James Atlas, in his biography of Chicago writer Saul Bellow, suggests that "the city's reputation for nurturing literary and intellectual talent can be traced to the same geographical centrality that made it a great industrial power." When Chicago was incorporated in 1837, it was a frontier outpost with about 4,000 people. The population rose rapidly to approximately 100,000 in 1860. By 1890, the city had over 1 million people. Chicago's dynamic growth, as well as the manufacturing, economics, and politics that fueled this growth, can be seen in the works of writers like Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Hamlin Garland, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, Willa Cather, and Edna Ferber.
Due to these rapid changes, Chicago writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries faced the challenge of how to depict this potentially disorienting new urban reality. Narrative fiction of that time, much of it in the style of "high-flown romance" and "genteel realism", needed a new approach to describe Chicago's social, political, and economic conditions. Chicagoans worked hard to create a literary tradition that would stand the test of time, and create a "city of feeling" out of concrete, steel, vast lake, and open prairie. Among the new techniques and styles embraced by Chicago writers were "naturalism," "imagism," and "free verse." Themes often centered on an exciting but dirty urbanism, as well as the quaint but dark and sometimes stultifying small town.
Chicago's early twentieth-century writers and publishers were seen as producing innovative work that broke with the literary traditions of Europe and the Eastern United States. In 1920, the critic H.L. Mencken wrote in a London magazine, the Nation, that Chicago was the "Literary Capital of the United States." Expressing the attitude that Chicago writers were creating a distinctive, new, and far from genteel literary idiom, he wrote, "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 the gargantuan and inordinate abattoir by Lake Michigan."
The first issue of Chicago-based Poetry magazine appeared in 1912.
According to Bill Savage in The Encyclopedia of Chicago, today's Chicago writers are still interested in the same social themes and urban landscapes that compelled earlier Chicago writers: "the fundamental dilemmas presented by city life in general and by the specifics of Chicago's urban spaces, history, and relentless change."
The Encyclopedia of Chicago identifies three periods of works from Chicago which had a major influence on American Literature:
Literature scholar Robert Bone argues for the existence of a fourth period:
A second "Chicago Renaissance," this time lasting approximately 1935 to 1950 and referring to a wave of creativity from Chicago's African-American writers. Bone suggests that this Chicago Renaissance was comparable in influence and importance to the earlier Harlem Renaissance. Bone's list of Chicago Renaissance writers includes fiction writers like Richard Wright, William Attaway, and Willard Motley along with poets like Frank Marshall Davis and Margaret Walker. It is worth noting that the term "Chicago Black Renaissance" is often used to denote creativity in all the arts, not just in literature, during the 1930s-50s.
Works about Chicago or set in Chicago
Much notable Chicago writing focuses on the city itself, with social criticism keeping exultation in check. Here is a selection of Chicago's most famous works about itself:
David Auburn's play Proof (2000 New York debut) is set on the porch of a house in Hyde Park. The play focuses on the emotional turmoil experienced by Catherine, a young woman who recently lost her father, a prominent University of Chicago mathematician who suffered from an unspecified mental illness.
Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March (1953) charts the long, drifting life of a Jewish Chicagoan and his myriad eccentric acquaintances throughout the early 20th century: growing up in the then Eastern European neighborhood of Humboldt Park, cavorting with heiresses on Chicago's Gold Coast, studying at the University of Chicago, fleeing union thugs in the Loop, and taking the odd detour to hang out with Trotsky in Mexico while eagle-hunting giant iguanas on horseback. Novelist Martin Amis describes the book as "An epic about the so-called ordinary," a remark that indicates the text's sprawling, episodic structure. Amis also goes so far as to claim that "The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel."
Gwendolyn Brooks'sA Street in Bronzeville (1945) is the collection of poems that launched the career of the famous Chicago poet, focusing on the aspirations, disappointments, and daily life of African-Americans living in 1940s Bronzeville.
Theodore Dreiser'sSister Carrie (1900) tells the tale of a country girl who leaves home to seek her fortune, first in Chicago and later in New York. Its descriptions of Chicago include a portrait of Loop department stores at the end of the nineteenth century. According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Dreiser was an important figure in American naturalism.
Stuart Dybek's The Coast of Chicago (2004), written in a style blending the gritty with the dreamlike, is a collection of fourteen short stories about growing up in Chicago, largely in neighborhoods such as Pilsen and Little Village populated by Eastern European and Latino immigrant communities.
Frank Norris's The Pit (1903) is a naturalistic novel about greed and speculation at the early 20th-century Chicago Board of Trade. It is the second installment in The Epic of Wheat, a never-finished trilogy in which Norris planned to depict the economic life cycle of this crucial commodity from production to consumption.
Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems (1916) depicts scenes from early-twentieth-century Chicago, often focusing on working-class characters and commenting on the class divide. With this early volume, Sandburg established his reputation as the poet of the common American.
Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City (2007) provides a history of Chicago's vice district, the Levee, and some of the early twentieth-century personalities involved: gangsters, corrupt politicians, crusading reformers, and two sisters who ran the most elite brothel in town.
Jane Addams' Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), written by a social reformer who won the 1931 Nobel Peace prize, is an autobiography combined with firsthand investigation of poverty, immigrant communities, and political activism in turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago.
Erik Larson's Devil in the White City (2003) is a best-selling popular history about the 1893 Colombian Exposition; it's also about the serial killer who was stalking the city at the same time. Straight history of the Exposition and also the workers' paradise in Pullman is found in James Gilbert's Perfect Cities: Chicago's Utopias of 1893.
Mike Royko's Boss (1971), written by a Chicago Daily News columnist, is a biography of the powerful mayor Richard J. Daley. The book provides a critical look at Daley's rise to power and at Chicago's political culture of "clout."American Pharaoh (Cohen and Taylor) is a scholarly treatment of the same subject.
Studs Terkel's Working (1974) is a series of interviews with American workers. Although Terkel interviewed people in other cities, most of his material comes from Chicago, and the book uses interviews to paint a composite portrait of Chicago as a laboring town.
Alternative versions of Chicago sometimes appear in fantasy and science fiction novels.
Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files (begun 2000) is a series set in Chicago about Harry Dresden, Chicago's first (and only) Wizard PI, who protects the city from supernatural attack.
^Atlas, James. Bellow. New York: Random House, 2000. 6.
^Nugent, Walter. Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Demography."
^ abPinkerton, Jan; Hudson, Randolph H. (2004). "Introduction". Library of American Literature. Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. New York: Facts on File, Inc. pp. 1–426, iv–v. ISBN0-8160-4898-3.
^Pinkerton, Jan; Hudson, Randolph H. (2004). "Introduction". Library of American Literature. Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. New York: Facts on File, Inc. pp. 1–426, iv. ISBN0-8160-4898-3.
^"Frank Norris". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Retrieved 20 Feb 2015.
^Niven, Penelope. "Carl Sandburg's Life." American National Biography Online 2000. Reproduced at Modern American Poetry.
^Diedrick, James. Encyclopedia of Chicago, "The Jungle."
^Church, Ellen and Kimberly Mertz. "Richard Wright." Teaching African American Literature: Resources for High School Teachers in Southeastern North Carolina. University of North Carolina-Pembroke, 2009. Retrieved 11 April 2015.