“I love thee, infamous city”: On Nelson Algren's "Chicago: City on the Make"

“I love thee, infamous city”: On Nelson Algren's "Chicago: City on the Make"

Nelson Algren | Chicago: City on the Make | Doubleday | 1951 | 88 Pages

Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make could be called a prose poem, a personal essay, a jeremiad or outsider history. It’s really a combination of all these things. Like Chicago itself, this short, powerful book is a sport, a “mottled offshoot, with trailers only in swamp and shadow.” It was intended as a travel piece and has become, along with Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” poem, one of the most frequently quoted pieces of literature about the city. Algren offers such a powerful vision of Chicago that it changes the way we see it, just as Dickens changed the way we see London, or Van Gogh the way we see sunflowers.

The book was originally intended as part of an all-Chicago October 1951 edition of the glossy magazine “Holiday.” The editors also had contributions by Sandburg and Tribune publisher Robert McCormick, as well as a piece on Bronzeville by poet Gwendolyn Brooks, whom Algren had recommended.

But Algren’s piece ran into problems. While they liked the writing, Holiday’s editors were looking for something shorter and less opinionated, with more respect for the dauntless pioneers who built the city, according to letters between “Holiday” and Algren. Algren was angry at the edits, and his editor at Doubleday put out the full essay as a book after the truncated magazine piece ran.

Rather than offering a straight history of Chicago, City on the Make gets at the feeling of the city through time and space, from its beginnings in the swamps and prairie, with pioneers hustling the Potawatomi Indians, up through the modern-day Chamber of Commerce types, who hustled everybody else. At the start, Algren sets up a theme of movement, describing the waters of Lake Michigan “slipping out of used colors for new” as the prairie “moved in the light like a secondhand sea.” Algren continues this idea of motion and insecurity in comparing Chicago to other, more settled and deeply-rooted places like Paris or Philadelphia, calling Chicago a “drafty hustler’s junction” and “Hustlertown” where no one really belongs. Chicago ceaselessly spread “itself all over the prairie grass, always wider and whiter,” and yet, Algren wrote, “the caissons below the towers somehow never secure a strong natural grip on the prairie grasses.”

City on the Make complains of the crooks and hypocrites—the hustlers—in power, and how the city’s do-gooders have always played in a “rigged ball game,” getting only two outs to the inning while the hustlers took four. It also is sharp-eyed on the city’s racism, more subtle than the South’s and more infuriating—“a soft and protean awareness of white superiority everywhere, in everything…”

The book mourns the cultural giants of the city’s past, like Vachel Lindsay, Richard Wright, and Clarence Darrow. Algren saw Chicago as declining and getting colder and compares the Cold War era’s cowardice to his boyhood memories of having to abandon the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox” to fit in with his North Side neighborhood. He heaps scorn on the city’s cultural tastemakers, impressed with anyone who has already won, as well as on its complacent suburbanites. “The city today’s more a soldier’s than an artist’s town,” Algren wrote. “It has had its big chance, and fluffed it.”

But despite its anger and accusations, the book is primarily a love poem, opening with the quote from Baudelaire: “I love thee, infamous city.” It speaks of longing for a place that divides the heart, “Leaving you loving the joint for keeps. Yet knowing it can never love you.” Algren shows the harsh, neon-lit remorselessness of the city, where it’s “always D-Day under the L.” Yet there also is a longing for what could be, and sympathy for the fool that the city makes of itself, for the scared punk trying to be tough. He compares loving Chicago to loving a woman with a broken nose: “you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

There have been 68 years, 8 mayors, dozens of aldermanic indictments and multiple police scandals since Algren wrote City on the Make, and the book still holds up as the best poetic description of the nation’s third-largest city. It is among Algren’s finest work, along with the novel The Man with the Golden Arm, which won the 1950 National Book Award; the 1942 novel Never Come Morning, and the 1947 short story collection The Neon Wilderness. Everyone with a Chicago address should have a copy of City on the Make – you should get it with your first sewer bill or parking ticket. I recommend the 60th-anniversary edition, annotated by David Schmittgens and Bill Savage, which helps make sense of some of the book’s more obscure historical references and mid-twentieth century slang. Algren eventually moved away from Chicago, said he never felt welcome there. But City on the Make betrays how much he loved it, and its rusty iron heart, “for keeps and a single day.”

This review was written as part of our series on Midwestern history, a collection of reviews on histories and texts of historical significance in the region. Writers interested in contributing to this series are encouraged to contact its editor, Jacob A. Bruggeman.

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