I was in Russia when a tourist from New York turned to me and said, “Whatever happened to Chicago?” To this mysterious question he added, “I kept thinking it was going to break through, but it never did.” Nonplussed, I tried to think of a Chicago breakthrough. Eventually I must have sputtered something about Nobel laureates because he interrupted me dismissively. “Eds and meds,” he said. “Every second-tier city has those.” That concluded conversation between us–-for the rest of the trip.
And that’s the problem with Rachel Shteir’s article on the front page of last week’s New York Times Book Review. Conversation ended the minute she turned a review of books about Chicago into a pan of the city itself. Oh, there were responses aplenty, but most were reflexively protective, the kind you’d expect from a mother charged with having an ugly baby. So we’ve had a week of “So’s your old man” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue” without anybody’s communicating much of anything worthwhile.
Which is a shame, because Shteir’s review was a gigantic missed opportunity to investigate the fact that “Chicago” is a performance. Chicagoans perform the city’s epic nature, its street smarts, its unshockability. Most of all we perform its blue-collar roots even–especially–when we have none of our own. How could a professor of theater miss the fact that she’s in the midst of a production as deft and complicated and self-referential as Brecht?
For underneath the swagger and braggadocio Shteir finds so grating is a grand group game of Not Too Big For Our Britches. Why does the highly-educated Barack Obama drop his g’s when he’s campaigning? Why do books about the city flaunt bad grammar (Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers)? Why do white-shoe lawyers order a pair of Italian beef sandwiches by asking for “two beeves”? Because they’re trying to fit into a town that prides itself on distrusting the wealthy and the well-spoken. They know that around here there’s a choice: deprecate yourself or risk having someone else do it for you.
Thus Chicagoans are constantly and consciously “representing,” in the street sense of the term: flashing local knowledge, enacting local stereotypes, even annoying outsiders by insisting on the importance of locality as background. It may be a background fictional and poetic, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
Many of these feats of performance are improvisational, as one would expect in The Second City. But we’ve also had our lines written for us by the likes of James T. Farrell, who in his Studs Lonigan trilogy created the literary trope of the hapless Chicago roughneck. Farrell’s Studs plans to be a big deal and pretends to be a big deal, and manages to continue thinking he’s a big deal as long as he’s within four blocks of his parents’ house. Too ambitious for his narrow world, Studs finds himself too small to manage the wider city when he encounters it.
That notion–-that the city will cut you down to size–-is the theme of Chicago literature, recurring in Sandberg, in Dreiser, in Algren, in Bellow, in Mamet–and in Sara Paretsky, to name just one of the women whose literary presence Shteir overlooks. If the professor fails to grasp the difference between portraying parochialism and embodying it, of course she’d find Chicago a text too difficult to read.
It’s not a text requiring uncritical adoration; quite the contrary. Who could criticize anything more pointedly and savagely than Algren in Chicago: City on the Make? Or portray it as cruder than Bellow’s Augie March?
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
No one claims Chicago is flawless; no one has to. The point is that Chicago is flawed out loud, and we have the literature to prove it. The sound of that literature is so distinctive that when Norman Mailer reproduced it as an aria in the opening paragraphs of his Siege of Chicago he could be confident everyone would get the allusion. Perhaps supertitles would help Shteir grasp the opera taking place right in front of her.
Again, how could a scholar of drama fail to recognize that reporters writing about Chicago are most likely performing their own private versions of The Front Page? I haven’t read the books by Neil Steinberg or Jeff Coen and John Chase, but the quotes Shteir offers show the authors’ debt to Hecht and MacArthur, whose bitter-comic portrayal of corruption and racism congratulated uneducated newspapermen on seeing through the pretensions of the powerful and well-to-do. If contemporary journalists exhibit a desire to follow in the footsteps of those valorized bums, who can blame them?
As for provincialism, no city is free of it. (Where, after all, was the subject of Steinberg’s famous cartoon?) But I do understand Shteir’s unhappiness at encountering the Chicago version thereof.
I lived in Boston for a year after college, during which time I was so homesick for Chicago that nothing I experienced was even tolerable, much less enjoyable. The more people tried to sell me on the place, the more I hated it. Boston has great colleges?–-The U of C is better. Boston has great subways?–-Except for the pickpockets. Boston has great ice cream?–-Ice cream? I left behind me in Chicago everything I love and you’re talking to me about ice cream?
So I understand what it feels like to be in exile. And all I can say is: Poor Rachel.