Frederik Byrn Køhlert is Associate Professor of Media and American Studies in the School of Art, Media and American Studies at the University of East Anglia. He very kindly found time in his diary to talk to us about his new edited book Chicago: A Literary History. The book has just been published by Cambridge University Press.
Q Dr. Køhlert, many congratulations indeed on the publication of your new book, and thanks for agreeing to speak to us! Could you begin by introducing our readers to the unique literary and cultural history of Chicago?
Sure. As I somewhat provocatively write in my introduction to the book, “Chicago is the most American city.” By that I mean that its central location and rapid growth combined to create an urban environment that was unique in the United States, and continues to be so. After being founded in 1833, the city had grown to over one million inhabitants by 1890, largely thanks to a strategic location by Lake Michigan that facilitated trade and made it the natural center for the nation’s railroads. So as the embodiment of the end of the agrarian era and the beginning of a new century dominated by market capitalism, no other American city came so far this quickly or went through the same degree of rapid urbanization as Chicago. This is also the city that was the birthplace of the modern skyscraper, the elevated railroad, and many of the large-scale corporations that came to dominate American business in the final years of the nineteenth century, and Chicago was and remains a city of extremes – of the tallest buildings, the largest stockyards, the highest crime rates, and the worst slums. All of these themes, naturally, found their way into the city’s literature, and the book is an attempt to chart how writers worked to make sense of this new urban environment in diverse literary forms. It does so through thirty chapters written by leading experts from around the world, and in addition to editing the book I also wrote the introduction and a chapter myself.
Q That’s really helpful – thank you! What convinced you that now was the right time for this book on the literary history of Chicago?
In my first book, entitled The Chicago Literary Experience: Writing the City, 1893-1953, I engaged with many of the same themes and ideas, but with a much more limited scope. The new book is self-consciously trying to include a much broader perspective and be a kind of one-stop guide for people interested in the literary history of Chicago. It does this both by including chapters on lesser-known writers and traditions and by including chapters by a broad range of experts from several different disciplines. In terms of why this book now, then it’s really inspired by the fact that while most of those processes that helped make Chicago what it is—such as urbanization, consumerism, and multiculturalism—have continued and intensified into the present day, they have also morphed into new constellations, and examining those in turn allows us a new perspective on what has been written both in and about the city in the past.
Q Your book encourages us to think more carefully about how the geographic specificity and different cultural contexts of the city have influenced its literature in ways that sets it apart from other big cities in America. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Absolutely. Compared with New York City, for example, which it for many decades seemed on the verge of overtaking from the position as the nation’s “second city,” Chicago has never been in danger of being referred to as “the greatest city in the world.” Instead, its inhuman scale and lofty ambitions has often inspired stronger feelings—positive as well as negative—than its East Coast rival. Unlike the younger Los Angeles, on the other hand, Chicago does not represent a radical new and postmodern break with traditional ways of organizing urban development, and it is also not associated with the kind of storied history and inherited mythologies that dominate our perceptions of New Orleans. Similarly, while many of America’s other leading cities were global from the beginning and connected to the wider world through the networks established by their coastal locations, Chicago has often been seen as more of an unsophisticated provincial center, isolated in the middle and linked in the popular imagination not with the international glamour of New York and Los Angeles, but with more prosaic and blue-collar concerns like hog butchering and transport logistics. Known (to itself, at least, in a tradition of sloganeering and boosterism that goes back to its founding) as “the city that works,” Chicago has alternately embraced this identity and anxiously struggled against it, always worrying that beneath the impressive skyline it was nothing more than “a country town grown big,” as the city’s early novelist Henry B. Fuller put it. So, Chicago is this weird mix of being supremely confident but always with a chip on its shoulder and with something to prove, and in that way it straddles the divide between the old and the new America, between the East and the West, the vertical and the horizontal. You could perhaps say that it is stuck in the middle, but it has also always been aware of the distinct advantages of this position. Viewed in this light, then, the story of Chicago is not one of geographical isolation or cultural in-betweenness, but instead one of being a thoroughfare for the nation’s goods as well as a crossroads for its intellectual currents and artistic energies. And it’s this idea of Chicago as the crossroads of modern America that guides my literary history of the city, which traces how writers have responded to a rapidly changing urban environment and labored to make sense of its place in—and implications for—the larger whole.
Q Thank you! This is all sounds fantastically interesting, and is clearly a major contribution to American literary history. Could you tell us a little about how you became interested in this area in the first place?
When I first encountered Chicago literature, I was always struck by authors’s intensity of feelings for the city, which can range from the wildly enthusiastic and celebratory to feeling dejected or disgusted by it, and frequently it is all of these at the same time. But what you will not find as a reader of Chicago literature is indifference. Instead, the city has uniformly provoked strong reactions from its chroniclers, and writers have alternately celebrated and bemoaned its new material and cultural realities, as well as the speed with which it exchanged an agrarian past for a present and future dominated by industrialization, urbanization, and consumerism. So Chicago has often been portrayed as a city of absolutes—of big dreams and even bigger disillusions—and probably no other American city has seen its name repeated quite as often in the literature written about it—and often in full capital letters or followed by an exclamation point—as if the writer is reciting some kind of mystical incantation meant to reveal the essence of modern America.
Q That’s very interesting – thank you! Looking to the future, then, what is the next project on your research agenda? Will you be building on this work going forward?
Although I’m still very interested in the literary history of Chicago, and continue to find new aspects to explore, I think two books on the subject is probably enough for me. That said, my own chapter in the book is what I cheekily call a “crossover event” with my other main research area of comics and graphic novels, and I explore the contributions of comics artist Chris Ware to the literary history of the city. Essentially, I argue that Ware’s body of work explores how various human networks engage with the storied history and urban geography of the city, and that it does so in endlessly experimental ways that have continued to redefine the expressive potential of the comics form. This potential is something I’m intensely interested in, and so in that way my work on the book has been a nice bridge to my other research interests.
Q One final question, if we might? Now that Chicago: A Literary History has been published, what are your hopes for the book? What would you like readers to take away from it, and what impact would you like it to have on the world?
By taking the longest possible view of the literary history of Chicago and by placing so many studies of it alongside each other for the first time, I hope that the book will highlight unexplored commonalities and contribute a comparative perspective to the study of the city’s literary history that will also help to generate new narratives of urban American literature more broadly conceived. While some of the writers appearing in the book’s chapters are household names in American literary history, many are significantly less well known, and an important impulse behind the book was therefore also to expand our understanding of Chicago literature in all directions, through a more inclusive view that incorporates a plurality of voices, perspectives, genres, and forms.
Dr. Køhlert, thank you very much indeed for your time. Chicago: A Literary History is out now and available to buy from Cambridge University Press.