Thomas Dyja explores the cultural foundations of the “American century” in this engaging, fast-paced and original account of mid-century Chicago. The city was the breeding ground of American modernity from 1930 to 1960, according to Dyja. Chicago was not only the country’s railroad and transit center but also the nation’s “primary meeting place, market, workshop, and lab.” To understand Chicago is to comprehend contemporary America.
Dyja’s Chicago is a complex cultural milieu full of artistic and political turbulence, home to a people-oriented aesthetic and an alternative to the gilded culture of New York and the Hollywood glitter of Los Angeles—“the third coast.” Dyja reconstructs a racially segregated, ethnically provincial and economically divided cultural landscape before 1940. But this fragmented urbanity bubbled with imagination: the innovative architectural traditions of Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright; the rugged realism of Nelson Algren, James Farrell, Richard Wright and others associated with the Works Progress Administration’s Writer’s Project; the bohemian subculture ensconced in the Dil Pickle Club; the experimental college and Great Books program under the tutelage of Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago; the undervalued African-American renaissance fostered by Margaret Taylor Burroughs and the South Side Community Art Center. These disparate cultural communities were held together by the notion of being “regular,” a form of modest populism defined by avoiding pretension and snobbery. “Beyond being regular, there was nothing expected of a man,” wrote Nelson Algren. “To give more wasn’t regular. To give less wasn’t straight.”
Chicago was the primary stage in the culture wars following World War II. Art and culture became ever more accessible and popular in the information age. But who would control the multiple forms of artistic expression emerging in architecture, music, television, drama and elsewhere? For Dyja, the battle lines were clear: Henry Luce’s American Century emphasizing a single mass market culture structured around big business, conformity and universal ideals versus the alternative Century of the Common Man with plebian and dissident traditions harkening back to Walt Whitman.
The final result was never preordained. The utopian vision of democratic access to art had an indigenous appeal in Chicago, particularly in the fiction of Nelson Algren, the politics of Saul Alinsky, the gospel music of Mahalia Jackson, the photography of Harry Callahan and Aaron Suskind, the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, the television of Studs Terkel and Burr Tillstrom, the rock-and-roll of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley (via Chess Records), the blues of Muddy Waters, the drama of Elaine May and Mike Nichols and the Afro-futurism of Sun Ra.
All flourished in the decade following the war. Theirs was a Chicago culture valorizing heterodoxy, improvisation, vernacular, experimentation and play. The connecting glue for much of this cultural fermentation was László Moholy-Nagy, with support from his corporate patron Walter Paepcke. Upon arriving at the Institute of Design, Moholy-Nagy campaigned to demystify and simplify culture. Art was not about a final product; it was a process and a method. Decades before Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan, Moholy-Nagy recognized art was reproduction, that the medium was the message. The divide between high and low culture was withering away. Art had to be accessible.
But events in Chicago gave birth to a straightjacket conformity. Mies van der Rohe’s International Style became the architectural creature of corporate America. The first “school of television” exemplified by Dave Garroway, Burr Tillstrom and Studs Terkel was sent packing. Ray Kroc opened the initial McDonald’s franchise in suburban Des Plaines and launched the fast-food nation. The nuclear fission developed underneath Stagg Field at the University of Chicago became the recipe for nuclear annihilation and mutually assured destruction. The Great Books publications promoted by Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler came to epitomize middlebrow culture. The “sexual revolution” promoted by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine proved less than revolutionary.
At times, Dyja oversimplifies the complex rise of the corporate-dominated mass consumer culture of the 20th century. Historians, William Leach and Lizabeth Cohen among them, locate the origins of the modern consumer culture much earlier in chain stores like A&P and Woolworth’s, the factories of Henry Ford and General Motors and the department store window displays of L. Frank Baum (author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) at Marshall Field’s.
John Wanamaker’s and other department stores not only introduced the first fashion shows, baby shows, show girls and show rooms, but much of modern art was initially displayed on their floors. Automobile design broke down barriers separating the mechanical and fine arts. Shopping in department stores, retail chains and automobile showrooms by 1930 epitomized the new consumer ethos that rejected the agrarian producerist values of the 19th century.
Dyja nevertheless convincingly demonstrates the far-reaching influence and centrality of Chicago culture in the mid-20th century. The local scene was the national incubator.
But did Chicago after 1960 enter an era of cultural declension and social conformity? Was the people-oriented aesthetic marginalized with the death of Moholy-Nagy in 1949? Did the “third city” die with Walter Paepke in 1960?
I doubt it. Miesian corporatism dominated the Chicago skyline, with Bruce Graham’s Sears Tower and John Hancock Center, but the architecture of Walter Netsch, Helmet Jahn and Jeanne Gang represented multiple alternatives. The writers Mike Royko, Garry Wills and Alex Kotlowitz delivered literary punches in the tradition of Algren. The novelists Sara Paretsky, Sandra Cisneros and Saul Bellow resisted easy classification. Few playwrights and screenwriters matched the upsetting ferocity of David Mamet.
Sir Georg Solti, Moholy-Nagy’s cousin, arrived in 1969 and reinvigorated the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the ensuing two decades. Burr Tillstrom and his Kuklapolitan Players were resurrected on Chicago public television at the behest of WTTW Board Chairman Newton N. Minow. The improvisational roster of The Second City defined American comedy by and after the millennium: Alan Alda, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, John Candy, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Gilda Radnor, Harold Ramis and Joan Rivers, among others. Buddy Guy, in some quarters, personified American blues. A political system dominated by a corrupt machine also produced Paul Douglas, Abner Mikva and Barack Obama.
László Moholy-Nagy lives.