Required Reading: Chicago: City on the Make


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There’s something about great writing. You don’t agree with every word. You may not even understand everything you’re reading. For me, Henry Miller achieves the former, William S. Burroughs the latter. Without resorting to beleagueringly sexist and racist prose or drug-induced half-coherent hallucinations, Nelson Algren manages to be a great writer who I don’t always agree with or understand. The definitive introduction to his work is his essay / love song / poetic anthropomorphization of the city he once loved in Chicago: City on the Make.

Nelson Algren’s clever wit can’t be denied. The meaning of his writing transcends what is on the pages. His description of the city he claims to love is brutal. It’s hustlertown. It’s an infidel’s capital. It’s an outlaw’s playground. It’s a ball game between Jane Addams and Big Bill Thompson, but it’s a rigged ball game. These descriptions don’t actually garnish a positive connotation and it’s almost hard to believe this is considered a love song — but it is. Algren sidesteps the schmaltz for reality: “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

It’s a brutally honest brutal honesty, which comes with a price. By using an excessive amount of slang and obscure references, it can be difficult to keep up with Nelson. But at the same time, it can’t be omitted. You can hear his illustrious voice overtaking your own as you read aloud (the recommended way).

Stylistically, Algren certainly owes a bit to Walt Whitman, specifically Leaves of Grass; both use cataloging in a prose poetry format, illuminating America’s beauty by juxtaposing its polarizing characteristics. These contrasts are highlighted in the writing itself, placing long winded run on sentences next to terse fragments. Both have their place in this city with two faces, Algren’s all-encompassing metaphor for the city. However, it has been pointed out that the urban dichotomy of the ‘two faces’ Chicago keeps was lifted from a poem by David Wolff about New York.

It should be outrageous to a Chicago reader that the driving theme of the story is not the author’s own. But reading in a contemporary context, we have to let go of our (occasionally) arbitrary civic pride and recognize the problems of our city exist in others. Considering the rapidly global pace of the world, specific locality is becoming simultaneously less and more important. Less because it is, well, just one world. You can find an O’Malley’s bar in any city. Multinationals are ubiquitous the world over. At the same time, people are comforted by what they know, which is generally where they grew up. It’s why we still live in this city, where even its heralded literary champions are stealing from New York. Where the same is done to stem corruption in 2011 as it was in 1919. Why we stick through these winters. Why we sometimes wait inordinate amounts of time for the L. Because at the same time, sometimes bus tracker works. We have amazing summer festivals. And yes, sometimes, even a local baseball team can win an honest World Series.

The fact that Algren lifted from another author only strengthens his description of the city. As a true Chicagoan, he’s on his own make; he has his two sides. He was the physical embodiment of the city that he ‘captured’. What is so important about this piece is to wonder: has Chicago changed? Are we still hustlertown? Or are we something different? Is a city’s identity eternal or in constant flux? Algren did a brilliant job describing the city of his time, but I find it difficult to say that nothing has changed, that we are the “cultural Sahara” Algren disdainfully prophesized. As he quips in the afterword: “Any writer whose thought is simply to report on the sights and sounds of the city must be some kind of nut.” So have at it, readers: which authors or writers are capturing Chicago today? And who are the nuts?

(For those unfamiliar but want an immediate taste, check out Studs Terkel’s intro and part of Chapter 1 on Google Books)

Andrew Hertzberg

About Andrew Hertzberg

If identity is an illusion, I’m a magician in training. And although Emerson was right in pointing out that “with consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do” the one constant I don’t mind in my life is Chicago. Yes, even the boredom of her suburbs couldn’t suppress the glow of the city, my attraction as a moth to flame. The future is unwritten, the characters are ever-expanding, and the plot is a perpetual foray through rising actions, conflicts and falling actions; the setting, however, remains the same.

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