:: Article

I love thee, infamous city

By Robert O’Connor.


[This is the latest in a series on the works of Studs Terkel. The last book was his Pulitzer Prize winning look at World War II, The Good War.]

Chicago is the book by Studs most unlike the others. It’s not a collection of interviews or profiles, it’s not an autobiography. It’s also the shortest of his books and the first one since Division Street not credited as being André Schiffrin’s idea, though it was published by Pantheon. That credit belongs to the then-editor of Chicago magazine, Don Gold.

Chicago is a combination of a prose-poem to the city and some autobiographical pieces from Studs. It’s a short book – around 100 pages – and many of those pages are full of photographs by photojournalists Marc Pokempner, Stephen Deuton, Archie Lieberman, Richard Younker and Arthur Shay. Each of the photographers specialized in telling stories of ordinary people, or the less-well off. They turned their cameras on the kinds of people Studs interviewed.

The tributes to the city Studs gives are chock-full of symbolism. Chicago is full of it, not just in its imagery – the two-faced God Janus is the God of the city. It’s history is full of colorful characters like Big Bill Thompson, Al Capone and Richard J. Daley.

Studs has an amusing story in the book of an Englishman who he encountered at Marble Arch. The man said that Mayor Daley was “his kind of chap.” Referring to the tough-handed approach the Chicago Police took against demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention, the man said “[Daley] should have bashed the heads of those young ruffians, though he did rather well I thought.” Studs told him that Mayor Daley had been dead for several years, and that their current mayor was a black man. The man was astonished.

Harold Washington had been mayor for two years when the book came out. Studs supported him during his tumultuous (to put it mildly) first term. When Washington ran for a second term, he would say at campaign stops “When they hear you’re from Chicago, they used to ask ‘do you carry a gun?’ Now they ask ‘how’s Harold?'”

The book is a tribute to Studs’ adopted city. It’s also a tribute to his best friend, Nelson Algren. Algren wrote Chicago: City on the Make, which is considered one of the best tributes to the city. The prose poem is quoted a few times in the book. The epilogue to the book is a longer tribute to Algren, in which Studs quote more of his work and describes him as a person. For all his writing on serious subjects, he says Algren was the funniest person you could ever meet.

Chicago easily invites comparisons with City on the Make” but a more appropriate one may be the one the New Press compares it to: E. B. White’s tribute to New York, Here Is New York. The essay is considered one of the best and most quoted pieces of literature about New York ever written. Chicago is certainly in that same vein, though unfortunately due to what Schiffrin called “complex copyright reasons,” the book is out of print.

[Next: Studs sees the beginnings of the two Americas in The Great Divide]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 29th, 2012.