Cityscape: No Room for Writers | Essay | Chicago Reader

Cityscape: No Room for Writers 

The closest thing Chicago has to a writers' memorial is a small room in the new library decorated with vandalized book pages.

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On the seventh floor of Chicago's new Harold Washington Library is a pavilion set aside for readings, seminars, and lectures called the Chicago Authors Room. It's a pleasant and sensibly small space--Chicago authors don't get much space in bookstores either--but it makes a curious memorial to writers since its walls are decorated with vandalized book pages.

It's art, of course--a work commissioned from the up-from-the-Bronx art collaborative known as Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival). Rollins, a leftish teacher of slum kids, and 16 Chicago public-school students took pages from some 30 literary works about the city or by writers resident in it and embellished each with images of golden horns. The product was titled "Amerika--for the authors of Chicago" and put up on the walls.

The work is a variation on a theme K.O.S. made famous. Rollins has explained that Kafka's Amerika appeals to kids of the American underclass, for whom the mainstream United States seems as strange as it did to the clerk who tried to imagine life in the New World from his apartment in Prague. Kafka's hero finds the promise of salvation in a Nature Theatre in Oklahoma, whose minions announce themselves by blowing golden horns. In the original versions of Rollins's "Amerika" series, fantastic images of the horn were painted by South Bronx teens, most of them black or Hispanic, onto pages torn from Kafka's book, in assemblages measuring up to 5 by 14 feet.

The 31 authors in the Chicago work include virtually every chronicler of the downtrodden, the excluded, the disaffected--in short, the writers of the physical city as well as of the imagined one. Cyrus Colter, Frank Norris, Gwendolyn Brooks, Upton Sinclair, Vachel Lindsay, Nelson Algren, Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, Edgar Lee Masters, David Mamet, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Ring Lardner, Saul Bellow, and Jane Addams all make their appearances.

The "Amerika" collaborators interpreted the term "author" generously enough to include Louis Armstrong, bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, and white-bread bandleader Tommy Dorsey. Some critics saw the horn motif in the earlier "Amerika" installments as a metaphor for glory, triumph, splendor. In describing the Chicago version, however, Robbins has said that the horns celebrate diversity, being a "visual homage to the completely American art form of jazz," a force "synonymous with Chicago."

So far, so-so. The significance of this work may be taken to be political rather than artistic. Critic Nicholas Paley once described K.O.S.'s works as challenges to such established institutions as libraries to attend to all voices from their communities. "Amerika--for the authors of Chicago" is democratic nearly to the point of anarchy. The list includes Hemingway, which confirms that sexually ambivalent mothers have now been added to the list of the world's oppressors. Also included are Juliette Kinzie, Li-Yong Li, John Alden Carpenter, Lucille Clifton, Louis Sullivan, Robert Herrick, Bertolt Brecht, Willa Cather, Luis Morones, and Ida Wells. (Brecht's name raises a question: Should not translators be recognized as well? Not with a whole room, of course, but perhaps with a couple of chairs?)

Few of these names are known outside Chicago, and fewer still are read today even in Chicago. Herrick, for example, wrote sociology with plots. Kinzie has been portrayed by some recent critics as the mother of a tradition of fiction writing to which Sara Paretsky and Jane Byrne are heirs; author of a personal history of the Fort Dearborn massacre (an account she incorporated into her autobiography, Wau-Bun, in 1856), she is of historical significance only.

Rollins has explained that it is an error to judge K.O.S. projects as art, or only as art; that he is a teacher who uses art, not an artist who teaches it; and that the process matters more than the product. Fair enough, but the product reflects disquietingly on the process. The work embodies the same forces that have marginalized literature (or at least the book) as a means to any kind of broad cultural community--the artists' emendations obliterate the text, making it impossible for others to attempt their own readings.

I had seen work like this before, I realized--in cruder, less self-conscious form--in the pages of ordinary library books whose borrowers couldn't resist the temptation to note (usually in ink) their disagreements with the authors in the margins; in some cases they presumed to "correct" the text itself. Graffiti are graffiti, I decided, whether a book is defaced on the wall or on the shelf.

Museums and libraries have long memorialized in stone the composers, the painters, the writers judged to possess enduring worth. The Art Institute had carved into the frieze of Allerton Hall the names of no fewer than 37 masters; Orchestra Hall, with less Michigan Avenue frontage than the Art Institute, had to restrict itself to 5. The builders of Chicago's old main public library wove into its ceiling mosaics the names of the then-immortal scribes of the West. (The European West, of course, not the American West; Chicago in 1897 was not yet conscious of a literary tradition.) Tourists who gaze upward at the frieze that surrounds the new Illinois State Library in Springfield--meaning most of them, there not being much at ground level in the capital city to occupy them--can read the names of 35 Illinois writers carved there.

Carving the immortals on a building used to be a form of brand-name advertising for the institution. Today it's a sorely needed advertisement for the artists. The fact that Illinois has produced writers of stature usually surprises people, the way they are surprised to learn that Illinois is the nation's number-one producer of horseradish. Literature as an enterprise is sufficiently near death in the Prairie State to justify official state intervention. A "Read Illinois" program begun several years ago by the state library was less a literacy promotion than a "Buy American" campaign aimed at a sluggish literary sector.

Months before construction began on the new library downstate, librarians began to compile a roster of Illinois authors deserving of the public's attention. A distinguished committee of 18 people--nearly all the Illinoisans who have read enough to make an informed choice, by my guess--made recommendations, and a committee of library staff made the final selections.

The resulting list of authors, living and dead, is exquisitely correct in a political sense, including as it does women and African Americans and Jews and a Native American (the Potawatomi chief, Black Hawk). The library committee struck a blow for purely literary egalitarianism as well by picking successful genre writers like Ray Bradbury and L. Frank Baum. And a number of local worthies who are not commemorated in the Chicago Authors Room are remembered on the Illinois State Library frieze: Harriet Monroe, John Dos Passos (much of whose USA trilogy is set in Chicago), Lorraine Hansberry, H.B. Fuller, Sherwood Anderson, Ben Hecht, George Ade, and William Maxwell, who set his fine growing-up novel Folded Leaf in Chicago.

It's inevitable in an era when no one quite agrees on standards that reputations seldom last as long as stone. Instead of stone friezes, the library of the future would be better served by an electronic bank-style message sign, with a continuously updated list of writers crawling across the facade like the latest stock-market quotations. Edna Ferber adorns the state library because she won a Nobel Prize, not because she deserved one. James T. Farrell always makes these lists even though he was exposed in the 1950s by Time as the worst writer in America. So does Edgar Lee Masters, who lived in Chicago but wrote nothing worthwhile about it.

The city has spawned much fine writing, of course, but most of it is not the work of artists in the conventional sense but of artisans working in miscellaneous forms: the newspaper column (Royko, Peter Finley Dunne), the sports page (Lardner), the screenplay and popular stage (Hecht and probably David Mamet), the casual essay (Joseph Epstein), the oral history (Terkel). Dear Abby and Ann Landers are the Brontes of advice columnists, though purists might object that carving the names of the helpful Friedman sisters into the stone of the new Chicago library would be like naming a university after Oprah.

The exterior of the Harold Washington Library does not have a frieze, friezes not being gaudy enough to recommend themselves to architect Tom Beeby, but the building offers a richness of other possibilities for commemoration. I would change the Chicago Authors Room to the Room of the Unknown Author. Critic Robert Bray finds James Corrothers, author of the 1902 novel The Black Cat Club, the equal to Peter Finley Dunne, creator of the Bridgeport barkeep Mr. Dooley, when it comes to dialect/ethnic humor and social satire. (Of course Dunne is an unfamiliar name to younger readers too, partly because his work is in dialect and partly because the Irish are no longer considered an oppressed group, except by the Irish.) But Corrothers disowned the book, as have those of his fellow African Americans still embarrassed by what their grandkids will eventually take pride in. Bray also recommends Elia Peattie, calling The Precipice "one of the finest--and unaccountably neglected--of Chicago novels by and about women."

Nowhere in Illinois is there anything like England's national shrine to safely dead writers, the Poet's Corner at London's Westminster Abbey. Illinois' ornate statehouse contains no crypts for its celebrated scriveners, for example. (Its rotunda does house a statue of one of our more inventive phrase makers, however, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley; had he used a more polished accent to say things like "The purpose of the police is to preserve disorder" he would be remembered today as Illinois' Oscar Wilde.)

Naturally there are obstacles in the way of transforming the Harold Washington Library into a shrine for Chicago writers. Actually burying their physical remains in the walls or floors would probably inspire the City Council to add grave tenders to the janitorial staff, thus wrecking a budget that even now lacks the money for all the librarians it needs.

More troublesome is the problem of defining what exactly a Chicago author is. Brecht (selected by the K.O.S. for his St. Joan of the Stockyards) is a Chicago author in the same sense that Saul Bellow in The Dean's December is a Prague author. Thorstein Veblen described Chicago in The Theory of the Leisure Class--you could say he was inspired by it--but he never identified it by name. Most of the authors associated with the city came from some other place and stayed in Chicago only on their way somewhere else, fleeing like Richard Wright to Paris or Saul Bellow to Hyde Park. As for Willa Cather, Bray calls her a literary tourist; all that Chicago contributed to the heroine of The Song of the Lark "is an unwelcome knowledge of 'rush hour.'"

Pride of place would have to go to those writers who both lived in Chicago and wrote about it. Second to those would be the writers who wrote about Chicago but never lived here, followed by those who wrote about Chicago but never visited, and then by writers who lived in Chicago and wrote about it but called it something else. Next in rank would be writers who lived in Chicago but never wrote about it at all. (Norman Maclean used to teach at the University of Chicago, but his A River Runs Through It is about Montana, not the Loop.) Lower on the list would be writers who lived in the suburbs but were reviewed in the Chicago papers (Garry Wills comes to mind); at the bottom, writers who neither lived in or near nor wrote about Chicago but stopped here a lot on book tours, like Calvin Trillin.

Assuming such problems can be solved--as we are all reasonable people, aren't we?--it remains only to make architectural accommodation. The reading carrels that line floors four through seven at the Washington Library resemble the aisle chapels of a cathedral and would make perfect memorials to writers of lesser rank. The true immortals (like Royko, when his time comes) would be laid to rest in vaults in the floor of the entry lobby. It's the perfect spot. The room is ceremonial in scale and accoutrements, and has no obvious purpose at present except to confuse bums trying to get upstairs.

A graver problem would be getting writers to agree to spend eternity in Chicago. Sandburg, Masters, and Lindsay went back to their downstate hometowns to be buried; Dreiser rests in New York. Westminster offers a solution. When Thomas Hardy died in 1928, his family wanted to honor his wishes to be buried in his home county, while the rest of the nation demanded that he be interred in the abbey. A compromise was reached: Hardy's heart was removed and buried in the country, while the ashes of the rest of his cremated body were interred in the London church. Such arrangements could set the stage for some lively debates, however, about which part of a non-native writer's anatomy--spleen? liver?--would be most fittingly laid to rest in Chicago.

Of course the most fitting memorial for any writer is a bank account made fat by the proceeds from sales of books. Chicago would rather praise its writers than buy their books or read them, but that's typical of hometowns. In the 1930s an angry Edgar Lee Masters argued that Illinois should have set up a life pension of $150 a month for Vachel Lindsay at the end of his life. In the magazine American Mercury Masters wrote, "Chicago was full of millionaires; Springfield had many too; and some of these had made their money by exploiting and stealing the resources of the State, and by operating mills of ignorance and calumny. . . . But prayers and editorials and wreaths are cheaper than pensions, and make as much noise."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

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