- Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis by Liesl Olson
The endpapers of Liesl Olson's new book are disorienting. We see a map of a city bisected by lines and organized into grids. Heavier lines punctuated by circles indicate public transportation routes and their stops. A jagged shoreline appears at the bottom, cutting off the geometric exactness of the lines. But the lines grow less dense toward the top of the papers, indicating where the suburbs begin (or end) on the map. In the lower nook of the binding, close to the shore, we see an irregular shape: a large, heavily lined rectangle from which all the transportation routes appear to radiate. Just underneath the shape, nestled in what looks like a port, is this pointer: "For detailed map of loop see insert."
The copyright page tells us that we are looking at a map of the Chicago Rapid Transit System, the "Elevated," or, as it's colloquially known, the "L," from 1938. The map's details confirm this identification if you know what to look for. The suburbs of Cicero and Oak Park will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the city, and the L stops—with names like Cottage Grove, Halsted, Diversey, and Grand—are unmistakably Chicago. What's disorienting, then, is the map itself. Organized horizontally, it presents an image of the city that is rare in the popular imagination. [End Page 437] Rather than show Chicago vertically, flanked to the east by Lake Michigan and to the west by the suburbs, the map reorients our perspective around the Loop, the geographic nexus of the L system itself. In this rendering, the predominantly African American South Side appears to our left, while the predominantly white North Side shows up on our right. This reorientation scrambles our cognitive map of the city. It frees up our imagination from entrenched social and cultural associations, and it presents Chicago as more interlocking and connected than some scholars would allow. The map is an apt illustration and metaphor of the undertaking that is Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis.
Olson reorients our perspective on modernism by making the case for Chicago as a hub of early twentieth-century aesthetic innovation. Here the Loop's radiating lines are scaled up to reflect what made the city distinctly modern: miles of railroad tracks that connected different parts of the country to each other. As America's great industrial thoroughfare, Chicago facilitated the constant movement of people and goods, hopes and fortunes, culture and commerce. As such, the modernism that developed there reveled in "being in the middle"—not in the sense of being at the center of the art world's attention but in the sense of being receptive to whatever ideas, fashions, and styles passed through the city (xviii). Chicago, the Midwestern crossroads, was an unmatched conductor of modernist impulses. The city may have been on the periphery of the New York-London-Paris axis, but its geographic centrality in the United States is, for Olson, the key to appreciating its rich history of artistic experimentation.
As both a literal and metaphoric vehicle, the train lends Chicago modernism its "multispoked" character (xviii). But an equally strong descriptor is suggested by the flatness of the land on which Chicago's railroad tracks were laid. The practices of modernism that Olson at once describes and theorizes are profoundly horizontal. For starters, the Introduction to the book confounds distinctions between literary movements and periods and offers up the promise of a new democracy of letters. Olson shows Theodore Dreiser and Willa Cather in Sister Carrie (1900) and The Song of the Lark (1915), respectively, to have imagined distinct yet mutually reinforcing arrivals (by train) of young women seeking a new life in the city. Olson also introduces us to Harriet Monroe and Katharine Kuh, unassuming women who became, respectively, the publisher of the most daring poetry and the curator of the most challenging art exhibitions of their day. Olson...