We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Chicago: a big prairie town next to water · 13 October 07

Dear Marianne,

My report on Chicago will paradoxically be about how little I felt one could learn about it unless one stayed there for weeks and weeks. I had not realized what a big place it is. It’s not as overwhelmingly large as NYC sometimes seems or endless like London, but it’s way bigger than Paris (if you exclude the suburbs) and little Washington, D.C.

Like these last two, there also seems to be “no there there” (a phrase of Gertrude Stein’s). There is no central one place or places where much of this or that sort of culture conglomerates; everything is spread out and scattered. To be sure, the many different scattered skyscrapers are in the center of the city, and tour guides (especially I suppose the architectural tour type which we took) can yak away (with a mild boosterism) about all the different high buildings and their history, but theatres, parks, arenas are spread out to the north and south side. The north side does seem to have the much richer quarters; the south side (where we went to see the University of Chicago—a very old Oxford looking school) includes a vast impoverished mostly black area (where Richard Wright set Native Son). It’s all continuous: one vast plain by a confluence of two rivers and one lake, a flat prairie on which groups of people erected railways and whose location made it an industrial exchange center.

In the section in Trollope’s North America where he visits and describes Chicago, what he goes to is a vast granary where he watches huge amounts of wheat travelling up and down a grand contraption. He also describes canals and trains and hotels and lots of travelling people he sees. Apparently in the last 30 years or so much of old Chicago built after Trollope’s visit was torn down (as slums). In the center of the renovated Chicago we walked through a new park: it has a Wolf Trap like theatre and extends away from the Art Institute along the lake and river into the Navy Pier where there’s a large amusement park.

Edward was impressed by how it seemed “mid-western,” different in outlook or culture from the East. There seemed to be no elite ideal of the patrician Anglo sort one finds in both NYC and DC (say in Lincoln and Kennedy Centers). A business class ran and runs the place. It might be thought that therefore nothing offsets money as a thing to respect. While it was comfortable, I didn’t like the reciprocal club (hotel really) we stayed at: it was anonymous, cold, very glamorous I suppose, but the deference in the dining room embarrassed me, and there was not one pamphlet or brochure in the room to help us discover what was where.

However, there is a counterweight ideal, and it is progressive: a long history of labor politics (it was here the Haymarket riots took place, here the earliest unions were set up) and a large African-American culture. The books I remember best about Chicago are Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Jane Addams’s autobiography of herself and Hull House. (I’ve only read one novel by Saul Bellow and don’t remember it very well, and don’t care for Sandberg.) In the 1890s too there was a rich Renaissance (so-called) of poetry and magazines, a kind of heyday from which people like Harriet Monroe made circles of people get together. The book I read in Vermont about American houses had a long section on housing in Chicago as centrally indicative of American private dwellings. The subway did remind me of the NYC subway, the loop is like the L in the Bronx; many city streets and avenues, of streets and avenues in Manhattan. The city itself had institutions (one a recently-built lovely-looking library near us) dedicated to black history.

We did do our usual sorts of things. We went to the theatre twice: Edward thought the production of Sondheim’s Passion we saw excellent. I’m moved by the music: “Love is not a choice/Love is what I am,” and the touching, “So much happiness …” We also saw the film, The Jane Austen Book Club, which I liked more than I thought I would. (I’ll write about it separately but only briefly until I’ve read Fowler’s novel and seen the movie once again.) I found myself laughing at the good-natured self-reflexive jokes about the Jane Austen addiction; Edward laughed too (and he hasn’t read any of Jane Austen’s books through). The Art Institute has a fine permanent collection of paintings and the building is lovely and set in a beautiful garden. I’m not much on amusement parks but the walk along Lake Michigan (if it had not been so hot) was picturesque with boats of all kinds everywhere. We ate two exquisitely delicious meals, one in a restaurant near the University of Chicago, La Petite Follie (I never tasted such yummy champagne in my life), and another in a restaurant where the customers seemed to be 5 males for every female, No 10, Trattoria, this in the center of town.

Probably the most interesting thing we did, something we could have done nowhere else was our visit to Robie House, a private dwelling Frank Lloyd Wright built next to the area where the University of Chicago is. This is said to be built in the “prairie house” ideal mode of Wright. It’s a stark departure from late Victorian and Edwardian houses, and anticipates the building Falling Water (which we saw when we went to an 18th century conference in Pennsylvania). What struck me were features in it which are very like those in our small house here in Alexandria. Our house is a group of simple shapes too: two large near squares on top of which are two triangles. We too have a front door that is to the side of the house and hard to find; our fireplace is in the center of the front part of the house and the rooms around it form an open circle you can walk around. The bedrooms have low closets, supposedly good for children’s toys (actually they break easily and it’s hard to find toys in them). In other words, our “mid-century modern” house (now in shabby shape) was influenced by Wright’s prairie house in Chicago (as were many others of the 1940s, 50s era).

It was unusually hot. (People tell me here in Alexandria tell me it was just “ghastly” hot.) The city was having a marathon run of 26 miles and about 3 hours into the race, a halt was called: all those who had not run half-way by that time were made to stop. It was dangerous: a couple of hundred people were hospitalized, and one man died. The wind helped: there was a wind which came up the streets in the later afternoon. (It is a city on a flat plain.)

What more is there to say? We took Southwest Air which runs planes as if they were buses: everyone in steerage and you have to find your own seat and pronto. I did get into conversation with people waiting in the (awful) airline building because the plane was delayed. They were a group who knew Alexandria 20 years ago and so it was interesting to talk with them. We will take this airline again as we are planning to return for 3 days in late December when the MLA will be meeting in Chicago. Then we’ll see more. Edward says we probably won’t be able to go to the Opera house or listen to symphonies as during the Christmas season a lot of these places shut down. Doubtless we’ll find something to do in the evening anyway :).

And I was as intensely glad to be home as I usually am.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Diana B:

    “I was rapt by your description of your Chicago visit, because of Paul’s having gone to the University of Chicago, and all the memories it brought back. He lived across the street from Robie House! And yes, Sister Carrie is really the definitive Chicago novel of its time…and did you know that Winnie’s best book, Me, is all about her life as a young working girl in Chicago, circa the late 1890s? It’s very like Sister Carrie in some ways.

    Elinor    Oct 16, 5:49pm    #
  2. From Judy G:

    “I hope you had a good time in Chicago – from your blog I can see that you and Jim did a lot there, and it must have been fascinating to see the Frank Lloyd Wright house.

    I’m also very interested to hear about the Jane Austen Book Club movie, which isn’t out here yet… I have read the book, but I don’t really remember it much now, except that I somehow liked the author’s voice more than the story itself.

    I remember she has put some “questions for readers” at the end, and one of them is a sarcastic query about how one of her characters would have been able to afford health care in a particular chapter.;)

    Elinor    Oct 16, 5:50pm    #
  3. Thank you for posting a report of your recent visit to the windy city. My family and I all love Chicago and we have visited many times. There’s something, or rather there are some things, for everyone. We first visited when our sons were 7 and 11 and been back every 2 years since. They’re in their 20s now but still one or other comes along with us! Such is the lure of Chicago. What we’ve seen and done together or separately over the years has varied a great deal. The three menfolk have always managed a baseball game; my husband has always paid his usual visit to The Art Institute; the boys love the beaches and viewing galleries of Sears and Hancock buildings. Then there’s the shopping.

    We visited the Robie House one time and if you enjoyed that then you should perhaps take the El out to Oak Park and visit the Wright neighbourhood there. I spent an afternoon doing the tour of the Wright home and studio but left the audio tour of the Wright-designed houses for another time. If Edward is into Hemingway (probably not) then this is where he was born and there are places connected with him in Oak Park. I gave them a miss on my first visit. Check the website for opening hours as possibly these are limited in winter.

    On a literary theme again it’s possible to visit the Newberry Library on a guided tour which only happens once a week I believe. There’s a good bookshop inside the library which is open to the public. I’ve shopped there several times but been the only public in there. Their stock is book and literature related. The Newberry Library also have a full programme of events throughout the year (except July and August) and it may be worth checking out the website for details.

    You don’t say which airport you used but I recommend Midway for domestic flights. Internationally we have to fly in and out of O’Hare which is miles out of town and has nothing to offer in the way of lounges or diversions.

    BARBARA    Oct 17, 11:01am    #
  4. Thank you so much Barbara. Maybe I can explain why we find ourselves at a loss when I say that I've never seen Edward watch competitive ball-team sports. He says he finds football tiresome. For myself I still don't quite know how it's played -- nor have I ever watched a game. I do remember him watching cricket and bowls on lovely summer evenings in Leeds in the green near a pub but it was for the evening too. (He is more the bridge & scrabble type; point-to-point races.) I shop only when I must (& sometimes to be with a daughter), & find shopping is the same everywhere so it seems I am wasting my time in a particular place to shop there. In the fancy shops I feel the people there are just waiting to fleece me. Also I have to carry the stuff home. This stops me buying books too much -- I wait to get home to get on Bookfinder if I see something I didn't know about that interests me.

    There are two Wright houses near us, and we mean to see them. Right: Edward is no Hemingway reader.

    The man at the Newberry podium seemed snobbish to us; perhaps we didn’t impress him as acceptable people. Perhaps had we called ahead and presented ourselves at the right time he might have had a different framing for us. I doubt we’ll try again; we did see the buliding is a Renaissance palace and in front is a lovely park garden (rather like many in London in front of museums and in nice neighborhoods).

    We did use Midway. We took a plane and then the train in, and went back again the same way.

    We return Xmas for an MLA meeting. We may hope that the MLA people will have brochures and suggestions for things to do while in the city. They usually do. We’ll wish it warmer probably then too.

    Elinor    Oct 17, 6:40pm    #
  5. For those of you who are wondering about the Wolf Trap reference, it is the nation’s only national park for the performing arts, featuring a 7,000 seat outdoor amphitheater and a diverse summer concert schedule with rock, pop, opera, classical, jazz, and country. Additionally, Wolf Trap boasts an indoor theater called The Barns at Wolf Trap with just over 300 seats, offering more intimate performances from October – April.
    Graham Binder    Oct 31, 3:09pm    #

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