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Chicago’s Literary “Prehistory”

Sunday, June 4, 2023



by Jesse Raber

Chicago’s literary history, according to most accounts, begins around 1893. The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s earliest writers, such as Jane Addams, Henry Blake Fuller, and Carl Sandburg, started publishing around that time, with Fuller’s 1893 novel The Cliff-Dwellers sometimes cited as the first significant work of Chicago literature. Along with writers like Finley Peter Dunne (creator of Mr. Dooley), Theodore Dreiser, and George Ade, this generation of writers launched the Chicago Renaissance, a new kind of American literature focused on the social dynamics of the modern industrial city.

Yet Chicago’s literature begins much earlier, stretching as far back as the 1840s, and these first writings represent a fascinating literary movement which is almost the polar opposite of the Chicago Renaissance. Far from imagining Chicago as an all-consuming vortex of factories and skyscrapers, antebellum Chicago writers saw the city as a distribution center for the rural, Western culture spread throughout its enormous railroad hinterland. Small towns strung along rail routes from Michigan to Nebraska bought their books, magazines, and newspapers from Chicago, via the same shipping networks they used to send their grain, timber, and livestock into the city.

Most of this printed matter consisted of news, and of books from the East coast. But some ambitious writers and editors believed that Chicago could sell not only Eastern literature, but a new kind of distinctively Western literature, to their rural market. Wouldn’t Western pioneers want to see their own experiences celebrated in fiction and poetry? Wouldn’t they want to see their own local landscapes woven into regional epics? And wouldn’t Eastern readers be curious about these things too?

A wave of “Western” Chicago publications sprung from this idea, with titles like Gem of the Prairie, Western Magazine, and Chicago Magazine: The West as It Is. Each one had a different idea about what this new “Western” literature was supposed to be. Some trended toward boyish adventure tales, while others, such as the Lady’s Western Magazine, addressed themselves to the many highly educated women who had settled far from the centers of culture.

Few of these magazines lasted long. But their dream of a Western literature, rural in spirit but powered by the engine of the West’s largest city, persisted in writers like Hamlin Garland, whose manifestos for Chicago as a regional cultural capital were fundamental to the early stages of the Chicago Renaissance.

Chicago writers poured out their abolitionist poetry and stories in a paper called the Western Citizen, which changed its name to the Free West, and they often linked their opposition to slavery with “Western” values. They contrasted the tyranny of Southern plantations, for example, with the liberty of Western homesteads.

Finally, a few Chicago writers of major talent, such as Juliette Kinzie and Joseph Kirkland, critically reflected on the notion of a distinctive Western culture in complex books such as Kinzie’s memoir Wau-Bun and Kirkland’s novel Zury: The Meanest Man in Spring County.

After the Civil War, Chicago began to emerge as a center of manufacturing, rather than just a distribution center for Western produce. As this happened, Chicago’s writers turned more inward, to the life of the city itself, and urban themes such as real estate, municipal corruption, street crime, and high society began to overshadow rural ones. Genteel novels of manners, like Mary Healy Bigot’s Lakeville (1873), and trashy crime stories, like Shang Andrews’s Wicked Nell: A Gay Girl of the Town (1883), became more popular, though rural works like the poetry of Benjamin F. Taylor (the “American Goldsmith”) continued to thrive. The detective “memoirs” of Allan Pinkerton (really semi-fictionalized accounts on which Pinkerton collaborated with ghostwriters) blended these genres, as Pinkerton described his men pursuing criminals from Chicago to various points along the railroads which had employed his agency.

The Great Chicago Fire became the subject of at least three novels and quite a few poems, which collectively represented the whole spectrum of views on Chicago as a “Western” versus an urban place. These included E.P. Roe’s Barriers Burned Away, a runaway bestseller, as well as Martha J. Lamb’s Spicy, James McGovern’s Daniel Trentworthy, and poems by Benjamin F. Taylor, Paul Hayne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Bret Harte. By studying these texts, which were written from different backgrounds and at different points in time, we can see how the emblematic event of the Fire brings questions of Chicago’s connection to its region, to the nation, and to the global economy to the surface.

The pre-1890 period of Chicago literature ended with the 1886 Haymarket bombing and its aftermath. Labor issues, mostly absent from Chicago writing before the 1880s, along with related issues of immigration, became the dominant themes. The Haymarket anarchists’s newspaper, The Alarm, published a lot of poetry, and some fiction, as did the German socialist paper Arbeiter Zeitung and the paper of the Knights of Labor, the Workingman’s Advocate. At the same time, papers opposed to socialism and to immigration, such as America, edited by Hobart Chatfield Taylor, published vicious sketches lampooning foreign agitators. Even during this period, though, the city’s Western identity had not vanished, as the dime novel cowboy Deadwood Dick Jr., came to fight the Haymarket anarchists in one of his endless adventures.

All of this forms the background against which the Chicago Renaissance eventually emerged.


Jesse Raber holds a PhD in English from Harvard University and teaches in the Harvard Extension School. He is working on a literary history of Chicago, and has taught at UIC, SAIC, and Loyola. He is the co-creator of the Wintrust Chicago Gallery at the American Writers Museum. His upcoming seminar is called “Literary Capital of the West: Chicago Writing before 1890,” and meets at the Newberry on Wednesdays from 2-3:30 pm from June 14th to July 19th. Enrollment ends soon; register ASAP if you want to take part in this course. The course will provide a glance at many of these texts, and students will also have the opportunity to give a final presentation on any literary work from the period. The goal of the course will not be in-depth knowledge of any one text, but rather a whirlwind tour of this fascinating, mostly forgotten cultural landscape. Many texts from the Newberry’s archives will be examined, and Raber will also bring in lots of books from his own collection for “show and tell.”

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