Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren

This is Nelson Algren’s impressionistic essay about his hometown. It was published in 1951 and wasn’t warmly-received by Chicago’s upper crust. Algren looks back fondly on Chicago’s history with an emphasis on the rougher parts of town. An alternate subtitle would have been “I Love This Dirty Town” (a line Burt Lancaster delivered in Sweet Smell of Success about a big city further east).

I read the 60th Anniversary Edition, which includes an afterword Algren wrote in 1961 about Chicago and his book:

In the decade since Chicago: City on the Make appeared, it has gained pertinence. At that time it was a prose poem about my hometown; nothing more.

It was received unfavorably, locally, and I was disappointed when the editor who had solicited it took fright… The book went under the counters…

Under the counters, yet not lost. A translation by Jean-Paul Sartre gained the essay readers abroad…

The essay made the assumption that, in times when the levers of power are held by those who have lost the will to act honestly, it is those who have been excluded from the privileges of our society, and left only its horrors, who forge new levers by which to return honesty to us. The present resolution of a new generation of Negro men and women, now forcing the return of the American promise of dignity for all, sustains the assumption… [105].

The book is filled with references to Chicago characters and events that most outsiders won’t recognize, so the editors kindly added explanatory notes. The notes sometimes explain what doesn’t need explaining and don’t explain what does. That’s one reason I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book, but if you like prose like this, you might give it a try:

Giants lived here once. It was the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out of little ones. It was geared for great deeds then, as it is geared for small deeds now.

In Vachel Lindsay’s day, in Carl Sandburg’s day, in the silver-colored yesterday, in Darrow’s and Masters’ and Edna Millay’s day, writers and working stiffs alike told policemen where to go, the White Sox won the pennant with a team batting average of .228 and the town was full of light.

Now it’s the place where we do as we’re told, praise poison, bless the F.B.I., yearn wistfully for just one small chance… No giants live on Rush Street any more [52-53]. 

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A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren grew up in working-class neighborhoods in Chicago, won the very first National Book Award for fiction for his 1949 novel The Man with the Golden Arm, and was Simone de Beauvoir’s lover. Among other things, he also wrote a long essay with the cool title Chicago: City on the Make. It upset the city’s elite. 

I started reading The Man with the Golden Arm recently, but found the Chicago slang difficult to follow, so I moved on to his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side. It was hard to follow at times too, but I’m glad I made the effort. 

It’s the story of Dove Linkhorn, an uneducated, poor young man from Texas who hops a freight train at the beginning of the Depression and ends up in New Orleans. There he scrambles for a living, gets drunk a lot, commits various crimes, and mostly associates with prostitutes, pimps, beggars and thieves. Dove comes across as a simpleton a lot of the time, and his vagueness often makes him invisible as a character. It also takes a while to understand what’s happening in some scenes, but Dove’s experiences and the people he bumps into on the very seedy side of New Orleans are almost always interesting. And Algren’s gritty, sometimes political, often poetical prose is even better (“Self-reliance for the penniless and government aid to those who already had more than they could use was the plan”).

If there’s a theme to the novel, it’s that the down and out people are often a lot better than the other ones.

The city fathers, Do-Right Daddies and all of that, Shriners, Kiwanians, Legionaires, Knights of this and Knights of that, would admit with a laugh that New Orleans was hell. But that hell itself had been built spang in the center of town…

There were stage shows and peep shows, geeks and freaks all down old Perdido Street. But it wasn’t geeks who ran that street. It wasn’t panders who owned the shows. There were chippified blondes and elderly rounders, bummies and rummies and amateur martyrs. There were creepers and kleptoes and zanies and dipsoes. It was night bright as day, it was day dark as night, but stuffed shirts and do-righties owned those shows.

For a Do-Right Daddy is right fond of money and still he don’t hate fun. He charged the girls double for joint-togs and drinks, rent, fines, towel service and such. But before any night’s ball was done, he joined in the fun. 

Later he had to be purged of guilt so he could sleep with his wife again. That where the pulpit came in….

There was a 1962 movie based on the book but, aside from the New Orleans setting and a few characters, I doubt they were able to cram much of the story – a lot of it not very nice – into a Hollywood movie. Years later, Lou Reed was approached to turn A Walk on the Wild Side into a musical. He only kept the title.

Here’s one more quote, part of which is pretty famous. An “old-timer” named Cross-Country Kline, “the only true criminal in the whole tankful of fools, the only one who had soldiered honestly against law and order”, is giving advice to Dove Linkhorn:

“Blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea. I’ve tried ’em all and I know. They don’t work.

Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch. And money can’t buy everything. For example: poverty.”

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time, published in 1962, is a brief book. It begins with a short “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and concludes with a longer “Letter from a Region in My Mind”.  It relates some of Baldwin’s experiences, but it’s real subject is racism in America:

This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt the he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and conform a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority…. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school [pp. 98-99].

It’s easy to say that Baldwin exaggerates sometimes, but nobody who hasn’t been part of an oppressed minority can say what it’s like to be told over and over again, in violent and non-violent ways, that you’re not as good as other people. Baldwin points out that his ancestors were brought to America decades before millions of immigrants whose descendants think of themselves as the “real” Americans. Racism truly is one of the fundamental factors in American history (just look at how people voted seven months ago).

The Fire Next Time concludes:

If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

If Baldwin were alive today, maybe he wouldn’t fear America’s end in hellfire and damnation. Then again, given the current crisis, maybe he would.

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson

Before he became famous as the “gonzo” journalist who wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and before he became the model for the drug-addled, gun-crazy Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, Hunter S. Thompson spent a year hanging out with the Hell’s Angels, the infamous California motorcycle gang. The resulting book was published in 1966. 

Much of it is devoted to downplaying the media coverage of the group as bloodthirsty savages who left a trail of destruction everywhere they went. On the other hand, Thompson depicts them as violent losers, not very bright, mostly interested in their motorcycles, being part of the gang and getting high. He got to know some of them fairly well, but that didn’t stop one of them from abruptly punching him one day, after which several more joined in, sending Thompson to the emergency room. That experience probably colored the last paragraph of the book:

It had been a bad trip … fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others, but on balance it looked like a bummer….I tried to compose a fitting epitaph. I wanted something original, but there was no escaping the echo of Mistah Kurtz’ final words from the heart of darkness: “The horror! The horror! … Exterminate all the brutes!”

I read Hell’s Angels after reading an article in The Nation that said Thompson had predicted the rise of Trumpism, i.e. a movement of “left-behind people motivated only by ‘an ethic of total retaliation'”. There are, in fact, a few places in the book where Thompson takes a step back and provides that kind of sociological overview. Thus:

… nobody who has ever spent time with the inbred Anglo-Saxon tribes of Appalachia would need more than a few hours with the Hell’s Angels to work up a very strong sense of déjà vu. There is the same sulking hostility toward “outsiders”, the same extremes of temper and action… [159]

The attack [on a 1965 anti-war demonstration] was an awful shock to those who had seen the Hell’s Angels as pioneers of the human spirit, but to anyone who knew them it was entirely logical. The Angels’ collective viewpoint has always been fascistic. [248]

To see the Hell’s Angels as caretakers of the old “individualist” tradition “that made this country great” is only a painless way to get around seeing them for what they really are – not some romantic leftover, but the first wave of a future that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with. The Angels are prototypes. Their lack of education has not only rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy, but it has also given them the leisure to cultivate a powerful resentment … and to translate it into a destructive cult which the mass media insists on portraying as a soft of isolated oddity, a temporary phenomenon… [258]

A toad who believes he got a raw deal before he even knew who was dealing will usually be sympathetic to the mean, vindictive ignorance that colors the Hell’s Angels’ view of humanity. There is not much mental distance between a feeling of having been screwed and the ethic of total retaliation, or at least the kind of random revenge that comes with outraging the public decency….[258-59]

Sociologists call it “alienation” or “anomie”. It is a sens of being cut off, or left out of whatever society one was presumably meant to be a part of…. In the terms of our Great Society the Hell’s Angeles and their ilk are losers – dropouts, failures and malcontents. They are rejects looking for a way to get even with a world in which they are only a problem… The difference between the student radicals and the Hell’s Angels is that the students are rebelling against the past, while the Angels are fighting the future. [260]

Certainly, many Trump supporters are indeed fighting the future. Although the average Trump voter had a higher income than the average Clinton voter, many of Trump’s supporters are struggling and feeling left behind (as are many of Clinton’s). But just as many of his supporters are trying to hold on to what they have (e.g. nice lives in the suburbs) or what they think they deserve as white, “Christian” Americans (i.e. better lives than everyone else).

So the book was usually interesting, if a bit repetitious, and Thompson could certainly write, but as a guide to modern America, it doesn’t deliver much.

Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy by Jean Bethke Elshtain

One hundred years ago, Jane Addams was one of the most famous and most admired women in the world. 

Wikipedia lists her occupation as “social and political activist, author and lecturer, community organizer, public intellectual”. Her tombstone in Cedarville, Illinois, describes her as a “humanitarian, feminist, social worker, reformer, educator, author, publicist, founder of Hull House, President [of the] Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom”. It also notes that she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Addams fought for women’s suffrage and is considered the founder of the social work profession in the United States. Sociologists view her as a social theorist. Philosophers place her in the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.  At her death, some compared her to her hero, Abraham Lincoln, although she never sought political office.

This well-written book is an intellectual biography of Addams. It tells her life story but concentrates on her ideas and the policies she advocated. I especially enjoyed learning about her work at Hull House (a Chicago organization dedicated to making life better for immigrants and the poor); her ideas about government as an extension of housekeeping; and her emphasis on treating those who are different from us with respect (for their benefit and ours).  

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser

Part 1 is entitled “Class Warfare: The Long 19th Century”. In the author’s words:

We should … conceive of a long nineteenth century lasting from post-revolutionary days through to the Great Depression of the 1930s… The epoch that encompassed the transformation of a sliver of coastal villages, small farms, slave plantations and a few port cities into a transcontinental commercial, agricultural and industrial preeminnce was a wrenching one. For those generations that lived through it, it often called forth … recurring waves of resistance to the inexorable, a stubborn, multifarious insistence that the march of Progress was too spendthrift in human lives, that there were alternatives [22-23].

Fraser tells the history of those transitional years by describing political movements, the growth of organized labor and the writings of various intellectuals. It’s a very interesting story that culminates in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the coming of World War 2.

Part 2 is called “Desire and Fear in the Second Gilded Age”. Fraser tries to explain why there has been such little resistance, organized or otherwise, to increasing inequality, stagnant wages and boring, regimented work. He delves into the history again, but also tries to give psychological or sociological explanations. What I took away from this part of the book is that people are distracted by consumer products and mass entertainment; there has been a constant campaign to glorify “the successful” among us; it’s difficult for most of us to imagine an alternative (since the transition to a modern industrial nation happened so long ago); and organized labor has been beaten into submission. The powers that be are highly organized and have a lot of money to spend on maintaining the status quo. Workers aren’t organized at all and many are just trying to get by, plus nobody wants to lose their job to cheap foreign competition by making trouble.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

DeLillo’s novel White Noise won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1985. I read it back then and enjoyed it, but also found it somewhat mysterious. I guess I didn’t know what he was trying to say. Having read it again, and enjoyed it even more, I’d now say he’s commenting on the strangeness and artificiality of modern America lives.

It’s the story of a Professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college, and the professor’s wife and children, and how they all cope or fail to cope with their confusion and fear. The centerpiece of the novel is an “airborne toxic event” that the family has to escape. But the most important aspect of the story isn’t the plot, or even the characters, but DeLillo’s wonderful language. Real people don’t speak like DeLillo’s characters, but it’s still great to see what they have to say.