The Third Coast—turning a bunch of stuff that happened into drama | Bleader

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Third Coast—turning a bunch of stuff that happened into drama

Posted By on 07.16.13 at 10:23 AM

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When Rachel Shteir read Thomas Dyja's The Third Coast on behalf of the New York Times, she found in it an argument Dyja wasn't aware he'd put there—that Chicago is a tragedy it's still in denial about, having sold its soul in the mid-1950s when "the American mass market . . . snuffed out Midwestern geniuses with radical roots."

"It's by no means a take down of Chicago," Dyja told one reader who asked him what he thought of Shteir's review; "if anything it's an affirmation of the city's importance to America."

I've finally read The Third Coast for myself. Like Shteir, I sing its praises. And I do see the contours of the argument that Shteir seconded. But I can't take it half as seriously as she did. The book's an enchantment.

Dyja has done on Chicago's behalf what our graying memories do on our own: he's turned incident into narrative. One of the most common activities of old age is to wade into those boxes of loose photos and assemble the best into scrapbooks with labeled binders. Finding (or insisting on) a thread that runs through the handful of moments we remember of the infinite number fate brought our way isn't an act of romantic falsification; every life, from the earliest age, is a story in search of itself.

Dyja went in search of Chicago's. He begins his book with the death of architect Louis Sullivan—a genius, forsaken—in 1924 and ends it with the death of Nelson Algren—a genius, forsaken—in 1980. But his focus is on our city in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. His cast of characters is vast and essential to his purpose, for Dyja's subtitle is "When Chicago Built the American Dream," and it was built, he tells us, by individuals gathered in a city that celebrated individuality. "The real struggle for America's future—whether it would be directed by its people or its institutions—took place in postwar Chicago," he writes in his preface. But even the institutionalizers were individuals that Dyja treats as such—Ray Kroch commodifying food, Hugh Hefner commodifying sexuality, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler with their Great Books commodifying literature. What's magical is Dyja's success, through the authority of authorship, of turning so many stories into one story. He creates a world and makes it true.

In one week's time in late January of 1959, he tells us, the following two things happened:

*With its new fleet of Boeing 707s, American Airlines introduced nonstop service between Los Angeles and New York. "The newly minted 'jet set' would never need to change trains in Chicago again."

*ABC Television launched The Untouchables, "set in a fantasyland of Capone-era Chicago." Dyja comments, "Whatever else the city was responsible for would be lost in a hail of bullets from Robert Stack's tommy gun."

Dyja has pumped up a coincidence into a haunting portent, and he's made a lot more of Stack's make-believe tommy gun than common sense can support. But what of it? It all serves the story line, where a juxtaposition is proper if it's dramatic. The Third Coast is awash in juxtapositions, the vast cast of characters including (to name just a few): Mies van der Rohe, Henry Darger, Mahalia Jackson, Paul Sills, Burr Tillstrom, Emmett Till, Claudia Cassidy, Julian Levi, Albert Cardinal Mayer . . . They didn't know it at the time, but they were all making this marvelous drama together.

Dyja alertly plays Mies and Gwendolyn Brooks off against each other, Brooks being fascinated all her life by the Mecca, a huge apartment building at 34th and State eventually torn down to make way for the expanding campus of Mies's Illinois Institute of Technology. "In 1968," Dyja writes, "[Brooks] would finally write her long poem about a little girl abducted and murdered in the Mecca, that enormous symbol of Black Chicago where she'd once worked. 'Sit where the light corrupts your face,' starts 'In the Mecca.' 'Mies van der Rohe retires from grace. / And the fair fables fall.' It is her masterpiece."

And Crown Hall, on virtually the same spot, was Mies's.

When links aren't apparent, Dyja forges them anyway. He's writing about a 1951 recording session at Chess Records. "Leonard and Phil [Chess] brought Muddy [Waters] and the band to Universal for a session. Leonard rigged up something with a sewer pipe for an echo, while [Little] Walter, just to try it out, plugged his harmonica directly into the amp. The result was a hard steel and glass sound as modern as Mies's breakthrough [apartments] on Lake Shore Drive or [Harry] Callahan's epiphany about the technology of photography."

The Chess Brothers provide Dyja with a passage I described in my notes as the "nut graph":

The Chess brothers weren't heroes, but they weren't entirely villains. They'd lived in a uniquely Chicago way—creatively, commercially, racially, and ethically in the crossroads, the place where you go to meet new opportunities, and the devil.

The Third Coast invites you to think the devil truly did snatch Chicago's soul when Richard J. Daley was elected mayor in 1955 and imposed his idea of order on his city. (Rachel Shteir made the mistake of accepting the invitation.) Individualism withered, and some among Dyja's cast of characters, defeated, pulled up stakes. Algren, for example, got old, moved away, and died. But of course, so did Saul Bellow, whom Dyja all but ignores. Bellow doesn't suit the story line because there's no way to hint that in the end Chicago (and Simone d e Beauvoir) broke his heart.

By the late 1960s, "Chicago's disappearance from American consciousness would be all but complete, save for its cameo in the 1968 riots," Dyja writes in his epilogue, a dramatic flourish and preposterous overstatement that he obviously doesn't believe for a second. (Hey, whatever happened to that town that used to hang out by the lake? Anyone seen it around?) The author immediately acknowledges that "the city survived, and in many ways it thrives," that it's one of the world's great financial centers, and that "its theater and architecture are the nation's finest." Even so, says Dyja, "Chicago never became the city it could have been, the city it should have been."

What city that is he doesn't quite say, nor could he, no more than any of us composing the bittersweet stories of our lives can say exactly who we should have been instead. Dyja concludes on this longing note because it's the right note for a terrific book that's as much art as history. The span of years covered in The Third Coast ended long before I came to Chicago, and for many of those years I hadn't been born yet. But Dyja has given them to me, as a prelude to the Chicago I've actually lived in. They came so creatively packaged it will be hard to remember they're not a memory.

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