Today, we armchair travel to the Windy City for a deep-dive into what makes Chicago different from every other city in America. We break the rules a little bit and discuss six books we love that explore Chicago’s culture, food, and history of rabble-rousers and heroes.
Chicago is a representation of everything that makes the United States the awesome and challenging country that it is. There’s a tradition there of firsts — the skyscraper, the telegraph, the Twinkie — and a commitment to industry with railroads and shipping and meatpacking and teamsters.
There’s also a sobering history of race riots and gangsters. Daring muckrakers and corrupt politicians. Life-affirming jazz and blues musicians and baseball. Hot dogs, deep-dish pizza, and Italian beef sandwiches. And a population made up of immigrants from all over Europe that’s spawned high-spirited, tough-minded native Chicagoans.
We cover all of this and more in our discussion of books and life in Chicago.
Read the full transcript of Episode 09: Chicago.
Chicago blues: We started the show with a bit from Lonnie Johnson. This video is worth watching just to here the voice of the man who introduces him.
Most of Lonnie Johnson’s surviving work is only available on CD, but you can find an MP3 collection here.
To illustrate the deep and lasting importance of electric guitar and amplified harmonica together, we used a bit from this Muddy Waters concert. It’s from 1971.
If you wanted to get started with Muddy Waters, we enthusiastically recommend his 1977 release ‘Hard Again.’ There is no better than this. There is only different.
Southside with You: This is a 2016 film about Barack Obama’s first date with Michelle Robinson in Chicago circa 1989.
Roller derby: Melissa was a founding member of the Texas Rollergirls in Austin, Texas, in 2003. She was known as Melicious #11 on the Hotrod Honeys. You can read all about it in her book Rollergirl.
Sandwiches That You Will Like: This is a 2002 PBS documentary (and now-rare companion book) that delves into the unique sandwiches that are beloved in different areas of the United States. The DVD is still available on the PBS website.
Chicago by Carl Sandburg: This poem originally appeared in Poetry magazine in 1914. It was later published in his collection Chicago Poems and its follow-ups Cornhuskers (1918) and Smoke and Steel (1920) were part of the artistic movement known as social realism that drew attention to the plight of the working class.
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Black Sox Scandal: In 1919, eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series against the underdog Cincinnati Reds in exchange for money from a gambling syndicate. The New York Times has an excellent article about the mythos that’s grown around the story — and there’s a 1988 film about the scandal starring John Cusack and Charlie Sheen.
Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago: In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. took his civil rights crusade to Chicago. Here’s a collection of videos and text that tells the story.
The Blizzard of 1967: The storm hit on 26 January, dropping a record-setting 23 inches (58 cm) of snow on the city and its suburbs. As of February 2020, it remains the highest snowfall in one storm in Chicago history. Read all about it and watch newsreels here.
So Big: Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was inspired by the real-life story of Antje Paarlberg. This is Antje:
The novel was adapted into a silent film in 1924 and into a talkie in 1953, starring Jane Wyman.
Roger Ebert’s website: Roger’s legacy of movie reviews continues on his website, where content is written by his wife Chaz and critic Matt Zoller Seitz.
Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware: Here’s a page from the graphic novel that depicts a scene from the Columbian Exposition of 1893. We’ve got a few more images over on the Jimmy Corrigan book page.
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Top image courtesy of Liz Lawrence.
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