Page and Step Counts: Reading and Walking Chicago
Friday, May 28, 2021
By Donald G. Evans
Arthur Meeker, in his 1949 historical novel, Prairie Avenue, takes us back to a time when the residential district, just south of what is now Printers Row, was the street on which Chicago’s movers and shakers built their homes, raised their families, and feted the city’s most important people. Marshall Field lived there. So did Phillip Armour. George Pullman. Olivia Newport’s 2012 novel, The Pursuit of Lucy Banning, likewise explores the social climbers and ostentatiously wealthy denizens in an atmosphere of grandeur and intrigue.
That era is long gone, but remnants remain. Chicago’s oldest house, the Clarke House, built in 1836 and untouched by the Great Chicago Fire, is still there, now a museum. The John J. Glessner House, built just a few years later, has been restored and is open to the public.
The Battle of Fort Dearborn happened in the same neighborhood, on August 15, 1812. Jerry Crimmins explores this historic event in his 2006 novel, Fort Dearborn: A Novel. Now, there is a park, including a narrative plaque, on the site.
These books and sites, along with many others, are on this summer’s Chicago Fit/Lit itinerary. Starting Friday, June 4, we’ll get out once or twice a week to explore Chicago through the lens of relevant literature. We’ll seek out those historic sites associated with our reading, and we’ll also pin down some of the places found only in the stories. Each time out, we’ll make sure there are several sites at least some ways apart, giving us an excuse to do a bit of walking through our city.
We’ll meet up at the Emmett Till House, the old Chess Records, Graceland and Rosehill Cemeteries, get in walks through Bronzeville and Pilsen and the Gold Coast. Our Chicago Fit/Lit crew is a little like a club. We’ll all participate on our own terms, joining in the reading and site visits as we can and want. Some of us will maybe only make it to a single outing; others will go on most all of them. Some will do the reading in advance of a visit; many will not. Everyone will be encouraged to submit our own ideas for places to visit and books to read. We’ll use our Discord site, as well as Zoom, to keep in contact as we arrange and rearrange plans, update our suggested reading lists, and generally share what we know with each other. Most of us will use this program to explore Chicago while increasing our page and step counts.
I’m especially looking forward to a return to Graceland Cemetery. Last time our Fit/Lit crew went to Graceland—early last fall—I stumbled across the grave of Matt Rizzo, a Chicagoan born in 1918. It wasn’t until later that I made the connection between Rizzo’s story, some of which is found at his gravesite, and the David L. Carson’s historical novel, The Hunting Accident: A True Story of Crime and Poetry. In Carlson’s novel, Rizzo’s story meets the story of notorious killer Nathan Leopold, Jr.
I’m also excited about getting to some places I’ve yet to see, like the Emmett Till House, and spending time in neighborhoods I don’t get to enough, like Chinatown, where we’ll go after reading Charles Yu’s 2020 National Book Award-winning novel, Interior Chinatown, as well as Frances McNamara’s 2014 Emily Cabot mystery, Death at Chinatown.
Our itinerary is somewhat fluid. We’ll adjust outings based on the weather and participation. Just before the official start date, everyone will get access to our Discord site and will receive a Suggested Reading list, as well as a tentative calendar of tours. The program runs until September 4, so we have three solid good-weather months in which to see and read as much of Chicago as possible. While I and probably nearly all of our participants are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, we will continue to adhere to the most current safety recommendations in order to enjoy our time together safely.
Donald G. Evans is the Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. He is the author of a novel and short story collection, and editor of an anthology. His personal blog often explores Chicago literature.