Gangsters, Hustlers, and Nobodies Nobody Knows Dreiser, Algren, Liebling, and Bellow on Chicago
Chicago and Houston were both founded in 1833, but Chicago’s birthplace in the geographic and economic center of the United States fostered its rapid growth in size and importance. By the Columbian Exposition of 1893, it was a world city and its great art was its architecture. The literary culture of Chicago was mostly the local color naturalism of forgotten writers like Hamlin Garland, Robert Herrick, and Henry Blake Fuller, but this tradition culminated in Chicago’s first great novel, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1905). Between Dreiser and Saul Bellow, there was James T. Farrell, who wrote the Studs Lonigan trilogy and set the tone for tough guys and ethnic types like Nelson Algren whose Chicago: City on the Make (1951) has the swagger and unavoidable sentimentality Dreiser avoided. With Algren’s short book, we’ll also glance at A. J. Liebling’s Chicago: The Second City (1952) for a New Yorker’s take on things, then on to Bellow’s The Dean’s December (1982), which poses Chicago’s racial violence against conditions in Communist Bucharest–an important book of the Cold War, a daring conceit on Bellow’s part, and a slice of his autobiography. Bellow writes as a Chicagoan, a Jew, a Nobel Laureate, and as an American with a clear eye on European culture—not so much as an immigrant as an heir. There’s no time to read Farrell, but we will discuss Dreiser, Algren, and Liebling on the first day, and then Bellow.
Terrence Doody, professor of English at Rice University, has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from the Mellon Foundation, as well as several prestigious teaching awards.