and thus the end of the myth of creation. At midcentury, industrial Chicago has reached full maturity in the final transformation of prairie into metropolis: "The pig-wallows are paved, great Diesels stroke noiselessly past the clamorous tenements of home. The Constellations move, silently and all unseen, through blowing seas above the roofs. Only the measured clatter of the empty cars, where pass the northbound and the southbound Els, comes curving down the constant boundaries of the night" (75). The "clamorous tenements" of the industrial neighborhood order frame the heartlike engines that shape the city and power its commerce. A series of limitsthe iron perimeter of the El, the asphalt underfoot, and the sealike sky above the roofs, with jets moving in it like Melville's sea creatures swimming beneath the pillows of sleeping Nantucketersdefine the city's form and contain the way of life lived in it. The paragraph begins with the strokes of life-giving engines and ends by arriving at a limit in both space and time: the El forms "the constant boundaries of the night" as well as of the landscape. City on the Make wants to show that the industrial city has likewise reached some limit in its development.
In the next paragraph, a ghost-haunted survey of the high-industrial era identifies midcentury Chicago's landscape as the industrial city's terminal form:
The cemetery that yet keeps the Confederate dead is bounded by the same tracks that run past Stephen A. Douglas' remains. The jail where Parsons hung is gone, and the building from which Bonfield marched is no more. Nobody remembersthe Globe on Desplaines, and only a lonely shaft remembers the four who died, no one ever fully understood why. And those who went down with the proud steamer Chicora are one with those who went down on the Eastland. And those who sang "My God, How the Money Rolls In" are one with those who sang "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (75-76)
Like the aerial rush up the lakefront, a movement in space, this swift pass through seventy years of history spanning the Civil War and the Great Depression makes a portrait of the city in time. The train tracks provide a spine connecting the October city to echoes of its past: two great wars of the last century, one between North and South and one between labor and capital (the "four who died" were hanged after the Haymarket Square riot; Inspector Bonfield led police against them); long-ago ship disasters on Lake Michigan; echoes of songs associated with the prosperity of the 1920s and the hard times of the depression. Midcentury Chicago seems to have passed a dividing line. Even the 1920s and 1930s, easily within the lifetimes of relatively young adults at midcentury, seem to have fallen far astern: the people who sang songs of the 1920s and 1930s merge "as one" into hindsight in the same way that people drowned in different ship disasters are "as one" at the bottom of the lake.
The foundering ships reinforce the Atlantean image of the people of Chicago going down with their city. At the end of the slope of decline, still in the future but within sight (like the dead of winter from the perspective of October), lies a final collapse described in City on the Make's closing lines: "We shall leave, for remembrance, one rusty iron heart. . . . For keeps and a single day" (77). At the end of its history, industrial Chicagothe El, the monstrous forges and the diesel engines, the neighborhoods like villages and the towers of the Loop like fortresseswill stand in ruins like Atlantis or Troy.
This decline provides the main theme of City on the Make and the principal subtext of Golden Arm. Sophie Majcinek, penned within the close horizons of industrial urbanism as it is lived in the old neighborhood, senses only the vague outlines of this decline in the "rumors of evening" that filter down to her in murmurous, coded fragments. Nelson Algren, whose own windows looked out on a similar vista in the 1940s and early 1950s, could feel the change coming, too. He could not have known then that Golden Arm and City on the Make would be his last Chicago books, but one can feel his unease, like Sophie's, with the intimations of change he felt moving through the familiar landscape of the neighborhoods he lived in and wrote about. Algren's literary subject was industrial urbanism; his literary project was to represent the industrial city and infuse it with meanings, as had a number of celebrated Chicago writers before him. He understood the decline of industrial Chicago to mean the end not only of the neighborhood order he knew but also of the literary tradition in which he worked.
The Logic of Decline
Any city at any time is going to hell in one sense or another. Narratives of decline seem to spring from the overlap of orders in time and space: the overlap of established residents and newcomers; of pieces of social landscape arranged to serve different sets of people and functions; of different institutional arrangements for making money, exercising power, making life meaningful, living poorly or well. However, specific arguments for decline have historical and generic provenance that can be traced to period and place, to particular structures of thought and traditions of representation. Nelson Algren's version of Chicago's decline was part of a larger literature of urban decline that thrived at midcentury and has since become a staple of postwar urbanism. That literature embraces a variety of fictional and nonfictional accounts, written by a range of variously accredited and influential urban intellectuals, many of whom agreed on little else.
"In the years just after the Second World War," observes Robert Beauregard, "the trauma of the country's large central cities could hardly be avoided." That "trauma" was most evident in the great industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast, and it was, most immediately, the result of " 5 years of depression, war, and inflation"5 in which specifically urban problems had been pushed to the back burner: factories, civic buildings, and especially overcrowded neighborhoods were physically deteriorating; cities' economies, especially factory production and downtown retailing, were showing signs of long-term erosion; pollution was increased and traffic congestion exacerbated by the proliferation of cars in streets originally designed for the horse and wagon; city governments were denounced as weak and corrupt, while federal government was potently committed to suburbanizing the nation; many cities' tax bases shrank as poor in-migrants, especially Southern blacks, settled in the inner city while middleclass whites and businesses dispersed into the suburbs. The trauma was also, however, part of a larger change in the form and function of cities. The industrial cities that had for generations been the leading models of American urbanism were undergoing a profound transformation. The gradual shift of primary economic function from manufacturing to services, the prodigious rise of the suburbs as places to live and work, the expansion of the black inner city, and the erosion of the industrial villagethese were the big groundswells, just beginning to shake the foundations of industrial urbanism, that would make urban history in the second half of the century. One can perceive their effects, as well, in the way urban intellectuals wrote and thought about cities. There had always been a vigorous literature of antiurbanism in American culture, and there was a long tradition of equating cities with specifically moral decline, but we can make out a particular genre of decline narrativepromulgated especially by people who loved citiesthat appeared after World War II and has descendedto us as one of our fundamental ways to think about and represent inner cities. In many different versions, and pursuing an enormous range of particular subjects that range from traffic to class conflict, the postwar narrative of decline considers the causes, effects, and meaning of the endlessly complex set of changes that add up to postindustrial transformation.
Chicago, the paragon of industrial urbanism, provided an especially resonant setting for the postwar decline. "There is an opinion," observed A. J. Liebling in 1952,
advanced by some men who worked in Chicago transiently during the twenties, as well as by many native Chicagoans, that the city did approximate the great howling, hurrying, hog-butchering, hog-mannered challenger for the empire of the world specified in the legend, but that at some time around 1930 it stopped as suddenly as a front-running horse at the head of the stretch with a poor man's last two dollars on its nose. What stopped it is a mystery, like what happened to Angkor Vat.6
Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, New York newspapermen who had worked more than transiently in Chicago before World War II, made a similar claim in their hard-boiled insider's guide, Chicago Confidential (1950): "In 1910 Chicago breezily and confidently expected to surpass New York by 1950; in 1950 it no longer talks of growing bigger than New Yorkit wonders when it will be smaller than Los Angeles."7 Liebling, Lait, and Mortimer, reporters all, did not claim to have formulated the story of Chicago's decline; rather, they claimed to have collected it as it circulated ready to hand in the culture around them. Having gone to Chicago to do what amounted to follow-up pieces on the well-known story of its remarkable growth into a world city in the half-century before the Great Depression, they had returned with stories of decline.
The reporters' claims to having found the next chapter of the Chicago story in the narrative of decline found support from Carl Sandburg, whose literary persona continued to enjoy a close identification with the story of industrial Chicago in the ascendant, a story he had definitively told in the early twentieth century. Sandburg was not a "native Chicagoan," but he was poet laureate of Illinois and author of the city's semiofficial poem, "Chicago" (1914). That poem had been quoted and referred to so consistently (even by people who had not read it or any other poems) that over time what Liebling simply calls "the legend" of Chicago had become condensed into a few of its richly freighted phrases: "Hog Butcher," "Big Shoulders," and so forth. Sandburg wrote in Holiday magazine's special issue on Chicago in 1951, "There is a question that occurs: Is Chicago less vivid and strident than in former generations? That could be, might be, I'm not sure."8 Like Liebling, Sandburg employed a passive construction"There is an opinion . . ."; "There is a question that occurs . . ." that imputed to the decline the status of received wisdom. The hesitant toneof Sandburg's answer to the "question that occurs" at midcentury makes a striking contrast to the belligerently assertive language of his celebrated poem. In 1914, he had imagined industrial Chicago issuing a challenge:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and
coarse and strong and cunning
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job upon job, here is
a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities.9
At midcentury, Sandburg's drastically changed tone seemed to concede the loss of the youthful vigor and prospects with which his earlier poetry had infused its portrait of the industrial city. The Holiday article repeats the poem's language, like the word "vivid" (which seems to be associated with productivity), but drains the words of their original stridency. Writing about midcentury Chicago, Sandburg seemed to be unsure of what to say about it.
If midcentury Chicago as a literary subject was still importantly defined by themes and language evolved in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in response to the shocks of industrial modernity, then the passing of industrial urbanism suggested a decline and demanded a revision of the Chicago story. If Sandburg was not prepared to write it, otherslike Liebling, Lait, Mortimer, and Algrenwere. The story of decline, literary and journalistic, told of Chicago's passage from a bygone moment of limitless promise to a reduced and dispirited present day. Variants of the decline appearing in the late 1940s and 1950s told of Chicago's fall from aspiring world city to the humbler estate of one regional capital among many, from industrial dynamo to rusting postindustrial dinosaur (anticipating by decades the Rust Belt elegies that accompanied the city's great period of deindustrialization in the 1970s), from literary capital to cultural wasteland, from vigorous city of neighborhoods to blighted inner city eclipsed by prosperous suburbs, from a vital congeries of white-ethnic villages and Black Metropolis to an archipelago of white enclaves surrounded by pathologized black ghetto. The story of decline argued for the passing of a moment when Chicago had been the right place at the right time. It had once been the way station between metropolitan America and its resource-rich frontier, the destination of immigrant laborers drawn to the industrial city, the cultural capital of the Middle Border during the maturing of urban America and the revolt against Main Street. Now it was at best like everywhere else and at worst a ruin.
Especially because the decline tends to treat the city like a single individualwho is getting old and fat, who once aspired to better things, and so onit tends to reduce complexity to simplicity or mysticism. The imputation of general decline tends toward analytical vagueness, always prompting the question"in what sense?" Because a city, like a nation, is complex enough to be simultaneously rising and falling by any number of measures, the story of decline acquires coherence and authority by both specifying and mystifying its terms to evolve a kind of symbolic shorthand. On the one hand, the story tends to range in great leaps across the spectrum of historical information, unifying disparate but evocative details into a grand impressionistic whole. For instance, the failure of Chicago to become a center for the manufacture of automobiles, the departure of important literary figures in the 1920s, and the passing of its great criminal entrepreneurs hang together thematically in Liebling's account in ways that suggest an across-the-board failure of the city's creative energies. On the other hand, the decline tends to condense drastically in order to make sense, identifying a particular Chicago in time and space and making it stand for the whole. Thus, the decline formula can be adapted to recount the transformation or disappearance of many different or overlapping golden-age Chicagos: the Middle Border capital raised by hard work and entrepreneurial inspiration from the swamps and the ashes of the Great Fire; the city of European immigrants negotiating through hard work and solidarity the passage from horseand-wagon days to American modernity; the Midwestern literary capital that produced stark realists, prairie modernists, muckraking reporters, and dialect humorists and was in turn produced discursively by them.
Although they infused the formula with different sets of meanings, most of the versions of Chicago's decline agreed upon the general contours of the story. All assumed that the city had enjoyed a golden age of promise more than a generation before. Lait and Mortimer only specify that in 1910 the golden age had not yet elapsed. Liebling dates the city's moment of ascendance from around 1890, when the census employed by Frederick Jackson Turner to argue for the closing of the frontier also showed that Chicago had passed Philadelphia to become the nation's second city, to about 1930, when Chicago mysteriously collapsed in the stretch of its run at First City status. He notes that in the 1920s Colonel Robert McCormick's incorrigibly boosterish Tribune was still printing daily on its editorial page a "Program for Chicagoland" that featured as Article I an injunction to "Make Chicago the First City of the World." By midcentury, the Tribune had dropped this grandiose program, which Liebling takes as tacit acquiescence to the notion of decline. The novelist James T. Farrell, a leftist who otherwise had little in common with the famously right-wing and antiunion McCormick, provides a similar periodization of the golden age. He remembered that he "grew up inside of the city of Chicago, and after the city had passed its period of greatest hope," which he defined as a stretch from 1880 to 1910 in which Chicago's bankers and industrialists had created a world capital and its progressive liberals had given the city intellectual life and conscience.'10 Farrell saw the city as somehow broken by its failure to deliver on its golden-age promise of high productivity tempered by social justice.
Like Farrell, Nelson Algren understood himself to have been born during the city's age of promise (Farrell in 1904; Algren in 1909) and come to maturity as the city declined toward eventual ruin. In the autobiographical City on the Make, Algren presents the end of the golden age as coinciding with his first disillusionments: the Black Sox scandal of 1919 marks in retrospect the end of "the silver-colored yesterday" dominated by "giants." The humiliations endured in preadolescence by the poem's autobiographical narrator for believing in his baseball heroes feed into a citywide sense of loss that has grown through the present day. Algren's account of the fall or departure of giantsShoeless Joe Jackson, Theodore Dreiser, Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, even self-serving "clowns" like the politician Big Bill Thompson and the traction magnate Samuel Insullnicely illustrates Liebling's observation that, at midcentury, "Chicagoans are left in the plight of the Greeks at the beginning of history, when the gods commenced ceasing to manifest themselves."11 The present, then, constitutes a postheroic age extending from the 1920s to the distant but foreseeable end of history. 12
What happened? How to account for postheroic Chicago's collapse into history? Each story of decline offers its own understanding of the engines driving it, but the various explanation systems tend to fall into two categories: those organized around material changes in the city of fact and those organized around discursive changes in the city of feeling. The former impulse, dominant in Lait and Mortimer's Chicago Confidential, produces a story that explains how and why the city and its people have changed; the latter impulse, dominant in Liebling's essays (collectively entitled Chicago: The Second City), leads to explanations of how and why the story of Chicago has changed. Algren's City on the Make, to which I will turn after discussing the other two examples, offers a synthesis of the two approaches, a grand unifying theory of decline.
Lait and Mortimer identify two intertwined historical processes as the motors of change: the city's development from frontier outpost to industrial center to suburbanized metropolis, and the ethnic-racial successions that have accompanied the stages of development. They "can fix Chicago's decline at about the time its founding fathers went to their Valhalla." The race of giants who built the city"titans of the nineteenth century," "dynamic, hairy individualists who hewed and wrested a new world out of the woods and the mud"dissipated their energies in reacquiring Eastern ways, losing their hirsute frontier virility when corrupted by the civilization they had enabled. The founding fathers' descent into history encapsulates the city's descent from heroic prehistory toward an exotically degraded, unproductive new order in the inner city. In Chicago Confidential's conventionally gendered account, neither the productivity of male entrepreneurs nor the civilizing influence of female reformers like Jane Addams has proven able to forestall or contain the barbarous new order's emergence. The creeping "physical decadence" of the city once "rebuilt fresh and new [by the titans] after the big fire of 1871 ," combined with "the overflow of foreign immigrants" and the succeeding "influx of Negroes," leads to the concomitant flight of "good families," followed by the "middle classes and the respectable lower classes," from "the smoke and the grime and the daily conflict to pleasant suburbs."13
This is a pricis of the rise and fall of the industrial city, but Lait and Mortimer are less interested in economics than they are in the sensational appeal and explanatory force of race. Like so many other narratives of decline, theirs treats folk migrations not as the highly visible tip of a larger iceberg of urban transformations but as the engine of history. Chicago Confidential's account of struggles among ethnic and racial types makes the turnover of neighborhood populations the change that causes all others, bending this particular story of decline toward a familiar simplifying formula: "there goes the neighborhood."
"Hundreds of thousands of whites still live in Chicago slums," report Lait and Mortimer, the "still" suggesting the eventual departure of these whites,
and lebensraum problems are as drastic throughout as they are anywhere. But Negroes, with full right to do so and virtually with none to hold otherwise, are entrenched as far south as 90th Street and are approaching Hyde Park, along the south shore of the lake, not too long ago a seat of white society. . . . In truth, an amazing American anti-climax emerges: instead of being hemmed in by whites, the Negroes are hemming in the whites.14
Hyde Park, dominated by the University of Chicago and since the late nineteenth century a preserve of white professionals, is on the South Side, near the old Bronzeville ghetto that was expanding under pressure from an influx of black Southerners at midcentury. On the city's West Side, Chicago Confidential's account of change over time in the area around Halsted Street shows that white-ethnic urban villages are also about to be engulfed. Settled in waves by the Irish, Russian and Eastern European Jews, Poles, Bohemians, and Italians, this definitively immigrant neighborhoodwhere Jane Addams established Hull Housegradually lost these populations as "the older people died, the younger ones grew and many prospered, honestly or notoriously, and moved to more happy abodes. As the Europeans left, the new Negroes came." Lait and Mortimer paint a highly stylized picture of the neighborhood in its present state of racially heterogeneous decline:
Negroes live in hovels without roofs, caved in on the sides, steps missing, tilted like miniature towers of Pisa. As many as a hundred live in a shack meant for two families. . . . Filth overflows to the walks and weedy lots and everywhere junk is piled. At night, Halsted Street thereabouts is a fantastic riot of smells and colors,a jammed jamboree of Negroes, Mexicans, skull-capped Jews, Filipinos and Levantines. . . . You can buy anything on the street from a girl, price $5, to a stiletto, price $2.50. Street-hawkers sell guns openly at $20, knives, Spanish fly, contraceptives and obscene pictures and other crude pornography.15
In these images of enclaved white professionals (Hyde Park) and urban villagers (Halsted Street) hemmed in and displaced by blacks and other nonwhites living in extravagantly impoverished physical, social, and moral conditions, Chicago Confidential offers an early version of one of the most important stories of decline told by Americans about the postwar inner city: the breakup of the industrial neighborhood order and the emergence of a new social landscape dominated by the racial ghetto.
Ethnic succession and the city's physical and economic transformations mean little to Liebling, however, who does not believe that material changes account for the proliferation of narratives of decline. The decline formula, not the material city, is his true object of study. Although he touches upon the kinds of historical processes discussed in Chicago Confidential the suburbanization of the middle class, the postwar housing shortage, the violent tension between expanding black neighborhoods and the established structure of whiteethnic blocshe explains the "disparity between the Chicago of the rhapsodists and the Chicago of today" as largely a matter of perception. No city could live up to the rhapsodic story of Chicago's limitless ascent told in the early decades of the century. Dismissing suggestions that the city's economy has changed as "too materialistic to satisfy me," Liebling places more value in a second line of explanations suggesting that the narrative of decline proceeds from a discursive adjustment: deflated by the city's failure to live up to its boosters' impossible "first-or-nothing" aspirations and by the predictable exodus in the 1920s and 1930s of local heroes to the first-line cultural capitals of New York and Los Angeles, the overblown narrative of Chicago's incipient greatness has collapsed into the exaggeratedly grim decline.16
Seen in this light, the notion of a golden age was a cultural "St. Vitus's Dance" whipped up through "mutual suggestion." The exit of major characters like Addams and Dreiser broke the spell, and each departure also provided a roadmark on the downward path traced by the narratives of decline that naturally appeared in the ensuing period of despondency among the city's house intellectuals. Liebling quotes in this regard a correspondent who admits that she saw the city "through the eyes of the Dell-Anderson-Masters-SandburgMonroe coterie," all writers prominent in the 1900s and 1920s. It is no surprise that as these figures recede into history and obscurity her "Chicago Dream has faded slowly but steadily," a kind of dreamwork that can proceed almost independently of any material change in the social landscape. 17
Liebling's "rhapsodist" label fits Chicago's business boosters well enoughand embraces as well some of the critical boosters of its literary golden age, but the label fits badly with important elements of Chicago's literary tradition. Even Sandburg's canonical "big shoulders" poem, relentlessly quoted and misquoted by civic boosters, devotes itself as much to considering the industrial city's endemic brutality as it does to valorizing its heroic productivity. Algren and the other neighborhood novelists who dominated Chicago writing in the 1930s and 1940sFarrell and Wright chief among themwere in no sense rhapsodists: social and cultural critics might be a more accurate label. But Algren did see himself as the last figure in a line of Chicago writers that extended back to Sandburg, Dreiser, and other writers of a clearly defined golden age. When Algren discussed Chicago, he did not mean the Chicago of boosters who "talked of growing bigger than New York"; but he did mean, at least in part, the composite Chicago assembled by a set of writers who aspired to literary significance in representing the city that exemplified industrial urbanism. One important chapter of the narrative of decline recounted the fading from prominence of a literary tradition that drew imaginatively upon the rich materials of Chicago to assemble a Chicago of feelinga "Chicago Dream" built by writers.
Stories of Chicago's decline treat literary history as a significant case study, an important way in which the city has been diminished since the golden age.18 The story of decline's investment in literary decline proposes a two-way traffic between the city and its literature. During the golden age, great writers and great books moved Chicago stories to cultural center stage; conversely, the city's dramatically compressed experience of urbanization, immigration, and industrialization moved its writers to center stage by providing them with the most compelling social matter America had to offer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Stories of Chicago's decline account in widely varying ways for the linked fortunes of the city and its canonical literary tradition, but they almost unanimously tend to assume the linkage itself.
Noting that the "shift from the cream to the skim-milk is reflected in every artery of the city's life," Lait and Mortimer observe that "Chicago forty years ago was the hub of a virile, vigorous circle of literature, art and, strangely, a center of poetry," as well as a publishing capital. Now, they claim, "Chicagoans no longer write books about their city, because it has few citizens left who can write and of those even fewer are brave enough to tell the real story."19 Although tossed off by Lait and Mortimer with their characteristic flippancy, the startling assertion that Chicagoans do not write about their city, or do so timidly and falsely, seems expressly designed to explode the notion of Chicago as a literary capital. Lait and Mortimer propose a city of illiterates who cannot writegiven form in the horde of Negroes, swarthy foreigners, and the less than-respectable lower classes thronging Halstedand of cowards who, in an age without entrepreneurial "hairy individualists," great reformers, or greatreporters, lack the resources to practice either the kind of muckraking social criticism or the forthright boosterism popularized by their predecessors. "For a city where, I am credibly informed, you couldn't throw an egg in 1925 without braining a great poet," agrees Liebling, "Chicago is hard up for writers."20 For Liebling, who argues that Chicago partisans are nostalgic for a golden age that took place largely in the imagination of its writers, the end of Chicago's literary renaissance constitutes the essence of Chicago's decline. Deprived of its most able proponents by the departure of first-class writers in the 1920s and 1930s, the myth of Chicago's importance as both literary center and literary subject cannot sustain itself.
The claim that there were no "Chicago writers" left, or that there was only one (Algren), is startling enough to merit further investigation. What did this self-consciously hyperbolic assertion mean? First, it meant that notable writers associated with the city tended to leave it. For writers, Chicago had not lasted as a central place of the first rank commanding its own cultural hinterland; it was, rather, a subsidiary way station, helping to funnel talent out of the vast mid-American plain east to the nation's literary and journalistic centers or west to the movie industry. Second, the notion of a city without writers provided a forceful way to figure the end of a particular tradition or traditions. The story of decline reported by Lait and Mortimer and Liebling had in mind a canon of novelists, poets, and journalists who had lived and worked in Chicago or had produced representations of Chicago, a group that typically included Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Robert Herrick, Edgar Lee Masters, Floyd Dell, Finley Peter Dunne, George Ade, Carl Sandburg, Harriet Monroe,Vachel Lindsay, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Ben Hecht, Willa Cather, James T. Farrell, and Richard Wright.21 These writersgone from midcentury Chicago, no longer writing, or deadhad together in the first half of the twentieth century imagined a composite textual Chicago that had a significant place in American literature.
If Algren was the last of the Chicago writers, a label applied to him by more than one narrator of decline, it meant that he was the last well-known writer in Chicago with generally acknowledged ties running all the way through that tradition. Liebling presents Algren, who was in 1949-51 enjoying his greatest popular success following the publication of The Man with the Golden Arm, as the last of the Chicago writers who "had stuck by his West Side Poles after all the rest of the stark Chicago realists had fled to Hollywood." In Liebling's account, Algren becomes a 1930s writer adrift in midcentury Chicago. "Still wearing steel-rimmed spectacles and a turtle-neck sweater"which Liebling apparently regarded as an outdated proletarian-intellectual uniforma forlorn Algren makes the rounds of dull literary parties at which he eats the free turkey, Virginia ham, and cocktail shrimp while besieged by "patrons of the arts andthe faculty of the University of Chicago."22 Liebling casts him as an embarrassed dinosaur whose nostalgia-inducing presence earns him treats.
Algren may not have been so self-deflating, but he proceeded from a similar assumption about Chicago's literary history: as late as the 1920s, he argues in City on the Make, Chicago was "the homeland and heartland of an American renaissance. . . . Thirty years later we stand on the rim of a cultural Sahara with not a camel in sight" (54). Algren's story of Chicago's literary decline arrives at a midcentury scene of cultural desolation strikingly similar to that found in Chicago Confidential's account of the degrading of the city's gene pool. One should remember that Algren's narrative of Chicago's decline differed violently in most particulars from Lait and Mortimer's. He did not, for instance, share their understanding of "good families," "foreigners," the meaning of race, and the political left. (Chicago Confidential knowingly explains that communists, who made up important parts of Algren's literary and social circle in the 1930s, habitually compel white female party members to have sex with black men.) But Algren's version of Chicago's decline dovetails with Chicago Confidential's and Liebling's versions on the subject of literature: at midcentury, City on the Make argues, Chicago has become a cultural desert because its artists have abandoned their mission. In Algren's view, that mission is to stand up for "neighborhood" people against the power wielded by political and economic bosses; the writers have given up that fight in an age of suburbanization and consensus. More generally, the mission of Chicago realists, at least as it was grasped by narrators of the city's decline, was to write about industrial urbanism, and that appeared to be a dying subject. "It used to be a writer's town" (62), argues City on the Make: "It has had its big chance and fluffed it" (55). For Algren, good dreamwork, like good steady factory work in the changing inner city, was getting harder to find.
The Unmaking of Industrial Urbanism
The story of decline thus embraces the social landscape of urban villages and Chicago's literary tradition as two orders rooted in industrial urbanism and threatened by the city's postwar transformation. The pall hanging over the urban village in Algren's midcentury writing figures both the material prospect of urban change and the textual prospect of a literary tradition's exhaustion.
City on the Make, therefore, presents the decline of industrial urbanism as the defeat of an imagined alliance between factory workers and writers of the industrial city. Chicago is "a poet's town for the same reason it's a working stiff's town, both poet and working stiff being boys out to get even for funny cards dealt by an overpaid houseman weary long years ago" (63). The poets are allied with the working stiffs (i.e., "neighborhood" people) because, in Algren'sbelligerently narrow definition of literature as social critique pure and simple, "literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity."23 The writers of Algren's Chicago tradition thus form a kind of collective social conscience as well as an aesthetic order, allied with the city's wage-earning and marginal classes against those who own the industrial and political machines. This latter group and their cronies make Chicago "also an American Legionnaire's town, real Chamber of Commerce territory, the big banker-and-broker's burg, where a softclothes dick with a paunch and no brain at all . . . decides what movies and plays we ought to see and what we mustn't" (63). The two factions have fought a war for Chicago, with battles contested in the streets and on the printed page, and the poets and working stiffs have lost, the game being fixed in favor of big business and its antiliterature of boosterism. Algren the neighborhood novelist runs up white flags flapping from laundry lines in the urban village.
This is not a dramatic reversal or surprise defeat but rather the playing out of a logic readable throughout the city's development: "An October sort of city even in spring" suggests that the seeds of decline can be found even in the city's rise. Chicago was founded by "marked-down derelicts with dollar signs for eyes" (10), and their more pious and respectable inheritors have defeated all challenges from City on the Make's honor roll of radical leftists, labor leaders, Lincolnian liberals, Progressives, and genuine Christians. When Algren refers to Colonel McCormick as "the inventor of modern warfare, our very own dimestore Napoleon, Colonel McGooseneck" (65), he both pokes fun at McCormick's empty military posturing and puts the McCormicksan industrialist clan but also relentlessly boosterish newspaper publishersat the center of the winning side in the "modern warfare" over Chicago. The naked exercise of stockyard logic has always been Chicago's social trademark"Wise up, Jim: it's a joint where the bulls and the foxes live well and the lambs wind up headdown from the hook" (56)and McCormick's faction of industrialists and allied politicians, cultural arbiters, and civic boosters has grown fat in victory. In City on the Make, Chicago's golden age was a time when one could believe that this inevitable victory was as yet in doubt, that reformist "giants" could sway the industrial city onto another, less brutal course. But, in this most fixable city, the fix was in: "its poets pull the town one way while its tycoons' wives pull it another, its gunmen making it the world's crime capital while its educators beat the bushes for saints. Any old saints. And every time a Robert Hutchins or Robert Morss Lovett pulls it half an inch out of the mud, a Hearst or an Insull or a McCormick shoves it down again by sheer weight of wealth and venality" (57).
The city that staggers into middle age"Up, down and lurching sidewise. . . . Small wonder we've had trouble growing up"remains a capital for hustlers, operators, and thieves living by stockyard rules. In City on the Make's account, the poets and the working stiffs disappear from the stage, hounded by cries of "'Hit him again, he don't own a dime"' (57). The "city that works" tends to disappear from City on the Make as the industrial city declines toward the present day. Urban villages and factory jobs increasingly belong to the bygone "silver-colored yesterday." The city of poets and writers disappears in a parallel movement, having been eclipsed by the city of American Legionnaires, the Chamber of Commerce, and a critical establishment captive to the McCormick faction and its successors, the progrowth and redevelopment ideologues. Only two classes remain in Algren's October citybig-time operators, who enjoy official authority, and the small-time losers they victimize. The nightly battle fought in postwar Chicago now pits a legion of anonymous scufflers against the annihilating city itself:
As evening comes taxiing in and the jungle hiders come softly forth: geeks and gargoyles, old blown winoes, sour stewbums and grinning ginsoaks, young dingbats who went ashore on D Plus One or D Plus Two and have been trying to find some arc-lit shore ever since. Strolling with ancient boxcar perverts who fought all their wars on the Santa Fe . . . Every day is D-day under the El. (59)
Algren, who saw himself as a lone survivor who made literature in the Chicago tradition, understood his job at midcentury to be to explore the imaginative possibilities afforded by these grim players in industrial Chicago's endgame.
City on the Make offers a version of decline in which militant capital defeats workers and their literary supporters, but, as Lait and Mortimer's account of entrepreneurial capital defeated by racial heterogeny should remind us, the decline genre allows great variation in representing the rise of the postindustrial city. There is, of course, a story of the 1930s and the 1950s in Algren's portrait of poets and workers defeated by the expansive postwar bourgeoisie and reaction against the political left. Algren was a Popular Front leftist, celebrated before the war as a proletarian writer, who saw fewer and fewer allies in the sphere of cultural politics as postwar America became Cold War America. But that familiar story, which Algren retold in City on the Make and often after that, does not do justice to Algren as a writer of cities: he was one of the great literary formulators of the postwar decline narrative, a genre contributed to by all manner of urban intellectuals across the political spectrum. The equation of poets and workers in City on the Make does gesture back to the Popular Front, but it also reminds us that industrial urbanism was a many-faceted artifact, of which Algren's brand of literary realism and the industrial villagers' way of life formed only two facets. The cultures of cities may have significantly nurtured the Popular Front but only as one among many cultural and social formations.
Besides thinking of himself as a social critic and a leftist, Algren, then, conceived of himself as falling within a specific genre of urban intellectualaChicago novelist and poet on the prewar model. In this sense, he placed himself within a larger set of Chicago realists: a complex of urban intellectuals encompassing not only literary figures but also journalists (including cartoonish anti-communists Lait and Mortimer) and social scientists (especially the Chicago School of sociology associated with Robert Park), who had before the war produced a body of closely observed urban writing that responded to the formal, social, and political problems raised by the industrial city. At midcentury, Algren perceived an imminent crisis in the passing of the industrial urbanism that had provided Chicago realism with its defining subject. His identity as an urban intellectual was rooted in the industrial villages he wrote about, neighborhoods that had been since the 1930s the Chicago novel's home terrain. The suddenly foreseeable breakup of those neighborhoods, part of postindustrial transformation, formed an important part of the story of decline. Algren therefore saw himself in danger of being cast adrift from the materials he drew upon in doing his cultural work.
Algren's postwar writing bears the marks of its historical moment: the sense of literary-historical desperation, the flows of capital and population already transforming postwar Chicago's social landscape. Chapter 2 describes Chicago's midcentury transformation from an industrial city of downtown and neighborhoods into a postindustrial metropolis of inner city and suburbs, a transformation that shapes the story of decline and the reading of it that follows. The argument therefore plants one foot in the city of fact. It plants the other foot in the city of feeling: the story of decline also embodies and considers the postwar exhaustion of what Algren understood as his tradition of Chicago realism, which forms the second subject of chapter 2. These two structural supports undergird a reading in chapter 3 of Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm, the definitive, if often obscure and deflected, story of decline in novel form and a culminative masterpiece of Algren's Chicago tradition. Chapter 4 begins where Algren imagines an apocalyptic end: it concludes part I by assembling the pieces of a post-Algren Chicago tradition, which revises (redevelops) the city of feeling he constructed as it maps the postindustrial inner city. Algren's postwar writing, which tends to give the impression that after he is done there will be nothing left to say about Chicago, thus introduces and underlies new generations of Chicago stories, landscapes, and urban intellectuals.
Chapters 2, 3, and 4 follow Algren's lead in emphasizing landscape. Like Sandburg's personification of Chicago and various updatings of it, the landscapes constructed in texts embody the complex and diffuse idea of Chicago in a concrete form that can be infused with meanings. To the extent that the texts discussed here are about Chicago, their landscapes enter into conversation withone another and with the city's changing social landscape. The landscapes we find in Chicago literature afford us ways to consider a historical moment suspended between the industrial and postindustrial eras, between a prewar urban literature and the genres that would rework and replace it. In particular, the pervasiveness of the El in the landscapes of Golden Arm and City on the Make affords a way to consider the relationship between Chicago and the city constructed by its literary tradition: both the city of fact and the city of feeling grew around their railroads, which thereby acquired a powerful symbolic charge that survives well into the age of the expressway that began around midcentury. The El's great rusting trestles, many of prewar vintage, continue to this day to serve as a resonant shorthand for Chicago: they still carry loads of meaning, just as they still bear trains filled with flesh-and-blood passengers. The El reminds us that with all the midcentury talk of decline, apocalypse, and the "disappearance" of Chicago, the prewar city did not fall overnight into ruin but instead became absorbed into a new landscape. The first act of that dramathe passing of industrial Chicago, with its habits of life and literatureis the subject of part I.
Excerpted from October Cities by Carlo Rotella Copyright © 1998 by Carlo Rotella. Excerpted by permission.
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