icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Chicago in Their Sights

Half a century ago, two of the most enduring books about Chicago appeared within a year of each other—to the dismay and bewilderment of many proper-thinking residents. A.J. Liebling's The Second City mercilessly lampooned the city, while Nelson Algren's City on the Make took a clear-eyed look at its hustlers and bums. After all these years, how do their profiles stand up?

By Bill Beuttler (Chicago Magazine, March 2001)

Late in 1949, lured from the New Yorker by a hefty purse, the infamous snob and elegant columnist A. J. Liebling arrived in Chicago with a magazine assignment and an East Coast chip on his shoulder. A little more than a year later, local novelist Nelson Algren — the hard-boiled man of the people, and perhaps the first Wicker Park bohemian — signed on to profile his hometown for a travel magazine. Both assignments went awry, but by mid-1952, both had turned their pieces into books with a punch — Algren's Chicago: City on the Make, and Liebling's Chicago: The Second City. Never had a city suffered such a literary one-two, and furious boosters struck back with a vengeance.

About Algren, the Chicago Tribune review bawled, "A more distorted, partial, unenviable slant was never taken by a man pretending to cover the Chicago story." The outrage over Liebling was even noisier. Sydney J. Harris — normally an even-keeled columnist — blistered the book in a Chicago Daily News review, chastising the author for careless reporting and New York provincialism. "This emotional revulsion against the ordinary citizen, this incapacity to see anything but the obvious, the tawdry and the melodramatic, vitiates his viewpoint more than anything else," Harris griped.

Time has been kinder toward these slim volumes: The University of Chicago Press reissued City on the Make in 1987, and it has been in print ever since. In a preface to that edition, Algren's friend Studs Terkel called the book a love song. "It sings, Chicago-style: a haunting, split-hearted ballad. . . . [M]aybe it is for this small work, as much as for his novels and short stories, [Algren] will be remembered."

While its slighting moniker clearly found its mark, The Second City is now out of print — although Liebling's biographer, Raymond Sokolov, editor of The Wall Street Journal's Leisure & Arts section, considers it a breakthrough in the great journalist's career. "Close readers of Liebling without distracting loyalties to Chicago will . . . detect in the pages of this genial diatribe the first full-scale appearance of the mature Liebling style," he wrote in Wayward Reporter (a reference to the title of Liebling's New Yorker column).

Both City on the Make and The Second City are now widely regarded with Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems and Mike Royko's Boss as enduring portraits of the city. But half a century later, how much fight do they have left in them?

The impetus for Algren's book was an assignment from Holiday, the leading travel glossy of the day. Chicago had been tapped to host both presidential conventions in the summer of 1952, and in early 1951 Holiday began planning a special Chicago theme issue. To the editors, Algren probably seemed a natural choice to write the centerpiece essay — his Man with the Golden Arm had won the first-ever National Book Award in 1950, and his much-praised short story collection The Neon Wilderness had been published just a couple of years earlier.

But the essay Algren submitted hardly qualified as glossy material. Holiday sent back an edited version Algren angrily dismissed as a "hack-and-patch version." The piece nonetheless ran in the magazine's October 1951 issue, trimmed and softened, but complemented by several gritty Arthur Shay photos of Algren and his Near West Side haunts. (Joining Algren as contributors were Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, gossip columnist Irv Kupcinet, University of Chicago chancellor Robert M. Hutchins, and Tribune editor and publisher Colonel Robert R. McCormick, among others.)

Algren's editor at Doubleday, meanwhile, suggested bringing out the original essay in book form in time for the holiday shopping season. The book — 92 pages long and dedicated to Sandburg—came out the same month as the magazine, to mixed reviews. The Daily News didn't like it much better than the Tribune did (an editorial headline dubbed it "A Case for Ra(n)t Control"). But an anonymous Sun-Times reviewer praised it as "a prose song to Chicago, written to the rhythm of the city's throbbing heart." Outside Chicago, Saturday Review, the New York Herald Tribune, and The New York Times also weighed in favorably. In the Times, novelist Budd Schulberg compared Algren favorably to Sandburg: "The white-haired poet himself never used the American language more effectively to conduct the tension Algren passes on to us from his city on the make, the city he loves like a beat-up old harridan whose youthful charms only he remembers—Hustlertown, U.S.A."

Algren insisted on seeing the warts on his beloved city, but he did so with heart and humor. The chapter entitled "The Hustlers" — the first of seven that ranged casually over Chicago's history and personality — depicted the city's founders as swindling the native "Pottawattomies" down to their last moccasin. ("They'd do anything under the sun except work for a living," Algren wrote of Chicago's white fathers, "and we remember them reverently.") Another chapter recounts Algren's childhood memories of moving from the South Side to North Troy Street—Cubs territory—in the summer of 1920. ("The Black Sox were the Reds of that October," Algren wrote in 1951, with McCarthyism in full bloom, "and mine was the guilt of association.")

Elsewhere, Algren regrets great writers, musicians, and artists who once passed through town were no longer around (because of Chicago's authoritarian bent, he argued — "The city today is more a soldier's than an artist's town"). Again and again, he celebrates the little guys and the losers — the "nobodies from nowhere, the nobodies nobody knows, with faces cut from the same cloth as their caps, and the women whose eyes reflect nothing but the pavement. The nameless, useless nobodies who sleep behind the taverns, who sleep beneath the El. Who sleep in burnt-out busses with the windows freshly curtained; in winterized chicken coops or patched-up truck bodies. . . . There, unheard by the millions who ride the waves above and sleep, and sleep and dream, night after night after night, loving and well beloved, guarding and well guarded, beats the great city's troubled heart."

Algren's soft spot for his city's have-nots was no surprise. He had graduated from the University of Illinois with a journalism degree in 1931, just in time for the Depression, which he spent riding the rails, working odd jobs, sitting for several weeks in a south Texas jail cell (for stealing a typewriter), and eventually writing for the Works Progress Administration.

But Algren also recognized the city's immense possibility. He bragged about Chicago's status as the "[m]ost radical of all American cities: Gene Debs' town, Big Bill Haywood's town, the One-Big-Union town," and rued the quick passing of its 1920s cultural renaissance. "Most native of American cities," Algren called Chicago (a notion Norman Mailer would echo nearly two decades later in Miami and the Siege of Chicago), "where the chrome-colored convertible cuts through traffic ahead of the Polish peddler's pushcart." And "[t]he very toughest sort of town, they'll tell you—that's what makes it so American."

Still, those who hated the book — and even some who reviewed it favorably — called it a one-sided portrait of the city. Schulberg, for one, noted, "[Algren's] profile of Chicago has depth if not breadth; by ordinary standards it is an unfair picture of the city, and therein lies its strength."

Algren knew he would catch heat for ignoring Chicago's prouder features, but he offered a good reason for doing so in the book itself. "It isn't hard to love a town for its greater and its lesser towers, its pleasant parks or its flashing ballet," he wrote. "Or for its broad and bending boulevards, where the continuous headlights follow, one dark driver after the next, one swift car after another, all night, all night and all night. But you never truly love it till you can love its alleys too."

"Before you earn the right to rap any sort of joint," Algren also wrote in City on the Make, "you have to love it a little while." Liebling clearly thought otherwise. From the get-go, his look at Chicago was down his nose. Collier's transplanted Liebling from New York in October 1949, to facilitate his writing a profile of the Tribune's Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, and he arrived with a set of prejudices very different from Algren's. Liebling grew up comfortably in Manhattan and Long Island, the son of a prosperous furrier. His schooling was at Dartmouth, Columbia, and the Sorbonne, and he broke into the newspaper business in the mid-1920s, safely ahead of the Depression. By 1935, Liebling was on staff at The New Yorker, where he built a name for himself largely for his profiles, his World War II reportage, and his column of media criticism, "Wayward Press."

It was the column that inspired Collier's to lure Liebling from The New Yorker in the spring of 1949 with contracts for major, multipart profiles of Time Inc. founder Henry Luce and Colonel McCormick. Liebling spent the summer of 1949 researching Luce, turned in his first piece in November, and had it rejected for being, according to a letter Liebling wrote to his lawyer, "too hard on Luce." Collier's also canceled the series on McCormick, despite having already engaged a Gold Coast apartment for Liebling and his new wife and stepdaughter. Liebling thus found himself stuck in Chicago for the stepdaughter's school year without a job. He resumed writing for The New Yorker, knocking out several "Wayward Press" pieces on McCormick and the Tribune. He also traveled whenever possible for other stories: to Springfield for a piece on Lincoln; to Columbus, Ohio, to watch a car get prepped for the Indy 500; to Las Vegas for "Action in the Desert"; and to Connecticut to report on a cockfight in "Dead Game," a warm-up for his later highly regarded writing on boxing.

When Liebling moved back to Manhattan in the summer of 1950, his Chicago experience stuck with him. Sometime in the next year, with those political conventions on the horizon, he began writing it up for publication. The three-part series opened with Liebling's overview of the city and its lakeshore, and a summary of his contacts with Chicago from childhood to the present. Part three played up the fascination of Chicagoans with organized crime and the St. Valentine's Day "Massacree" and profiled "a superb specimen of a Chicago alderman," the 43rd Ward's Paddy Bauler (best known for his quip "Chicago ain't ready for reform"). The guts of the series were contained in part two, where Liebling — pausing briefly for a hilarious set piece on one of McCormick's live weekly radio broadcasts, "The Chicago Theatre of the Air," that he had attended — nonchalantly ambles along offering short, amusing assessments of Chicago institutions. The stock exchange, banks, theatre, women's fashions, opera, symphony, publishing industry, newspapers, literary scene, baseball, boxing, and restaurants — he found all badly wanting.

Liebling reveled in his rude impressions of the city, as in this description of the bleakness of Chicago once the commuters had all gone home: "As a matter of fact, most of the men who think of themselves as leaders have, physically, abandoned the city out of office hours, and so have most of their assistants. The relatively small white-collar population converges daily on the Loop by rail and at night leaps over the surrounding sprawl of city wards — dreary clusters of frame houses and factories — to go home to suburbs like Oak Park, to the west, and Evanston, to the north. Upper- and lower-middle groups commute together, leaving behind them each night the exiguous skyscraper core and the vast anonymous pulp of the city, plopped down by the lakeside like a piece of waterlogged fruit. Chicago after nightfall is a small city of the rich who have not yet migrated, visitors, and hoodlums, surrounded by a large expanse of juxtaposed dimnesses."

The putdowns spilled glibly out of Liebling, who was at his best elucidating Chicago's mid-century sense of inferiority. In those days, no well-heeled Chicagoan would bother seeing a local theatre production, according to Liebling. "Taking an interest in the Chicago theatre," he explained, "is regarded as naïve, as my wife and I discovered when, attending a party shortly after our arrival in the city, we innocently inquired what shows in town were worth seeing. Chicagoans with the price of airline tickets do their theatregoing here in New York, where, along with people from Boise, Chillicothe, and Winnemucca, they pay . . . exorbitant premiums for tickets . . . . It is not considered smart to admit having seen any play in Chicago, because this implies either (a) that you haven't seen the real play or (b) that you haven't the airplane fare or (c), and possibly worst of all, that you are indifferent to nuances and might, therefore, just as well go back to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where you went to high school."

Why all the insults? The obvious armchair-psychological explanation is that Liebling's lousy Collier's experience permanently soured him on the city. Sokolov, in Wayward Reporter, offered another possibility. He saw Liebling's stylistic development in The Second City emerging from a comfortable new homelife. "No one can say whether or not the flowering of Liebling's mature style owed its appearance in the early fifties to specific events and changes in his personal life," Sokolov observed. "It is, however, reasonable to speculate that in those early, happy days of his second marriage, Liebling found the support that gave him the confidence to speak in his own voice." That voice, Sokolov argued, was an artful mix of the elite and the common. "His syntax shifted nonchalantly from Augustan to breezy. His allusions ranged from street talk to the classics. It was an aggressively classless, democratic style that preened itself on its lack of respect for distinctions of high and low."

Liebling's book, too, was criticized as one-sided, but in the bushels of angry mail he received at The New Yorker, Liebling also stood accused of being careless with his facts. In the foreword to The Second City, he admitted to a handful of what he deemed insignificant errors — mistakenly placing Wilmette's Bahaπi Temple in Evanston being, to his thinking, the "most considerable." Still, he defended the book's accuracy and focus: "I lived in Chicago for nearly a year in 1949-50 and went back to check up in May, 1951. So this isn't a between-trains job."

One detail Liebling managed to pack in was a description of Nelson Algren, whom Liebling used to set up his depiction of Chicago's lame writing scene. "At every party my wife and I went to in Chicago, we met Nelson Algren, whose novel The Man with the Golden Arm had just been published and well reviewed. Algren, who had never before had a popular success, had stuck by his West Side Poles after all the rest of the stark Chicago realists had fled to Hollywood. . . . For a city where, I am credibly informed, you couldn't throw an egg in 1925 without braining a great poet, Chicago is hard up for writers."

Algren couldn't have agreed more. "Out of the Twisted Twenties flowered the promise of Chicago as the homeland and heartland of an American renaissance," he had written in City on the Make. "Dreiser and Anderson and Masters and Sandburg were still here. Thirty years later we stand on the rim of a cultural Sahara with not a camel in sight."

Algren had no reason to mention Liebling in City on the Make, but he did review Liebling's book for Saturday Review. He began by claiming not to understand the fuss other Chicago reviewers had been making about The Second City. Algren did, however, acknowledge Liebling's fast-and-loose approach to facts. "By combining a certain air of authority, more native to Life than The New Yorker, with a dazzling dearth of information, he achieves some fairly fascinating results," he wrote. "Thus, the evidence of the wife of a Harvard faculty member, topped by that of a New Yorker office boy, constitutes sufficient ground for dismissing the University of Chicago as an enterprise of the sheerest folly. The bartender of the closest cocktail lounge becomes a prophet, and the nearest alderman a seer." Algren found things to enjoy in the book, too. "The aroma, faint and far, of something fairly fishy in its inventiveness, is redeemed by the book's careless humor," he concluded. "Personally I liked it fine."

All that was 50 years ago. The Chicago of today bears only a passing resemblance to Algren's or Liebling's. Chicago is no longer quite the slouch when it comes to the arts. The theatre scene, in particular, has achieved international renown. The dreary old neighborhoods beyond the lakeshore have been gentrifying for years, with Algren's own Wicker Park among those leading the way. Chicago is not even the second city anymore — Los Angeles slipped ahead almost 20 years ago.

Several years back, the Chicago book publisher Ivan R. Dee approached Joseph Epstein of Northwestern University for his assessment of whether The Second City should be reissued. "I didn't think so, even though I admire Liebling a lot," recalls Epstein, formerly editor of The American Scholar and still one of the nation's top essayists. "The book is terribly dated. I think what Liebling gets right is the Second City spirit of a certain time — that New Yorkers are always screwing us. He's right about Chicago in that when it's pretentious, it's preposterous. He stuck Chicago with that Second City business, which is good." But the book also had its flaws, even when first published. Liebling "missed out," Epstein says, "in that he was a Near North Side guy the whole time he was in Chicago."

On The Second City's shortcomings, Studs Terkel agrees. "That's the one bad thing he wrote," says Terkel. "Liebling was a great writer. He was wonderful. But he didn't know Chicago. Who did he visit? People on the Near North Side and Hyde Park. You know, the people he knew. He didn't know Chicago, the streets and all."

Algren was always an author about whom readers often had divergent views. Some highbrow critics — Norman Podhoretz and Leslie Fiedler, among others — disdained him. Fellow writers tend to adore him. Hunter S. Thompson, John Sayles, and Russell Banks have all suggested at one time or another they wouldn't have become writers had they not read Algren. Poke around in the Algren archives at Ohio State University and you will find effusive fan letters from an improbable array of others: Terry Southern, Mike Royko, Tom Wolfe, Martha Gellhorn, James T. Farrell, Thomas Pynchon. Even Papa Hemingway wrote Algren from Havana, offering a laudatory blurb for City on the Make ("You should not read it if you cannot take a punch").

Epstein sides with the detractors. "I'm not a big Algren fan," he admits. "I think he's overdone. The tough, sensitive stuff is the sheerest bullshit."

Terkel, who knew Algren since before World War II and remained a close friend until Algren's death in 1981, vehemently disagrees. "It's a love poem," says Terkel. "And I think that epigraph of Baudelaire, about Paris, applies to Nelson: 'I love thee, infamous city!' And the last line [of City on the Make], you know, 'It holds you for keeps and a single day.' Oh, man. Even as I think about it now, I think, Boy, oh, boy." Terkel offers a final compliment: "To me, that is the best book about Chicago."

Both books continue to have lives outside the covers. The Second City's name lives on with the famous comedy troupe that co-opted it seven years after the book was published. This month, the Lookingglass Theatre concludes its run of a staged adaptation of several Algren works (among them, City on the Make, The Last Carousel, and Who Lost an American?), directed by John Musial.

Meanwhile, The Second City may be out of print, but first editions command $75 apiece on Amazon.com's zShop site. First editions of City on the Make go for more.

Photographer Art Shay tells the story of how he and Algren once drove to New York, in 1957. (Algren, says Shay, by way of explanation, "was always looking up broads who had written him fan letters.") As they passed a Rexall drugstore near Grand Central Terminal, they noticed big stacks of City on the Make remaindered at 19 cents a copy. They began buying up armfuls, and Algren, figuring they'd be worth something someday, insisted on phoning Budd Schulberg from the drugstore to ask, "You want me to get one for you?"

"Today," says Shay, "my wife [Florence Shay, a dealer in rare and collectible books] sells them for $100 apiece, autographed."

Even the Tribune has modified its take on Algren since the Colonel's death, retaining the novelist's name on the annual literary award it now sponsors (the newspaper purchased the award from Chicago magazine in 1985). Half a century ago, the Tribune's reviewer ended his pan of City on the Make by declaring it "[d]efinitely not a gift book." But at the height of this past holiday shopping season, Amazon.com was reporting City on the Make its 20th most popular book among Chicagoans — indicating, perhaps, that Second Citizens have learned to take a punch.

© Bill Beuttler