book cover imageChicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis
by Liesl Olson.
Yale University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 392 pages, $35.


If you’ve ever wondered—and who hasn’t?—about what would happen if Mortimer Adler and Gertrude Stein met and talked about the concept of Great Books, then there is a scene in Chicago Renaissance for you. It occurred on November 27, 1934, in the Chicago home of Robert Hutchins who, along with Adler, had created and was developing the Great Books curriculum. Liesl Olson, director of Chicago Studies at the Newberry Library, writes:

According to Adler, Stein was “infuriated” by the idea that Great Books were read in translation: “She said that great literature was essentially untranslatable.” Adler describes how he and Hutchins “tried to argue with her, pointing out that we were concerned mainly with the ideas which were to be found in the Great Books. She might be right, we admitted, that fine writing suffers in translation, but ideas somehow transcended the particular language in which they were first expressed.” … Stein was stalwart and unconvinced. Hutchins then challenged Stein to teach their Great Books class the following week. As Stein writes: “I said of course I will and then Adler said something and I was standing next to him and violently telling him and everybody was excited and the maid came and said Madame the police. Adler went a little white and we all stopped and then burst out laughing.”

They could laugh because the police were there to take Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, on a night tour of the city, the night, it so happened, when “Baby Face Nelson was shot and killed in the Chicago suburbs.”

This meeting between the conservative Hutchins and Adler, and the modernist lesbian Stein, is an representative example of a story, one of many “interlocking” ones, that recurs throughout this book. In it the forces of conservative capitalism keep meeting with, supporting, but also fighting with the liberal modernist movement in both painting and literature. What is amazing is that despite the genuine conflicts, so much gets done; the wealthy businessmen, seeking to earn status with their money, finance magazines such as Poetry, and Gertrude Stein teaches a Great Books course for Hutchins and Adler.

This book starts with Harriet Monroe, who published, with Ezra Pound’s prickly advice, the journal, Poetry, progresses through, among many others, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and Fanny Butcher (who ran a bookstore and also wrote many book reviews), and ends with a timely exploration of the work and lives of Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. Olson reminds the reader of how often the east coast has ignored the Second City, but how this allowed for a certain freedom “outside the supervisory eye of critics. This freedom meant that Chicago modernism became more expansive and varied than in other places. A twentieth-century Chicago Style was never just one thing.”  


Frank Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.