“The City of the West” seen through Western eyes

Yes, it’s time again for another rumination on Chicago—“rumination”, a word suggestive of digestive processes, of breaking down what you’ve taken in so that it can work on you, for good or ill.  A good word, I think, for Chicago and me.  We grow into each other, these days.

The title of this post arises from some thoughts earlier today: I saw references to Chicago as “the City of the West”, sometimes “the Great City of the West”, which were written back in the late 1800s.  I expect that perhaps as much as half the nation still sees Chicago as “Western” in some way—certainly as West of them, West of the places the country was first born.  But of course to me it is the East, the old place my family left behind more than a century ago.  I took a bus tour of my neighborhood with the other new faculty members from my university this week, and the Englishman sitting next to me was startled by something our tour guide said.  He turned to me—“Wait.  All this was built up in the 1910s and 1920s?  A hundred years ago this was farmland?  That’s incredible!”  The newness of the place astounded him, as I suppose it would any person who grew up in a 200 year old house in a village organized around a church that’s stood for 6 or 7 centuries.  But to me, of course, the notion of row upon row of brick houses, all of them 100 years old, is astonishingly old.  I live a few blocks from an El station that’s been there for 104 years.  Hear that, Seattle?  Mass transit in a neighborhood miles away from downtown for a century now.  Crazy.

What I do with this, I don’t yet know.  I feel young in this city of youth—the adolescent city Sandburg described in last Friday’s poem has grown up a bit, I think, in 100 years, but it’s still a 20-something with a chip on its shoulder.  Who am I, then?  Where do I come into this story?  I guess in a way this is one of the classic American motifs—the young man headed back East some distance from where he grew up and discovering how well he fits, if he will be accepted, if he will accept what he finds.  This is the plot of half of Henry James, isn’t it?  And it’s Jay Gatsby’s arc, and Nick’s too.  Arrowsmith’s, I suppose, to name a Pulitzer winner, and the protagonist from One of Ours whose name, I am ashamed to admit, eludes me.  I wonder if fiction is helpful to me in making this journey, or if it’s merely a layer I’ll need to peel back—something that tricks me into substituting stories I’ve heard for my own authentic experience.  Does living what you’ve read about make the living less vivid?

I’m not telling you enough about my time in Chicago, and that’s why most of you are here.  There’s a lot to tell, but no way to make it a really compelling narrative without writing an epic; I’ll try to give a little info where I can.  In the last 8-9 days, I’ve discovered a world of art on my doorstep—I’ve never lived in a city with paintings like the Art Institute’s, and I’m going to spend some time there (I get in free as a faculty member of an Illinois institution).  I am curious to see how that will affect me.  To see Monet not once in a great while, but rather anytime I like.  To see Monet not as a visitor to some foreign city where “Monet” lives, or as a visitor making a quick tour through Seattle in an exhibition, but rather as an inhabitant of my time and place, more or less.  Monet, of course, being a stand-in for dozens of the world’s great artists.  We spent hours at the AIC last Saturday, and will definitely be going back, if only because I have never in my life said “that painting is so moving, I want to see it again in a couple of weeks and see how it strikes me”, and I wonder what it will be like if I try that.  Am I an art person, after all?

The food in Chicago is varied and wonderful — in the last few days I’ve had fantastic food from 5 or 6 different cultures, including amazingly authentic Polish pierogi, and the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever had (who knew that they needed cardamom?  Thanks, Sweden!).  It’s easy to just rave about the dining options in my city, but I’m hoping to draw something out of all these little restaurants in the long run.  All these nationalities expressing something with food—is it who they really are?  Is the presence of all this cuisine in Chicago some kind of culinary embassy system, a way of touching lands I may never see and learning to understand their people?  Or am I fooling myself if I think that way, ignoring the fact that all of this food is simply a commodity exchanged for my money, and I’m not being sold “authentic culture”, I’m being sold whatever they can package for an American audience?  I’ve always lived in a city full of immigrants—Seattle and Vancouver are pretty cosmopolitan, and heck, even the suburbs I’ve lived in have shown real ethnic diversity—but I don’t think I’ve thought enough about what that means.  The fact that I’ll be working with the most diverse student population I’ve ever encountered is, I think, getting into my head a bit.  I want to be good at reaching out to, and identifying with, people whose experiences are really very different from mine.  I think I have been good at that in the past.  We’ll see how well it works here, where I am a fish, not out of water, but adjusting at the very least to a new part of the lake, if not another watershed entirely.

That tour of my neighborhood I mentioned gave me a lot to think about—I allegedly live in my neighborhood’s “pocket of poverty”.  To be fair, the tour guide had no idea he was gesturing at my apartment building when he was saying these things.  But still, it raises some really good questions for me: what is poverty, really, especially in America today?  If I lived in a poor place, how would I know it?  If my neighbors are poor, does that obligate me to them any more than if they lived across town?  What do I need to do to be a good citizen of my block, and not just my city as a whole?  The neighborhood’s full of ethnicities and immigrant stories, as I said earlier.  We are home to the school in Chicago with the most spoken languages in its student body (70 different languages, I think?).  We are also home to the best public school in the state.  They are not the same school.  Is that inevitable, or a choice we made?  I live a few blocks from the only memorial in the whole of the United States to the Cambodian genocide victims—the people who died in the Killing Fields.  I know nothing at all about the Killing Fields, other than the name Pol Pot and a sense of deep sorrow in the few Cambodians I spoke to at the memorial.  What should I know, and how much time should I invest in learning it?  How can one person get full enough of the world to feel satisfied that they know enough?  This, as I recall, was Socrates’ problem.  And all of this arises merely from me paying slightly better attention to my immediate surroundings for an afternoon.  I hope to get past the questions to some answers, sooner or later.

“Pulitzers”, you say, “James, have you forgotten that this blog is about literature?  About reading novels, one of which you’ve been mired in for months?” I know, I know.  That’s going to ramp up next week: I have found a copy of Laughing Boy from the 1950s in my library.  I’ll not only be able to finish it, but I can reflect on a new preface La Farge wrote for the 1950s edition that reveals a bit of what he thought he was doing in writing about Native Americans, and what he later regretted.  And then I hope to move forward.  There’s some good American writing waiting for me, and perhaps it will help me get a better handle on this city of mine, which some call the most American of cities.  Frankly, I’m not sure yet—not sure how to sort my way through the hype of “Chicago” to figure out what Chicago actually is.  It’s a town that makes evangelists of its residents, perhaps most of all the people who move here from other parts of the country.  I’m going to have to hold back certain impulses that direction just to be able to see it with any accuracy.

So, in short, Chicago continues to work on me (as evidence in the emotions tangled above), I’m continuing to find things to appreciate about my new city (with the exception of those who drive and ride on its roads—never have I feared more for my own safety and the safety of others in a North American city), I’m expecting some lit-blogging this week as I shake off the rust and get back in the saddle (so to speak), and my propensity for making parenthetical remarks continues nearly unabated (though you must like at least some of these asides, or else you could hardly stand to visit the blog at all!).  I don’t know if these weekly Chicago reports are really of interest to many folks, so we’ll see how many I continue to produce.  But for now they seem to be a good way for me to journal, at least, and that in itself is a worthwhile thing to do.  Have a good weekend, and peace and safety to those of you in the path of Irene.

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2 comments on ““The City of the West” seen through Western eyes

  1. Graham says:

    sweden does lots of things well: cinnamon rolls, pop music, socialism, cheekbones.

  2. SilverSeason says:

    I only know Chicago directly from a couple of visits, much too short. But even on a short visit take one of the architectural institute’s walking tours. Wonderful, and best done on a week end when the sidewalks are less crowded. They also have a boat trip on the Chicago River where you can see the amazing architecture from the water.

    The Chicago I know best is the one in literature. I recommend
    Upton Sinclair, The Jungle – not just about the meat packing industry but also about how the really poor live – you cannot possibly qualify to join them
    Theodore Dreiser, The Titan – financial wheeling and dealing in turn of the century Chicago, including the public transit system – you can drop out of the book when the setting changes to New York. The Titan is one of a trilogy and being a thorough person you may want to start with The Financier. That one is set in Philadelphia and has a impressive railroad-finance bubble in it
    Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie – of course. Note the situation with regard to female employment at that time and you will understand why Carrie took up with a married man who was able to support her.

    There are more, but these are the ones I know best and they have created Chicago for me.

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