Friday, July 20, 2012

Ninth Inning Town: Nelson Algren's "Chicago: City On the Make"

For the last several weeks, I was mentally plotting an essay about Chicago's collective psychology in relation to the views on the professional sports teams and athletes. While this could very well be a piece I return to, a random reading and thoughts on other strains of civic psychology turned me in a different direction. Back in May, when Chicago hosted the NATO Summit, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a telling remark that was supported and repeated by local media outlets. Despite the protesters and general apathy about the magnitude of the meeting, Emanuel stated that he wanted to show off Chicago as a "world-class city." This isn't the first time that this idea has circulated, and it always strikes me as odd and pointless, since Chicago is the third-largest city in the country, yet local politicians and boosters maintain a mentality of Chicago being a small town looking to make good.

More recently, Chicago was beset by a nasty heatwave and a rash of gang shootings (which seem to be always ongoing, sadly). A local news channel conducted interviews with tourists vacationing downtown, with some of them stating they would have had reservations about visiting had they been aware of the rise in violent activity. While violence can happen anywhere at any time, part of me was incredulous, since a lot of upper-class visitors remain in the confines of the downtown shopping districts and would never come close to venturing to the areas with concentrations of violence. Media outlets often conduct interviews with the people living in the dangerous neighborhoods, yet I found it strange to watch interviews with people who have only heard of the less-savory parts of Chicago. These thoughts were in my head as I recently read Nelson Algren's poetic 1951 exploration, Chicago: City On the Make. The slim volume contains a wealth of sociological views and assessments, and while not all of them still apply today, it's still an excellent example of how Chicago's image, from both the outside and the inside, maintains a distinctly unique veneer unlike other major metropolitan areas.

Algren shares stories of his own childhood and tells Chicago's tale from the points of view of the drunks, the working class, and the hustlers, the nameless folks who oftentimes share the same personal qualities as the powerful in the city's hierarchy. The working class people represent the majority in numbers, yet are more likely to be disciplined and reviled for doing on a small scale what the elite minority do on a bigger scale. This is Algren's take on Chicago's beginnings:

"They hustled the land, they hustled the Indian, they hustled by night and they hustled by day. They hustled guns and furs and peltries, grog and the blood-red whiskey-dye; they hustled with dice or a deck or a derringer. And decided the Indians were wasting every good hustler's time.
Slept till noon and scolded the Indians for being lazy.
Paid the Pottawattomies off in cash in the cool of the Indian evening: and had the cash back to the dime by the break of the Indian dawn.
They'd do anything under the sun except work for a living, and we remember them reverently, with Balaban and Katz, under such subtitles as 'Founding Fathers,' 'Dauntless Pioneers,' 'or 'Far-Visioned Conquerors (Algren 11-12).'"

Some of Algren's passages are deftly comic and still timely, providing an early, hip assessment of how to handle Chicago's citizens and outlook. A paragraph about the suburbs might appear to be an insult, and in today's Chicago, residents of the city will likely smile, at least inside, at this take:

"So if you're entirely square yourself, bypass the forest of furnished rooms behind The Loop and stay on the Outer Drive till you swing through Lincoln Park. Then move, with the lake still on your square right hand, into those suburbs where the lawns are always wide, the sky is always smokeless, the trees are forever leafy, the churches are always tidy, gardens are always landscaped, streets are freshly swept, homes are pictures out of Town and Country (Algren 26)."

To reference my opening paragraph, Algren writes about his youthful attachment to the Chicago White Sox, especially in the aftermath of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. What led me to ponder Chicago's attitude toward athletes came about after Kerry Wood's retirement from the Chicago Cubs. After years of brilliant flashes and too many injuries, I couldn't help but wonder if Cubs fans still clung too tightly to Wood's 1998 game against the Houston Astros. In that game, Wood's fifth as a major-leaguer, he tied a baseball record with twenty strikeouts in a 1-hit shutout. His arm was constantly injured by the sheer force of his pitches, and for years, Cubs fans kept hoping for a resurgence, with that single game defining Wood for the duration of his on and off tenure with the team. Algren makes a reference to White Sox pitcher Charlie Robertson, who, coincidentally, threw a perfect game in his fifth major league game and never made any true progress afterward.

"(And what became of No-Hit Charley Robertson, who stepped off a sandlot one afternoon to pitch that perfect game for the White Sox? What ever became of No-Hit Charley, who put twenty-seven men down on strikeouts and infield popups--and then stepped back to his sandlot and left nothing behind but that perfect afternoon when nobody in the world could get a hit?) (Algren 54-55)."

Dozens of other writers have made names for themselves by exploring the lives of the downtrodden and blue-collar. The difference with Algren, at least through the lens of Chicago: City On the Make, is that, in addition to seeming like one of the people, is his deft understanding of how Chicago reflects its citizens. While the same claim can be made for Bukowski's Los Angeles, Algren was a much stronger writer. His prose is poetic without being forced or obvious, and while the work is a creative rambling, there are no obvious embellishments or romanticizing. Algren's Chicago was a tough place, and much like today, while solutions for the problems are needed, it's much easier to put a positive spin on the good qualities, even with serious problems in the background. One can only imagine how Algren would have responded to Emanuel, who welcomed the NATO summit with only passing nods to the protesters and the need to call attention to the myriad of problems in the world. Much like today's world, some of the issues in Algren's time were best represented in creative acts. As he states in his 1961 Afterword:

"When the city clerk of Terre Haute refused to issue warrents [sic] for arrest of streetwalkers in spite of his sworn legal duty to issue warrants for arrest of streetwalkers, and instead demanded of the Terre Haute police, 'Why don't you make war on people in high life instead of upon these penniless girls?' the little sport performed an act of literature (Algren 81)."

In the Afterword, he also acknowledges the negative reception the book initially received, since people were more comfortable reading positive spins rather than grim realities. This is still represented in today's political world, when attempts to shed light on problems can be met with resistance or a desire to maintain the status quo. In the 1950s and today, higher ups would much rather put emphasis on Chicago as a tourist destination than thoughts like:

"The slums take their revenge. And you can take your pick of the avengers among the fast international set at any district-station lockup on any Saturday night. The lockups are always open and there are always new faces. Always someone you never met before, and where they all come from nobody knows and where they'll go from here nobody cares (Algren 67)."

Despite these sketches of the seamy sides of city life, there's never a question of Algren not living Chicago. Chicago: City On the Make isn't a tour guide, but in the midst of the stark honesty, there's a bustle and liveliness that Algren continually evokes, even in the saddest pages. It continually evokes the often-used phrase of "history being written by the winners," when in reality, there's much to be gained from accounts of the losers. Before mainstream activism, before Howard Zinn, and before the start of the Occupy movements, writers like Algren were doing their best to shed light on the masses, even if nobody (at the time) wanted to read or think about such things. This is where Algren's beautiful prose becomes most important. Look at the carefully plotted and detailed paragraph below. Again, it doesn't romanticize, but it genuinely sympathizes.

"The nameless, useless nobodies who sleep behind the taverns, who sleep beneath the El. Who sleep in burnt-out busses with the windows freshly curtained; in winterized chicken coops or patched-up truck bodies. The useless, helpless nobodies nobody knows: that go as the snow goes, where the wind blows, there and there and there, down any old cat-and-ashcan alley at all. There, unloved and lost forever, lost and unloved for keeps and a day, there far below the ceaseless flow of TV waves and FM waves, way way down there where no one has yet heard of phonevision nor considered the wonders of technicolor video--there, there below the miles and miles of high-tension wires servicing the miles and miles of low-pressure cookers, there, there where they sleep on someone else's pool table, in someone else's hall or someone else's jail, there where they chop kindling for heat, cook over coal stoves, still burn kerosene for light, there where they sleep the all-night movies through and wait for rain or peace or snow; there, there beats Chicago's heart (Algren 67-68)."

And finally, I'd like to offer cited remarks as a representation of the state of Chicago journalism. In a recent "revamp," The Chicago Sun-Times has started a terrible trend. Chicago "celebrities" are given a one page editorial to sound off on their pet projects and view of the city. While the money often goes to good charities, the paper lets it be known that they paid the writers an excellent sum for terrible writing. The first editorial was an awful, embarrassing op-ed by Jim Belushi, who commanded a $1,000 writing fee (again, donated to charity, which is noble, but I'm still shocked that he can command that kind of money from a supposedly struggling newspaper). Chicago is full of great, hungry writers who would do anything for that kind of platform. Instead of actively seeking out the thousands of voices in the city, the Sun-Times plays it safe with pointless celebrity ramblings. These Algren pieces are my way of protesting this.

"Therefore its poets pull the town one way while its tycoons' wives pull it another...(Algren 57)."

"It used to be a writer's town and it's always been a fighter's town (Algren 62)."

Work Cited:
Algren, Nelson. Chicago: City On the Make. Copyright 1951, renewed 1979 by Nelson Algren.


Douglas said...

Nice post. You ought to read (if you haven't already) Nonconformity, Algren's long essay on "The State of Literature," which engages exactly with the kinds of things that interest you here. Also--and this is totally self-serving--here's a link to an extract from an essay I wrote about his work a little while ago:

James Yates said...

Douglas, thanks for that link. That's not self-serving at all--I'm always happy to read other pieces on the writers I discuss here. I have another Algren piece in the works (to be posted in the next couple of weeks), and I bookmarked your piece for when I get around to his fiction.

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